Tashi Mannox spent 17 as a monk and 30 years studying calligraphy. The results speak for themselves as his work is precise, detailed and beautiful. But we’ll let him speak for himself in the following interview:
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Tashi Mannox, born in 1962, an unusual name I guess for an Englishman, but it represents who I am as a British artist in traditional and contemporary Tibetan calligraphy, a legacy from my many years of training as a Buddhist monk and contemporary because my work is actively received world wide. Tashi is a popular name for Tibetans, meaning auspicious. Mannox is my family name, originally from Celtic Ireland that means ‘the monastic’.
What books have you read that were particularly influential? What about them was so impressive and impactful?
I am not a person who reads books, I could probably count the books that I have read completely from cover to cover on my fingers and toes, such as novels and autobiographies. I have hardly put my nose into books of fiction and fantasy, but have a few select books that I will revisit time and time again like manuals of calligraphy styles, art books of ancient cultures and books of Buddha Dharma.
Why have you chosen to pursue calligraphy as an artistic medium? Do you find calligraphy to be technically challenging? Meditative?
Part of my training as a Buddhist monk was to learn the Tibetan language, since all the prayers and most of the Buddhist teachings are in Tibetan. As I was born into an artistic family and already had a schooling in the arts, it only seemed natural to write Tibetan more creatively, which can be called calligraphy; the art of beautiful hand writing.
Traditionally there are several different Tibetan script styles to learn, which are at first very challenging to master, and unlike English that also has different styles, some of the same Tibetan letter forms are completely different between script styles, it is almost like learning a different language for each of them.
The study and practice of Tibetan calligraphy was a discipline that also served as a form of mind training, much like meditation. Today when I apply myself to a major calligraphy art piece I need to be meditative about it, in that my mind is calm and clear of any bias that may taint and compromise my work.
How has you spirituality changed since you were 22? Can you describe your spirituality? What do you believe happens when you die?
I think it is first necessary to understand what ‘spirituality’ means, when a person is spiritual it does not necessary mean holy on cloud nine. When you meet a truly spiritual person, such as a hermit or a renowned public figure such as H.H Dalai Lama, you straight away notice just how ‘normal’ and down to earth they are, very sane. Personally I think that I am quite eccentric because I have walked quite an unconventional path in life. But as a result I can say that I am happy and though I do not notice myself, I am constantly told how I have a calming effect on people I meet. If this is a result of ‘spirituality’ I cannot say, so describing ‘my’ spirituality and what has changed for me since I became a monk at the age of 22, other than perhaps being more in touch with myself, it is hard for me to say.
But I do believe in a more sensitive understanding attitude in life, especially toward others, I try to be useful, because loving kindness is ever so important and an essential foundation. The practice of spirituality is to be responsible for ones own actions and how we effect people. In a nutshell ones attitudes and actions has results, this is called ‘Karma’. Reincarnation is the result of ones accumulated karma, so we manifest into a new physical body to continue the unstoppable mind stream and karmic drive.
You were a Buddhist monk in Tibet, studying Tibetan calligraphy, and then you went to India to study Sanskrit, how were those experiences different in terms of technical and artistic research and development? How did your experiences in India and Tibet differ on a personal level? How did the two places further your development, whether taken together as complementary or contrasting experiences?
I had the fortunate opportunity to learn the rare forms of Sanskrit scripts called Lantsa and Wartu in Northern India. These scripts are ancient and although historically originated in India, they were mostly not practiced other than in old Tibet where there were only two universities that upheld and taught these two specialized scripts. Since Tibet’s demise during the Chinese cultural revolution a small number of Lamas escaped to India; who where trained and knowledgeable of the Lantsa and Wartu scripts. I was lucky enough to be introduced to one of these Lamas called Lama Pema Lodrup, who agreed to teach me all he knew. As he is Tibetan there was little difference in my experience of learning Tibetan in general, though it was a lot more personal and heart warming experience because I had searched for many years to find such a qualified Lama, so I fully appreciated his kindness and generosity.
Did you go through a period of transition when laid your robes down? How did that further or affect your work?
The transition period from being a monk to a lay person may have been more of a difficult adjustment than when I became a monk, as most of my adult life has been spent as a monk. My work was effected because I had the freedom of expression that is somewhat limited when one follows the tradition of being a monk. As a monk you belong to everybody and there is little time for personal expression out of the boundaries of the tradition, though i fully respect the tradition that taught me to tame my mind and gave me the richness that the Tibetan Buddhist iconography represents.
I think that being a westerner is an advantage that gives me the diversity in technique and ways of expression that brings Tibetan calligraphy into the 21st century. At the same time I am in full respect of the traditional integrity that is the foundation to my work.
This summer, a friend visiting my home and studio brought with her a young Tibetan man who is currently studying architechture in London. He was obviously moved by my Tibetan calligraphy art pieces that are about my home. I was astonished to learn from him that my work is much appreciated by the younger Tibetan communities in India and the West, who enjoy to up-load artworks onto their iPhones as screen savers etc. When I asked why my work is so popular, he answered that for young Tibetans it gives them hope and appreciate the fact that their rich cultural heritage, such as calligraphy, has been brought into the modern world tastefully and not forgotten to the dust of time.
As a calligraphy artist, how do you regard the increasing prevalence of electronic literature? Newspapers are shifting their presence to the internet, ereaders are increasing in popularity, students are no longer being taught cursive in schools, it seems that we are less and less relying on hand writing. Do you agree with this conclusion? Do you think such a shift will precipitate a detrimental effect in regard to our command of the english (or really any) language? How can we counter such an effect?
I think that the internet and electronic devices are a great way to widely communicate and help keep traditions alive and vibrant, whether we like it of not, this is the way things are going. However this is a double edged sword as there is a danger that students and our younger generation may relay on the convenience of the digital age and not learn the art of handwriting. This is something that is threatening most languages world wide, however there seems to be a certain back-lash developing, we’re perhaps tired of the sterile and predictable apearence of computerized fonts. There is new interest in writing by hand, but for sure, such practitioners of calligraphy are becoming all the more specialized and in demand, whereas to uni-code scripts is a good way to help standardisation. So I do think that both applications, either by hand or typed have their use and place within our modern world.
This issue of preservation and encouraging handwritten practices is becoming more important in my own activity as a calligrapher, indeed in the past couple of years I have lead workshops in how to write Tibetan for begginers with the Shang Shung Institute of Tibetan studies in London. I am also currently making plans for ‘calligrapher retreats’ for persons who seriously wish to learn, as my duty and responsibility is to pass on what I have learn in order to keep such ancient traditions alive.
There has also been other positive developments in the world of calligraphy in general, as Russia now claims that Moscow is the world capital of calligraphy, inviting the best of calligraphy artists from around the world that represent many traditions. The Contemporary Calligraphy Museum of Moscow houses a permanent exhibition of calligraphy masterpieces as well as a biennial exhibition that attracts international acclaim. My own involvement has been very fruitful, starting six years ago when they commissioned a Tibetan calligraphy art piece for their permanent exhibition as well as other pieces that I have donated. I am pleased to say that my artwork there is the only representation of Tibetan calligraphy as also from the United Kingdom.
Another worthy mention is the Sharjah Calligraphy biennial in the United Arab Emirates which celebrates contemporaty Islamic calligraphy with hundreds of participants from across the Islamic would. I admire this organization for their open mindedness and hospitable warmth, including my own work as a Tibetan ‘Buddhist’ calligrapher, alongside Muslim master pieces that bridge the gaps between religious and cultural differences.
Can you tell us about a moment of personal presence, where you were able to acknowledge a personal flaw and how and why you decided to address it? Do you think such personal critique and presence is a virtue in Western culture? Do you think presence is a value of Eastern culture? How do the two different cultures regard personal presence, self-analysis and the pursuit of self-improvement?
In a pure way, perhaps ‘personal presence’ is called ‘artistic flow’ in the West, the opposite is called ‘writers block’ when composing a novel, music or art. I think that to create good art or music that communicates something ultimate and perhaps divine, one needs to be free of too much expectation and much less tainted by qualities of our ego. But ‘personal presence’ of western artists is generally based on hopes and fears, grasping and fear of rejection. As unlike Eastern attitudes to creativity, that are much less egotistical, personal presence of western artists becomes an extension of their ego, it becomes ‘personal’, whereas it should be just ‘presence’.
Actually, the notion of art for art’s sake in Eastern cultures is not so prominent, there is much more emphasis on following an art tradition than free expression of the ‘self’ through art. In the Chinese and Japanese calligraphy traditions it is usual for an artist to train nearly all their life in the tradition they belong to. Perhaps only after they are 80 years old or so they are free to be more expresive with the brush, but any younger than this would be largely frowned upon by fellow artists and followers. If an artist would create something outside of the tradition, it would be seen as a promotion of the self rather than the purity of the art. However I feel lucky in this respect, that although I am loyal and trained in a traditional way, because I am western and not so beholding to race and tradition, it allows me to diverge from the tradition in my presentation, which I guess is ‘contemporary art’.
In The Five Buddha Family Mandala, what does each of the cardinal directions represent? How long did the piece take you to complete?
A Mandala is generally constructed on the four cardinal directions with the main deity at its centre, the East direction is always facing one’s self with North and South the right and left. The art piece I have created depicts the Five Buddha’s and their Mandala that is one of many Tibetan Buddhist iconographic themes. In each of the five directions, including the centre are the seed syllables of the Five Buddha families written in Lantsa Sanskrit:
Starting at the centre is the syllable om belonging to Virochana Buddha, below this in the Easterly direction is hum belonging to Akshobya Buddha, clockwise to the left in the Southern direction is the syllable tram of Ratnasambhava, at the top in the Western direction is hri of Amitabha Buddha and on the right side in the Northern direction is the syllable ah belonging to Amoghasiddhi Buddha.
To create this particular art piece took a few days of preparation, and a couple of days to complete, as a mandala is normally based on exact proportionate geometry, which requires careful construction. The mandala of this art piece is based on a lotus design, with each of the five Buddha syllables on the petals and the central anther. The five syllables are also carefully constructed according to the classical proportions of the Lantsa Sanskrit script. This particular Sanskrit letter form is largely used for sacred syllables and Mantras which bow back to their Sanskrit origin in ancient India.
Do you like to listen to music? What do you listen to? Who’s your favorite musical artist? Or at least someone you’re really into right now?
Yes I listen to music, I tend to listen to ambiant world music, something that is kind on the ear and sets a more calming atmosphere to work in. This year I have tuned into http://www.stereomood.com a website that offers play lists of varied different moods to suit. Because there are numerous different musical artists played, I hear some old favourite tracks and get introduced to many new artists, it is just quality listening and as long as it up lifts my heart, I am happy.