When I began teaching Western women the sacred art of Tibetan appliqué in 2008, I thought I was just teaching stitching technique. My students quickly set me straight. It turns out I had seriously underestimated the power of tradition and transmission . Through teaching, I discovered the transformative effect of the sacred textile art I’d been making for 20 years.
I had lived in northern India for nine years and learned to make silk thangkas in apprenticeship to Tibetan master craftsmen.
A thangka is rollable wall hanging, a scroll, depicting a sacred image or spiritual teacher. Most thangkas are painted on canvas and framed in brocade, but I studied a rarer type of thangka in which the images are built from hundreds of pieces of silk, outlined in hand-wrapped horsehair, assembled in an intricate patchwork.
Six days a week for four years, I sat alongside young Tibetans in a sewing workshop just outside the Dalai Lama’s temple. The environment was infused with dharma. Sounds of teaching and practice echoed from every window and courtyard. I attended Buddhist philosophy classes in the morning with learned Tibetan scholars (geshe) and then trudged up the steep hill to the workshop where I stitched thangkas all afternoon.
I had absorbed the dharma this community breathed, and it came out through my fingers into the thangkas I stitched. But I was no dharma teacher, and only an inconsistent meditator. I told prospective students that I would teach them stitching techniques, made sacred only by association. They should not expect spiritual illumination from me. They must seek that elsewhere, I thought.
Little did I know, each line and stitch of this artwork carries the light of the buddhas and of generations of artists and practitioners. You can’t escape the deeper lessons woven into the fabric of this lineage.
I was living in Italy, married and making thangkas on commission, when an American woman in France contacted me and sparked the creation of the Stitching Buddhas Virtual Apprentice Program. Louise had returned to France after many years of following her husband’s job from country to country while raising young children. Now, she was seeking an occupation, something meaningful to do with her energies.
Louise had been trained as a costume designer and was a practicing Buddhist. When she saw her first silk thangka on the internet, it struck her as a natural coupling of her creative background with her spiritual practice. I had the same feeling sixteen years earlier when I walked into a Tibetan appliqué studio in India. Could I now offer this gift to others?
Working with needle and thread re-awakens our tactile intelligence. Eyes and ears are not our only receptors for learning. The rational mind is not our only mode of understanding. And the voice is surely not our only instrument for communicating. We perceive, learn, and communicate through our fingers as well. But in the 21st century, our range of manual engagement has been reduced to tapping smooth keys and swiping touch-screens.
People who knit or quilt or work on a potter’s wheel have experienced the mindful quality that can arise in slow, deliberate movement and tactile sensation. Doing something by hand slows down the busyness of life – if only momentarily.
Not only that, but the thread becomes a metaphor for your life. You see how things get tangled when you don’t pay attention. You see where perfectionism trips you up, where you are afraid to move forward and how, sometimes, the more effort you exert the worse things get. Sometimes gentleness and a relaxed approach are needed. These patterns become evident in the stitching, and awareness filters into other activities.
The Tibetan appliqué tradition flows from an ancient spiritual lineage of artists, teachers and practitioners who have created and used its images in their practice. When we stitch, we receive their transmission through our fingers.
People often ask if I meditate while I stitch. I say this stitching IS meditation.
Literally, the Tibetan word for meditation (gom) means to familiarize. Through meditation, we familiarize ourselves with desirable mind states – expansive, loving, generous, imperturbable mind states – in an effort to make them habitual.
When we stitch a thangka or even a lotus flower, we are in the presence of enlightenment. We familiarize ourselves with enlightened beings, and therefore with the highest qualities of our own nature. The images in our hands symbolize the clearest, highest, best parts of ourselves and of humanity. Stitch by stitch, we allow these qualities to fill us.
Most of my students, the Stitching Buddhas, are women in the 50s and 60s. They are well educated. Many have worked in healing professions such as nursing, medicine, social work, and psychotherapy. Many are mothers of grown children. They come to the practice with an awareness of limited time. Some face diminishing eyesight or challenges to their manual dexterity. Some have no sewing experience at all. They’re not preparing for a career in thangka-making. They are seeking to live their life meaningfully and happily, and to leave something beautiful in their wake.
Buddhism encourages us to recognize our good fortune and to use this precious human life well. Human rebirth is rare and hard to come by. With gratitude in her heart, each woman-buddha stitches her response to Mary Oliver’s sumptuous question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”