Prior to the formal opening of the Institute, SINI had already completed a major international project. One was the painting of a series of murals based on the life of the Buddha in the Temple, a project guided by the renowned artist Kaveri Singh, her husband TJ Singh and with the participation of more than forty artists from around the world, including art students from Benares Hindu University, and Shantiniketan. The largest of the five panels measures 45 feet by 23 feet.
For more information on this project, please also visit our Sacred Murals Facebook page.
Sacred Murals: The Life of the Buddha
The temple is sanctified with sacred murals depicting the life of the Buddha according to the Lalitavistara Sutra. Intrinsically Indian in style, this unique spiritual treasure is brought to life through the artistic skills of Kaveri and T J Singh, assisted by an international team of artists. Including flowers, trees, and animals named in the sutras, the murals express the rhythms and beauty of nature and the freedom of enlightened realization. Their soft yet dynamic forms frame the central statue, a replica of the sublime 5th-century image of the Gupta period that depicts the Buddha in the teaching mudra.
The Sarnath International Nyingma Institute has grown over the last several years into a graceful and tranquil retreat from the urban scramble, as well as a dynamic new center exchange between the East and West. Currently, its primary academic program is teaching English for Tibetan monks. Under the care of Director Tsering Gellek, SINI has developed its own distinctive way of communicating the vision of its founder, Tsering’s father, Tarthang Tulku.
SINI is home to a remarkable set of murals that pay homage to the life of the Buddha. These murals draw on a long and varied lineage of artistic traditions that includes the great Buddhist painting traditions of centuries past, and a sensitive celebration of the natural world; they offer a gentle, engaging and accessible approach to the Dharma through the vehicle of the senses.
Recently, Tsering took the time to tell Gesar the story of how these murals came to be painted, unfolding a story of faith in the face of challenge, but also of great daring and creativity.
“As I speak to you,” Tsering said, “I am actually sitting in the spot where inspiration struck three years ago.”
In December of 2011, Tsering and her staff were preparing for a large gathering of monks for Bodh Gaya. At this time, SINI was not complete – the temple and grounds were still under construction.
“I was sitting in front of the empty courtyard. Elsewhere on the grounds, a small plumeria tree had been planted some years ago; we decided to transplant the plumeria to the courtyard. This was a very special kind of process that could happen only in India…! The plant was dug up most gently with a large spoon – no roots were disturbed – and it was then very delicately moved.
“This little tree was in full bloom, with more than twenty beautiful blossoms. The monks were arriving; it was the full moon. And after we put the tree in the ground, the flowers began to drop. The day before the ceremony was meant to begin, only one flower was left.
“I remember looking at the flower, hoping it would remain. We were hosting six hundred monks. It was an extremely difficult time personally – and the flowers falling seemed symbolic of everything falling apart. I prayed it would stay, so it could be an offering to these monks.
“The ceremony was beautiful. And all through the ceremony, the flower remained. At five o-clock on the last day, as the last monks left, the flower fell to the ground. And I felt, watching, that I would like to do something in the temple hall, something different…”
She wanted to do something, she decided, that would express the relationship between the beauty she saw in nature—like the flowers of her beloved plumeria—and the beauty of the Dharma. And so she began to consider the most vivid and appealing way to present this relationship in art that could adorn the walls of SINI.
“I wanted it to express our connection to life, the sacredness of all life,” she said.
Tsering’s search brought her to the work of the California-based painter Kaveri Singh.
“I Googled ‘sacred trees of India,’ and I found Kaveri’s blog on the Cintamani Tree. It was wonderful! I wrote her a letter: We are in India, where the Buddha began teaching. We want to paint something in the temple hall…
“Within eight hours, to my deepest delight, she responded.”
Kaveri Singh was eager to help. She wrote back saying she would be delighted to join the work, to honor the Buddhist teachings and give something back to the Tibetans, who had lost so much.
This exchange was the start of a long dialogue. For months, they discussed every aspect of the design. They drew inspiration for the color palette and style from many sources, including the art of the Chinese Imperial Palace. They explored the possibilities offered by miniature painting from several different cultures, and art styles both Eastern and Western in origin.
After formal permission from the Head Lama of TNMC was received, work on the murals of SINI began in earnest.
During the summer of 2012, Kaveri worked extremely hard. She spent several months working out the details on poster board.
“When Kaveri met Tarthang Rinpoche, he told her to paint the life story of the Buddha. We had originally planned a theme of trees, and now we considered the life of the Buddha, according to the Lalitavistara Sutra. I learned that the Lalitavistara had not been notably drawn or depicted in art since the 6th century, in Indonesia.”
As Tsering and Kaveri pondered how to integrate their initial theme of beautiful nature with the life story of the Buddha, a new idea began to emerge. “The murals,” Tsering explained, “could be a form of living word – a way to paint the story.”
To prepare, they studied the Dharma Publishing edition of the Lalitavistara Sutra, taking note of every detail mentioned—from the shapes of the windows to the types of birds and flowers it described. Each of these elements would gradually find its way into the murals.
Close to forty artists participated in their execution. Many came from Benares Hindu University, some came from Italy, and a few even came from the United States, in a truly international endeavor.
The back walls depict episodes from the life of the Buddha in five main panels; the composition is carefully thought out so that it is possible to follow the storyline with the eye. There is a rhythm in the panels, with the story moving from east and west to north wall.
On these walls, the life of the Buddha is depicted with human forms, but it is also told through trees, living symbols of the interconnectedness of all life and the importance of caring for others.
Trees, Tsering believed, could visually represent the different teachings of the Buddha in an engaging, accessible way. The images would not only be visually appealing but would offer an introduction to ever-deepening layers of meaning.
The first, left side panel, there is a large banana tree. This tree is often depicted in palace scenes from the life story of the Buddha—scenes that show Prince Siddartha’s growing recognition the emptiness of Samsaric life. In a banana tree, Tsering explained, laughing, “there’s no core – nothing there – no center!”
Other trees, exquisitely rendered, help communicate the core ideas of the Buddha’s life story on the walls, speaking in flower, leaf and fruit.
“We deliberately chose trees indigenous to India,” Tsering explained. “My favorite was the mango tree, which symbolizes spiritual ripening.” Noting that the mango has long been a symbol of spiritual readiness, she said: “Right up front, near the altar, you can see the mangoes are fully ripe. They’re sunset colors, peach, green, orange…they stand for perfect awakening.”
The SINI murals offer a gentle yet vivid and effective way to present Dharma teachings. “The senses are not conceptual,” Tsering said, “yet they can be very powerful. They offer us direct experience…and our understanding opens up.”
There are six main windows in the room. When visitors look out these windows, they see gardens full of similar foliage and birds, in a complex dialogue with the images in the murals. This dance-like interchange of garden and temple, inner world and outer world, hints at the “play,” or Lila, described in the Lalitavistara Sutra.
A papaya tree flanks an image of the Buddha’s Parinirvana; at the foot of the tree, a fruit, split open, lies on the ground. The fallen fruit evokes the Buddha’s last words, “all compounded phenomena must decay.” In this way, each image in the temple gracefully reveals a connection to the words of the Buddha.
The figures in the murals inhabit a luminous, almost magical atmosphere that conveys an indefinable quality of openness.
“Even if you don’t know the words of the Buddha,” Tsering said, “there is a beautiful sense of space. Kaveri led the artists in creating an infinite horizon.” The perspectival depiction of space, with its infinitely receding horizon, is a Western technique, producing images quite distinct from those found in Tibetan art. And yet these depictions of infinity can speak very powerfully to ideas that are central to Tibetan thought.
“A great meditation practitioner visited the hall, and when he saw the murals, he said to me: ‘this is what my master told me to do – look at places with infinite horizons.’”
But the messages on the walls of the temple are not meant only for Buddhist practitioners. At SINI, Tsering and Kaveri have sought to create a space that invites contemplation and offers deep refreshment and healing, regardless of religious background.
“Beauty isn’t defined, owned, or controlled by any religion,” Tsering said. “It belongs to all sentient beings. It connects you to the best in your own life, and the lives of others. At its best it embodies the harmony of the inner and outer world.”