Thursday, October 14, 2010


"If you can really visualize this it will be there in the morning"

Drawing by Jack Niland.
"If you can really visualize this it will be there in the morning." Venerable Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Snow Lion Inn, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, October 1972.

The first book of Chögyam Trungpa’s that I read was his first book of teachings in English (besides his autobiography, Born in Tibet), Meditation in Action. The year was 1970 and I was a Sophomore in High School. I had already had my LSD experiences and carried the book around in my back pocket as an emblem of a new, emerging identity (as I carried books by Alan Watts and Albert Camus), a cognoscenti of the spiritual search, no longer dropping acid or eating meat. Over the next six years, I acquired other equally stimulating and confusing identities, for a while forgot about the book and its author. In 1976 I stumbled into one of his meditation centers, met Chögyam Trungpa a few months later and studied at Naropa Institute that summer. That first, single year was such an acceleration of the real and the possible, such a collision between myself and the irresistible and overwhelming world of Chögyam Trungpa, that 1976 alone could be a year to digest, practice with and be in service to for the rest of my life.

 Jack Niland in his NYC apartment.

Jack Niland, Dharma Art International Treasure

My meeting with Jack Niland two weeks ago was a kind of re-union with 1976 or, I might say, 1976 required me finally to have this meeting (no more than an accident). That summer, Jack taught a four-week class on the “dharma art” principles he had learned from Chögyam Trungpa. I sat on the floor with the seven or eight other students and listened to Jack’s lectures, his pure, smitten and unflagging enthusiasm for such things as how the rods and cones of the eye corresponded to the design matrices of Tibetan thangkas, how the earth was a “rinky-dink” planet compared to many other world-systems, how a dot was the first work of art and how the aesthetic and moral catastrophes of the late nineteen-seventies could be transformed into wakefulness through art – all of these, teachings and tales conveyed to Jack by Chögyam Trungpa.

The class did drawings and other "dharma art" exercise and I took copious notes. My notebook probably contained at least an outline of everything Jack had received from CTR, but a few years later I somehow lost it. I still think about the notebook and still feel its loss. 

Jack Niland's design for the 40th anniversary celebration
of Karme Choling (originally called Tail of the Tiger).

Earlier this year, I received and invitation to write an article about Chögyam Trungpa for an anthology on “artists of the Counterculture.” In the beginning of the article I described Jack’s story of first meeting Chögyam Trungpa, which can be heard on The Chronicles of CTR - (PLEASE listen to this recording!) 
At that time, Jack Niland, a young aspiring artist from suburban New Jersey was about to become one of Chögyam Trungpa’s first students. Niland, though just back from living in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and after countless LSD trips, still had no satisfying insight into striking moments of perception he’d experienced as a child: how, for instance, an electric fan clipped afternoon sunlight to produce mesmerizing geometric designs inside his eye. Even the beauty of a schoolgirl in his first-grade class lingered as a haunting apex of the real. Niland not only wanted to reproduce such moments, but to understand them. Academic studies left him bored and feeling sidelined; Niland wanted personal access to the doors of perception. He’d had studied at Cooper Union and conversed with Jerry Garcia but had not found answers to his questions. He was about to take yet another road trip when his sister told him, “Jack, The Dalai Lama has moved to Vermont.” 

“Cool!” Niland said, “We’ll visit him on our way to Canada!” 

A few days later, Niland found his way to “Tail of the Tiger” a fledgling, semi-impoverished spiritual community in northern Vermont with a young Tibetan teacher in residence, a lama who of course was not the Dalai Lama but thirty-year old Chögyam. Niland knocked on the front door of the farmhouse which was the living quarters of the community and was forthright ushered to a small room where Chögyam Trungpa sat by a table with a pad of drawing paper, a brush and a bottle of India ink.
Jack Niland and Tao, when Jack met Chögyam 
Trungpa in 1970. Photo by Roland Sherman.
“There was this little Tibetan hippy guy, this cherubic guy with long hair and a huge grin, Niland recalled, “who looked up and said, ‘Oh, I’ve been waiting for you!’”

Trungpa, with “radiant energy and unbelievable charisma” immediately enlisted Niland to assist him in making his “very first work of art in North America,” a calligraphy of the Tibetan syllable Ah.  As he drew the syllable, Trungpa called Niland's attention to the “dot,” the first moment when pencil, pen or brush meets paper, which is not only the beginning of any line but also the moment form materializes from space. Trungpa called Niland’s attention again and again to the significance of the dot, how the dot is the first moment of arising in space, how the dot is in our hearts, how our mind is a dot. The splash of India ink is really the center of the cosmos.

As he was listening to Trungpa, Niland realized he had found someone who understood the phenomenology of perception. When he mentioned his experience with the fan, Trungpa replied, “Sure, sure, I understand, those colors come from the rods and cones in the eye. Tibetan thangkas are all based on that.” For Niland, Trungpa was the opposite of art history lectures and theories of aesthetics. Sitting in that room with him, Niland had no idea who Chögyam Trungpa was, he just knew Trungpa wasn’t explaining electricity but handing him the current. The syllable Ah, Trungpa added, means what it sounds like, a baby’s sense of wonder. If the Ah, a “pre-thought” and innocent moment of surprise, astonishment, even shock, was Chögyam Trungpa’s first work of art in North America, it was also the signature of his behavior, what it meant to encounter him.
.  .  .  .  . 

The First Western Thangka

A thangka painted by Jack Niland 
according to Chögyam Trungpa's instructions.

According to Chögyam Trungpa, this is the “first Western thangka.” It is a portrait of Sara Kapp, an early and close student of Trungpa’s, who was also Jack’s romantic partner for many years. Jack painted the thangka in the fall of 1970 according to Trungpa’s instructions.

Chögyam Trungpa fully believed in developing “Western thangkas,” works based on the discoveries of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan painting but in no way requiring the wholesale importation of Tibetan iconography. A fully-functional Western thangka would have to utilize images that arise from the Western psyche; or, we could say, from the “first thoughts” of the artist-practitioner. As I wrote last week, Images arising from our unconscious - from space itself - are not yet tethered to our hopes and fears, but can represent pure moments of meaning or "first thought." The valid image of, say, a wrathful deity could as easily be that of a Hell’s Angel on a bike rather than a red demon with multiple arms. 

To appreciate that a thangka could be Western and still convey  sacredness one, of course, needs to go no further than Giotto, Vermeer or Jasper Johns. But the principles of dharma art are an every-person’s art in that (visual) art emerges from a primordial language of mind and cosmos, a language it is impossible not to possess and that becomes evident even in the simplest of diagrams or drawings, if we know how to associate with them.

Drawing by Jack Niland.

In a sense, these diagrams are little more than doodles, but just as it is impossible not to have narrative in writing, it is impossible not to have primordial-ness in doodling. A dot, as we know, is the expression of mind and the first discovering of mind and a line can be none other than the connection of two dots – a simple unity more intriguing than a möbius-strip, something neither one nor two. 
Jack has been doing drawings like the one above for decades. What could be more beautiful or compelling than this diagram which combines dot, circle and square? And it really “works,”  not only as something visually arresting, but as a yantra or vehicle for meditation. I tried it and these are the words that came to me. 

Breath is drawn from all of space, the latter best expressed by the circle. The end of the in-breath is a dot because there clearly is an end, a turning point where breathing in is no longer possible. A point of non-existence. With the out-breath we discover the world, which is a kind of order, the things around us have lines and ninety-degree angles: buildings, telephone wires, trees and the flight of a bird. A square turned 45-degrees inside another square creates a dynamic space, an energy-infused space, a space with lots so of stuff going on. One's own in-breath brings completion – the circle – through the new beginning of the dot, which is also the return to simplicity, becoming primordially refreshed. Or, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Breathing in I know I am alive; breathing out I smile at myself.”
One doesn’t need to continuously reference what one is doing to “dharma art principles” but can, instead, trust ones own associations (as I not only trusted what I wrote above but found it helped me!). Associative mind is the mind of poetry, dream studies and dharma art. In associative mind, one allows the first thought connections with a subject to be accepted – the only way to write a poem, the only way to understand a dream. If we learn the fundamental principles (such as those of painting thangkas) we can become accurate in our creativity and accept all kinds of associations. Accuracy rather than indulgence was another important teaching Chögyam Trungpa gave us about art.

The Law of Correspondences

One of the concepts I find most arresting as I study the universality of the drala principle is the so-called law of correspondences, the Hermetic notion of as above, so below, the relationship between microcosm and macrocosm. We could also say that human (instead of saying "spiritual") systems correspond. That fundamental principles correspond is surely the basis of dharma art. It is not that all systems are the same but that all systems of truth find analogs in other systems and these mutual reflections, besides offering bonds of understanding between peoples, help us understand our own path – and often our own path calls upon us to take up seemingly new and different paths as our own correspondences lead us to our own primordialness.

For me, a good example of all these dimensions of the laws of correspondence is the I Ching and it’s elegant and unfathomable binary simplicity (yang or yin, solid or broken), its ability to describe any and all time scenarios we find ourselves in, and its profound spiritual guidance which seems to stand outside of any religion – or feeling of being religious. 

Learning the meaning of each of the I Ching’s hexagrams is a matter of accumulated associations, matching ones own experience and first thoughts to the gradually internalized or even memorized textual meanings the each hexagram. Eventually, each hexagram becomes an abode one shares – if only for a fleeting second –with the dralas, an abode that has been created through mutual the participation of ones own thoughts and the “thoughts” of the drala (who are a “source” of our own thoughts). 

Inner Truth, hexagram #61

Inner Truth, hexagram #61, is a good example of such an abode. The foundation of all hexagrams are the lower and upper trigrams, and the foundation of the trigrams are the elements themselves, the phenomenal world which is our collective above. The lower trigram is the joyous lake; the upper one, the penetrating wind/wood. Joy within and gentleness without are the most immediately evident aspects of this abode. When we know something is true we suddenly feel so centered (this hexagram is visually symmetrical) that we don’t necessarily even feel the need to express it. The joy of truth is carried gently by the wind and can reach others even if we are not speaking, even if we are not even with them. 

(More on Jack Niland soon.)


  1. Thank you, Bill. This post echoed and illuminated the dot of my first thoughts this morning.

  2. Thank you, Mary. I'm glad to know this intersection happened!

  3. Thanks for this wonderful work Bill!


  4. hey Bill - really appreciated this - thanks for sharing these rare teachings from the memories of those who encountered trungpa rinpoche