19 February 2018

The Gaze of the Guru: Part 2

Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava, modeled by Minette Mangahas
(Clay model in-progress with wax ornaments, 48cm tall, before casting in bronze.)

In 2016, I was deeply honored to receive a commission to sculpt a Guru Rinpoche statue.

For his face and gaze, I was asked to study the "Looks Like Me" portrait of Guru Rinpoche in the form of Padmasambhava, known in Tibetan as the Guru Ngadrama.

Original photo by King of Sikkim.


It is widely held that the original was commissioned in the 8th century by King Trisong Deutsen, who had invited Guru Rinpoche to Tibet to remove persistent obstacles to the construction of Samye monastery.

Upon seeing the statue, Padmasambhava is said to have declared that the statue was a good likeness and blessed it, saying "This statue looks like me, ...and now it is the same as me."

The deeply revered statue survived fires and earthquakes at Samye for over 1,000 years before being completely destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the late 1960-70s.

This is the only known extant photo of the sculpture. According to Orgyen Topgyal Rinpoche, it was taken by the King of Sikkhim in 1954. He said that there was a film taken of Samye before its destruction, but despite his best efforts, it could not be found.

Photo digitally colored and manipulated at request of Sogyal Rinpoche (by Andreas Schultz).
(The original black and white photo was later digitally altered and colorized at the behest of Sogyal Rinpoche. The katak scarf was removed and other details were slightly manipulated. In addition, Tharthang Tulku drew in the vajra held in its right hand that is found in later versions of the photo.)


Working from a single photo to make a three-dimensional object is extremely difficult. Furthermore, the photo that we have is not sharp and most of the statue is covered in thick brocade. So I decided to do as much research as possible--speaking to lamas and scholars, scouring over written material, visiting museums to create a comparative study that might shed as many clues as possible.

Although the resulting statue would be of and for our era, it was important to me that it be informed by history and tradition.

Who made the statue?

According to Orgyen Topgyal Rinpoche, who conducted extensive research in efforts to reproduce the statue, a Nepali artist was commissioned by the king to sculpt the likeness while looking at Padmasambhava while he was at Samye.

Could this be where the sculptor was from?
Thame, a Sherpa village on the Tibet-Nepal border.
O.T. Rinpoche has surveyed lists of what was at the monastery before it was destroyed, and said there is reference to an artist by the name of Thame Gongzok* (*note: I am not sure about the correct spelling of this name). He said that the first name Thame refers to a border region between Tibet and Nepal. Therefore, we can surmise that the sculptor came from the Nepal, and perhaps even trained in the lineage of craftsman that exist to this day.

Although, this requires further corroboration, this is significant, because we can then draw from the extensive tradition of Nepali Buddhist sculpture to give us clues. This tradition differs in significant ways from Chinese or Indian sculpture, so it narrows the scope of style from which we can make deductions about the statue's face.

When I checked, I found this sherpa village that lies on the way through the Himalayas to Tibet.

How was the statue made? What materials was it made of? 

The materials and tools artists use influence their craft as much as their skill, technique and culture. So, it was important to learn about how buddhist statues were made at that time.

O.T. Rinpoche told me that the original was made from clay. In keeping with the construction of large statues that time, there was probably an inner layer of brick covered by a layer of clay to form the finer details. It was then painted with mineral pigments available in the region, and covered with gold leaf.

Rinpoche suggested that I carve the details into its face, rather than relying on the painting process. I have chosen to leave the eyes, which are traditionally "opened" by a lama upon the consecration of statues.

How large was the statue? 

According to O.T. Rinpoche, the statue was slightly larger than a man. We can assume that it sat on a throne, as is tradition.

Through a combination of digital and analog modeling, we determined that the photograph was taken from an angle that was below and slightly to the left. This helped us understand its general proportions and the finer aspects of its pose.

Plasticine rough model.

We determined that the original photograph was taken from an angle 
that was below and slightly to the left of the statue, which stood a bit larger than a man.


The statue is mostly covered in thick brocade and ornaments, so we don't know a lot about of the body. But, I could see a slight tilt in the shoulders and head which gave the statue a subtle sense of movement, elegance, and life. 

For the first stage of investigation, I returned to Thailand to form a team with 
Ajahn Pe Somyot Kamsang (left), and Pohchang sculptors Som and Thawiwat (right). 
Together, we established the base and fundamental structure of the statue.

In trying to reproduce this subtle position with live and maquette models, I realized that there is a spiral movement involved. The right hand, said to be in a "subjugating" mudra, is not just resting on his knee. 

One could imagine, that he has taken the vajra, swirled it in a motion which can still be seen made by monks during puja in monasteries, and pressed it upon an unseen object with both ease and power. 

Thawiwat helps check the proportions of the clay.


In addition to the "Looks Like Me", I was instructed to use Gandharvan sculpture as a reference. The kingdom of Ghandarva encompassed modern-day Pakistan, including the gorgeous Swat Valley in which Guru Rinpoche is said to have been born.

I was asked to look at the bone structure of people from the area and to study its art, which is sometimes referred to Greco-Buddhist Art and often sited as some of the most beautiful examples of Buddhist Art. This instruction turned out to be particularly appropriate because the era of Gandhara overlaps that of the creation of the original Ngadrama and perhaps of Guru Rinpoche's life.


There is one figure from Ghardarvan art that seems to be portrayed consistently again and again. It is of a very handsome, muscular man with a mustache and long flowing hair drawn up in a bun and running down his shoulders. He is sometimes seated in the "royal pose" and sometimes standing, dressed as a hero or prophet with ornaments and a staff.

"Standing Bodhisattva" Gandhara at the Museum Guimet, Pari
In the museum and in many books, this figure is often simply labeled as "Bodhisattva," which is to say that scholars may not know exactly who he is but feel that he is important enough to designate with this term. Sometimes, the sculpture is labeled as the Buddha Sakyamuni.

When I met Orgyen Topgyal Rinpoche in Paris while also doing research at the MuseƩ Guimet, I learned through his close associate Philip Philippou, that upon seeing these statues at the Guimet, O.T. Rinpoche said with conviction that they were of Guru Rinpoche.

Given that the statues are sometimes dated centuries before Guru Rinpoche is said to have lived, this is very difficult for us to prove concretely. However, as an artist who has studied the depictions of many buddhist figures across cultures, it is certainly a wonderful reference for how a figure like Guru Rinpoche has evolved to capture collective imaginations over millennia.
"Bodhisattva" from Gandhara in 2nd-3rd CE, present-day Pakistan


  1. what a journey! Thank you so much for sharing.. I really love your sculpture and this last picture of the sculpture is just amazing - It really conjures something inexpressible and how wonderful that you were directed to shape your sculpture in that fashion!

    1. Thank you Lakshmi! I feel that part of the responsibility is to share why I learn from the process. So happy to be of benefit. :)


Thanks, appreciate the mindful comment! - Minette