Thursday, 13 August 2015

A Leap of Faith - Magazine interview.

During April 2015 an up-and-coming Norway based Graphic Designer Umer Ahmed interviewed Tashi Mannox for his Lifestyle Magazine project called Leap of Faith.

Below are Umer's magazine project images and copy of the interview -

0. Where are you right now and what have you been up to lately?

Right now I am on a flight from Athens to London, this provides me with some quality undistracted time to answer the questions for “Lifestyle Magazine”. I am scheduled to be in London to teach a weekend course in Tibetan Calligraphy as well as give a public talk on the role of art in Dharma.

1. Let’s start off by talking about your life as a Monk. What inspired you to choose this path?

I was initially inspired to become a Buddhist monk at the tender age of 11, I met Tibetan Lamas through my parents who brought with them my sister, brother and me to one of the first Buddhist centres in the west called Dagpo Kagyu Ling, in Dordogne, France. These old Lamas impressed me as being genuinely happy and wise, so as a child I wanted to be like them, becoming a monk as they were was the way to achieve this.

2. What was your life like before coming a Monk? What did you study? Did you always wanted to become a Monk?

In the few years before I become a monk I was studying fine art, I qualified as Bachelor of Art. Within a year of qualifying, not long after turning 22 years old, I took the monks precepts. This was at the advise of our family Lama, Akong Tulku Rinpoché. I guess it was a good moment in my life to plucked and put me down in a monastery, as I has not yet established my career and at a major junction, this was a very welcome decision for me.

3. What were your thoughts upon leaving the Western way of living to start a spiritual journey in the East?

The odd thing was that I had secretly wanted to become a monk ever since I met these two wizened Tibetan Lamas in Dordogne, surprising because I had not told anybody about my inner wish. It was as if Akong Tulku Rinpoché had seen my inner intentions or perhaps my potential. But because my further was wide open and with a young inquisitive mind, I was enthusiastic and embraced the transition from my Western life to that of the life of a monk.
Though I do remember shortly after I took the monks precepts feeling somewhat ungrounded and a little estranged to this new way of life. So I told Akong Rinpoché how I felt, saying “I cannot quite get my feet on the ground” He replied with a stern look “you will” and with that I pulled myself together and found myself.

4. After becoming a Monk you were given the name “Tsering Tashi”. What does it mean?

I was given the name Tsering Tashi when I became a monk. A new name is given as part of the ceremony when one becomes a monk, it marks a new way of life. As the name means ‘auspicious long-life’ it is also considered something to live up to, as with the good conduct and healthy lifestyle of a monk, one would expect to live a long and fortunate life.

5. What kind of challenges did you face during this transition?

As a monastic, I often felt like a pioneer, because of being one of the first Tibetan Buddhist monks in the west, I encountered new challenges that would be experience by few. Besides having my own precepts to protect, there was the issue
of how a Buddhist monk fits within Western society, as the monastic infrastructure was not properly established to give the ease and necessary support to exist as a monk. At first there was only one other Tibetan monk with me and an old English nun at the Buddhist centre I was invited to in Scotland. This was hardly enough to warrant a ‘monastery’ and I re- member Akong Rinpoché mocking me with a roar of laughter that I was like a wild dog running around with no bounds as a monastery would have. It was after all the early days of Buddhist centres establishing them selves in the West, and I feel for better or worse, that I played a role in that with its freedoms and challenges.

6. You remained a Monk from the age of 22 until you were 38, do you mind if I ask why you decided to leave?

Sometimes I think that this unique position I found myself in as a ‘free style’ Buddhist monk caused me to get carried away, it gave me an inner confidence that was mostly positive and useful. On one had I was very comfortable as a monk and good at doing all the monk things, but I began to question being ‘institutionalised’ and perhaps a little too comfortable and proud. I had been a monk for most of my adult life and I felt that I needed to step out of my comfort zone,
perhaps to put into practice all that I had formally practised on my fluffy meditation cushion. I was also curious how I would get on in the ‘real’ world, to have the opportunity to express myself as an artist and share something of my little understanding acclimated as a monk in Dharma.

7. Was it hard for you to disrobe?

However it was not at all an easy decision to leave the monastery, perhaps a harder transition than becoming a monk, yet I had a certain fearless confidence that carried me through this difficult time. and even now, after 15 years since I laid down my robes, I still dream at night that I am a monk. It is a commitment that runs very deep within oneself and as a friend once said to me “you can take Tashi out of the temple, but you cannot take the temple out of Tashi”.

8. Can you talk a little about your relationship with you guru, Akong Rinpoche?

Akong Rinpoché has always been a pillar of rock for me though-out my life, I surely would not be the person I am today without him. It feels like he has always watched over me and as I mentioned earlier in this interview, he has plaid a key role in major turing points of my life. He taught me many things that I still value and imply in my life today. Such as doing ones very best for others and what ever one does should be done at the highest of standards. This is not just in the standard of my own work as an artist, that he encouraged and guided me, but in the ordinary everydayness. He was the most patient man I ever knew and had this uncanny ability of foresight in telling you something that at the time did not make full sense if any, but would make complete sense many years later when a particular occasion arise.
I was very fortunate to work closely with Akong Rinpoché during my monk years, many of these was as his personal attendant, often traveling with him on teaching tours around Europe and Russia. He was a spiritual father to me, a mentor and Guru.

9. Were you aware of the challenges awaiting you in the western world after you disrobed?

when I left the monastery, Akong Rinpoché was very concerned of how I was, He would call me once a week and occasionally invite me back to the monastery to help with some project or another. I met new challenges out as a lay person, practical things like earning money to pay my rent and bills, all new to me, so it was a steep learning curve for a 38 year old.

10. Did you always had an interest of working with calligraphy, or is it something that you grew fond of as being a scribe?

The main concern was what I was going to do to earn money! my C.V was practically empty of the usual work experience, though the skills learned in the monastery, not just practical artistry, but also dealing with people with patience and understanding, was indeed good qualities to help get on in the real world, though to be recognised during a job interview was another question. So I decided to be a Tibetan calligraphy artist and with an interesting story to tell, people noticed me in the thick of London with its many other artists. It seemed a natural choice, as I had already worked as a script cop- ing ancient manuscripts, though it took a few years to forge my own niche in the art world.

11. What inspired you to start teaching?

I did a lot of teaching while I was a monk, meditation and other Dharma practices with all the ritual elements that go with the very rich and colourful Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Though the first few years I was out of robes, I did shy away from teaching. It was not so much that I was inspired to teach, but others kept on asking me, obviously because I had something to share. I did not think at first that there would be so many peoples interested in learning Tibetan Calligraphy for example, but I soon learned that there are many, which is now taking me all over the world teaching workshops and giving lectures.

12. How would you describe your current lifestyle?

So my time now is spent between home at my studio in Wales creating artworks to teaching and holding exhibitions in the four corners of the planet. It is very busy. So I would like to take this opportunity to put it out there that I have my ear to the ground for a P.A. somebody who already has some understanding of the Tibetan language but also has social media skills, and perhaps at a junction in their life where they have time to work as much as an apprentice with me.

13. How do you balance the aesthetics of the Monk culture with the modern and fast moving society today?

Now this is a tricky thing to balance well. I am not sure how well I managed it, but I see other younger monks and nuns struggling with this. Tibetan monks with mobile phones and nike trainers, this is a very different world to the original old Tibet that was conducive for a monk, so this balance is still finding its self and may for a while yet swing in one direction to another, from overly relaxed and ‘cool’ to puritanical.

14. Do you have any thoughts about the contrast between analog and digital tools, like a calligraphy pen and Ado- be programs? Are you fond of both?

I have learnt and use the traditional tools in the art of Tibetan calligraphy, but personally I also use modern western tools, anything really that will provide a good effect and perhaps a more ease of use. I also spend a lot of time, perhaps too much, sat before my mac digitally enhancing and creating new images, though mostly from scans of calligraphy that I have already created by hand. I was invited a couple of years ago to create Tibetan fonts for Apple Mac, but when I looked into it, the amount of time I would need to spend on each font would have meant that I would have done nothing else but sit on front of a computer for several years, I would be brain dead with square eyes, not my style, so if there is any geek out there who would build Tibetan fonts for me based on what I create by the good old ink on paper, you are most welcome to work with me.

15. Do you like to challenge yourself, to find out what you as a person are capable of? In terms of taking risks, trying out new things or changing your way of thinking?

I love taking risks, I should do more, as there is less achieved without taking risks, one has rot push forward, but in another way, life throughs challenges anyway, there is enough change and surprise without having to contrive one. But taking risks in my own work and pushing the boundaries excites me.

16. You once mentioned that we human beings never stop learning? Why do you think that is. What ignites our curiosity?

Us humans are naturally inquisitive, we have the awareness and intelligence to be so, our existence is very precious and our life is something wonderful, every moment should be honoured and engaged in something positive. Appreciating this keeps our curiosity alive and active, keeps us young in the mind. It is interesting that although our physical body gets old, our mind does not, ok we may get set in our ways if we do not challenge and stimulate our-selves, but in many ways our mind gets sharper as we get older, we need less sleep and we are just as capable of learning and improving. Perhaps this has something todo with our life force, our mind stream, that as well as Karma, is the cause to continue into the next life. Of course as a Buddhist I believe in reincarnation and that what we do in life is somewhat in preparation for the inevitable death and rebirth.

17. Do you know of any other personalities who have followed the same path as you? Becoming a Monk and from there on continued to pursue a creative profession?

I cannot say that I know another person who has followed quite the same path as me, there may be others that I am unaware of, but somebody else who was a Western monk for a considerable period of their life who then made a career as an artist, and more especially a Tibetan calligraphy artist, I don’t think there is. There are others who learnt some Tibetan calligraphy by attending a few calligraphy courses, that now fancy themselves as an ‘expert’ and make a business out of it, but none of them, as far as I know,  have the long background as I did. Perhaps it is because I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, that setting out as a monk at the time all the old wizened Lamas where first coming to the West, I had their attention all to my self. Being just about one of the few Western monks I was able to learn first hand from them and experience the genuine old Lamas of Tibet, who are now almost all gone. The new generation of Tibetan Lamas are different. So I feel very fortunate to have been around at this unique period of when Tibetan Buddhism was first establishing its self in the West.

18. How do you integrate the Monk culture and all those years of learning and training with your passion for art and calligraphy?

As a monk one learns many things, because one represents Buddhism, ones conduct needs to be cordial and mindful. Maybe I was not always so good at this being a little eccentric, but I did learn to communicate well with people, develop patience and understanding, which after-all are qualities that help us greatly in everyday life. Of course too, keeping calm and clear through the practice of meditation is also something required as a monk, which I still practice today, this is essential to my own creativity and at the core of my work as a calligraphy artist. In short, being a monk gave me a firm foundation.

19. Before you decided to become a Monk, or had ever thought of becoming a Monk, did you want to pursue a different profession or a different lifestyle?

I had wanted to become a monk ever since I met the first Tibetan Lamas at the age of 11, but by the time I completed my art training in the conventual collage system in the U.K, I had had an offer to go the NYC to start a fashion label, as part of my fine art degree show involved textiles that I dyed and printed to look like brocades that were seen in old Tibetan temples. I think that if Akong Tulku Rinpoché had not plucked me, my life would have been very different and perhaps not as meaningful.

20. What does the future hold for Tashi Mannox?

Who knows the future ? I can assume a direction my life and career is going, but one never really knows what is install for us, due to the unforeseeable winds of change.
But my wishes are that I have more time to practice and for my art, as long as my mind is clear, my eyes see and my hand does what I want then to do, I will be happy, and even if one of these fails, I will still need to be happy. I wish for good health and long life for all of us. 


Umer Ahmed's personal website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @paftdrunk

Please follow the direct link here for a full over-view of the Leap of Faith magazine.