My journey into Tibetan calligraphy

Calligraphy by Jamyang Dorjee. The word in the center is dham tsig, which means

Calligraphy by Jamyang Dorjee. The word in the center is dham tsig, which means "sacred connection" (as between a guru and disciple).

By Jamyang Dorjee

ON THE WEB, 21 August 2015

It is exactly five years since I set a new world record and I thought it will be useful if I share the story of my journey into Tibetan calligraphy.

After having served the Government of Sikkim and later the Gaden Phodrang administration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it was time to retire and relax, and I began this journey. A journey that made me an artist, a journey that pushed me to the doorsteps of the greatest unexplored treasure house of the East, the art of Tibetan calligraphy, and that kept me marveling at the limitless of the creativity of nature of mind, the visual expression of the ocean of wisdom.

I was fortunate to have learnt the art of traditional Tibetan handwriting on the wooden planks called jang shing, in the late 1960s in a Tibetan school at Shimla. I studied under two of the most compassionate teachers of our time, Lharampa Geshi Lobsang Tharchin and Khyabji Samdhong Rinpoche. I always had a strong interest in the concept of good handwriting, and that solid foundation made me what I am today: a calligrapher, a reformatted version of me.

Calligraphy, like a mirror, is a silent reflection of the soul, and if it has the ingredient of the dharma, it can also be described as an art of dharma.

Tibetan script was created by Thomi Sambhota in the 7th century, essentially to translate Buddha dharma. It was based on the Devanagari script which was prevalent in Nalanda and Maithali. The U-med style of Tibetan script is written like the Anshu lekha and is difficult to read, whereas those who can read ancient Maitheli can read all the Tibetan texts in U-chen scripts easily.

According to my teacher Kyabji Samdhong Rinpoche, while speaking in one of my exhibitions, “Today the amount of expressions of the Sanskrit words that can be found in Tibetan language cannot be found in any other language. The Kagyur scripture, which is the teachings of Buddha, is in 108 volumes, and the Tengyur, the commentaries by various pundits, consists of 220 volumes translated into the Tibetan language. Both combined, there are about 7000 topics or subjects translated into Tibetan script. What is available in the original Indian language today is only around 300 subjects. The Sarnath University has begun the work of retranslating from the Tibetan to Indian language again and till today we were able to retranslate or restore more than a hundred sutras and subjects in to Devanagari.” Such is the richness of the Tibetan script.

A golden period for Tibetan handwriting began when the Sakya Drongon Chogyal Phakpa was invited by the Mongol Emperor of China to devise a script for them based on Tibetan script, and thus Mongolian Phakpa script was created (often called the “seal script”). Thereafter, the entire focus of the Tibetan Buddhist masters was on the development of the inner science of Buddha dharma, and far from developing calligraphy as an art, even learning of handwriting was considered a waste of time.

Calligraphy art in China, which has a history of 2000 years, is the most respected visual traditional art form. Similarly Calligraphy is the most revered form of artistic expression in the Islamic world, for it was through the act of writing that the Koran, the word of God revealed in a series of revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, was recorded and given visual form. Through my research, I found that the Tibetan script, especially the Kyug (cursive) style of U-med writing, has all the inner as well as visual qualities necessary for artistic expression, similar to Chinese and Islamic calligraphy, if developed properly.

What is the status of Tibetan calligraphy today? It is this question that pushed me to take up this journey.

As I browsed through the virtual search engines, I found an almost total absence of information on this art form. But according to a Chinese newspaper, somewhere in Shanghai, China, a Tibetan teacher was carrying a framed certificate in Chinese, on which it said “Guinness world record, 150-metres-long calligraphy scroll.” This prompted me and I decided to break the record. With full support from my family members and from Gyari Rinpoche, the Chairman of my NGO, the conservancy for Trans Himalayan Arts and Culture, of which I am the regional coordinator, I took this challenge. I collected texts of 33 long-life prayers composed by spiritual masters of all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism for the long life of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, hired a small room facing the Boudhnath stupa in Kathmandu, and like attending a strict retreat, started the work and in six months completed a 163-metre-long calligraphy scroll.

The holy scroll, tightly rolled into a traditional designed box, and weighing 53 kg, was shipped to New York, where my children live. With much excitement, we applied to the Guiness World Records (GWR), London, for recognition for breaking the existing record of 150 metres. To our utter surprise, they informed us that no such record was set, and so the only option was to compete with the rest of the existing calligraphy traditions and apply for a new record. I send the Shanghai newspaper cuttings, but they were right when they said “we don’t issue our certificate in Chinese language.” Frankly speaking, I almost gave up, thinking it would be next to impossible to compete with Islamic and Chinese calligraphy, for they have a very long history and we are just the beginners. However, we applied for a new record, without much hope, to the World Record Academy, since the work is physically in America, and copied to GWR and waited.


Calligraphy by Jamyang Dorjee.


Poster for calligraphy by Jamyang Dorjee.

After about 45 days of waiting, on the morning of 1 August 2010, exactly five years ago, Google breaking news says “Longest Calligraphy Scroll – Jamyang Dorjee Chakrishar sets world record.” Subsequently the news was carried by all the media, and my family members celebrated by having a quiet dinner in Jackson Heights, New York. Today, with about 40-plus pages found through the Google search engine, Tibetan calligraphy rules the virtual world of calligraphy, and the chapter of quest for world record is closed for the time being.

Thereafter, as a part of dharma practice, I decided to write the smallest forms of calligraphy deities, which represents the mind, body, and speech of Buddha, or the inseparable force of the mind, body and speech of Buddha, with the help of a magnifying glass. Thus a new form of art emerged called Dharma Arts. Hence it is natural that for the artist, when creating the art, his own mind, body and speech must be in the correct perspective, without which he cannot create a flawless beautiful art. For me It is not only a means of communication, but also a means of expressing my inner world in an aesthetic sense.

My journey continues with worldwide exhibitions, workshops and talks in schools with the aim to express vastness of the beauty of Tibetan calligraphy, the pride of once an Independent nation, Tibet་ and also the Buddhists living in the entire Himalayan region of India, Nepal and Bhutan, and most of all the ancient wealth of the great land of Aryas, the Bharat. I know, as a stateless artist, the journey is not easy yet I am admirer of Rabindranath Tagore’s inspirational poem ‘Ek la Chalo’, and walk ahead with Robert Frost’s poem“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep,” hoping that, with the blessings of Kundun, someday a caravan will be formed.


About the author

Jamyang Dorjee Chakrishar is a former senior civil servant of Government of Sikkim and currently a master calligrapher. He can be reached at [email protected]

Copyright © 2015 Jamyang Dorjee Published in Tibet Sun Posted in Features » Tags: , ,