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Tenzin Norbu was born in Dolpo, Nepal, into a family of thangka painters with a lineage of atleast 5 generations. His work has appeared in museums and private collections around the world, as well as, several international publications, including Caravans of the Himalaya, National Geographic, and the feature film Himalaya. He is also the illustrator for children’s books, including Himalaya, and Clear Sky, Red Earth.  

Some of what Tenzin shares in this episode includes:

00:00:00 Introduction

00:02:00 On growing up in one of the most remote regions of Nepal, Dolpo and finding his path in art, energy and happiness.

00:06:00 Responsibilities of being raised in a Ngagpa family.

00:07:45 Opening a school in Dolpo

00:11:00 Being born into a lineage of thangka painters 

00:14:00 Seasonal activities in Dolpo, salt caravan and changes now

00:20:00 We see some of Tenzin’s finished paintings and pieces in process


To connect with Tenzin’s work you can reach out to dolpogallery / at / gmail / dot / com 





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RAW TRANSCRIPT Please excuse all errors

Olivia Clementine: I’m Olivia Clementine, and this is Love and Liberation. Today our guest is Tenzin Norbu. Born in the Himalaya region of Dolpo Nepal, Tenzin studied traditional thangka painting as well as Buddhism from his father, following a lineage of painters that dates back more than 400 years. His work has appeared in several international publications, including Caravans of the Himalaya, National Geographic, and the feature film Himalaya. He is also the illustrator for children’s books, including Himalaya and Clear Sky Red Earth. He encourages education and sustainable development in Dolpo one of Nepal’s most remote districts. In 2001, Tenzin founded the Kula Mountain School in his native Panzang Valley. Creating educational opportunities for children of this remote region. 

 Thank you for doing an interview again. 

Tenzin Norbu: No problem. And we’re in Tenzin’s Gallery. Yeah. Yeah. 

Olivia Clementine: And in Kathmandu. 

Tenzin Norbu: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. 

Olivia Clementine: I thought we could begin today on the topic of Dolpo.

Tenzin Norbu: Mm-hmm. 

Olivia Clementine: Because it’s where everything births from. It feels like your work. And so I wanted to see if you would share about Dolpo like the landscape and what makes it special. 

Tenzin Norbu: Dolpo is it, it’s still very remote now. I just come to City when I was 20.

That’s why I know very well, Dolpo even my dream now every day in Dolpo. I go every year now, a couple times in Dolpo. My idea to to visit another culture. Maybe I can get better kind of things. We have no facility like here, city comparing Kathmandu.

We have in here you have hot condition, cold condition. You have many kind of facility shops there. But and still no more happy I found. In Dolpo my village there’s very few facilities but still they are happy. 

 I learned from my father, when I opened my eyes, I’m already born in art. I have many idea, I thought I can do different thangka. I have many hope. And you know, when I come in the city, I learn, and I turn back to see my culture, and I think that is art.

You know, that is that is different. Yeah. You know? Yeah. Then finally I start to my, this kind of my new idea, you know, I don’t found idea for other countries, but I get some, just example, a few things. But finally it was a like the place where I born and also Buddhism. I was a Buddhist when I was small.

And my father teach me, not only art he teach me also, I learned from him lot of buddhism, not very long way, but short way. Very simple way here. Explain me how to make happy mind, how to keep control of our minds. That is very wonderful. At that time I, I’m thinking to get maybe better idea for Dharma also. Finally now I know there is no better, is best my place. 

Why people are living there? So very hard life that, you saw our village almost every day, very strong wind. We have to fight wind, and we have to work. We have to fast everything to do because weather is so fast changing, you know?

Mm-hmm. And very risky. To go other village, you have to cross pass, you have to cross river. So, so really, really tough like that. Why the choice? You know, I think very simple one. It’s very simple I think. Now I understand. Beginning I was coming from there to visit Kathmandu.

Oh, here is kind of paradise. Very warm, very easy life. But when you, you have so much facility, I think you lose your energy. If have too much easy life, too much easy way. Some people are very good maybe, they have good karma, maybe it’s easy. 

Olivia Clementine: You grew up in a Ngagpa family, and what did that mean for you? So your father was teaching you some Buddhist tenants? Mm-hmm. And like were there other aspects? Were people coming for healings or support or growing up around that, what did that mean? 

Tenzin Norbu: Yeah, yeah. Of course they have support them. My father also, not only Lama, in Dolpo, you have not so kind of big facility. He cannot get all facility for public. Yeah, yeah. He have to work, he have to practice himself. He’s making clothes for all children. He’s making shoes every children, we have no shoes that time. He’s making good artists. He’s good teacher and he’s worried about all the village.

It’s very big, big responsibility I found now that time he was and he was a Ngagpa long hair. And people our village people are poor, this place very poor, really simple. They have tsampa barley this area and only you eat, only our barley field you eat all this. I think only six months, six months, you can get food outside to go to walk, to travel, to exchange this salt, you know, this kind of business kind of – otherwise, you can stay there only barley, not enough. That’s why life is very difficult. But They’re very simple, very happy, very very helpful for each other.

Somebody has some problem. Everybody help them. Not best, like Sangye, yeah, not like Buddha, but འཁོར་བ་ (korwa) samsara, everything is samsara, I think better samsara 

Olivia Clementine: Better samsara. 

Tenzin Norbu: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Some people passed away and they asked me to make Buddha or some kind of thangka, small thangka for dead people.

We have no, no price, no cost, and I, I have to collect everything with color, brush, you cannot buy shop, everything. 

Some are very good, some they give, you know, 10 kilo barley. Mm-hmm. I work one month, they give me 10 kilo barley.

Not enough. Yeah. There’s no, no way to put cost. Price, you know? – it’s really that time people are really working by heart, you know? 

2001, I start to open one school in Dolpo I thought it’s very important. Modern education was very important to communication. Now we have 300 children to, to study there maybe 50, 60 children already in place twelve. We give education for 12 class. I think we done good job. And we not only, you know, western education, our Himalayan language and Nepali, our country and English, we, we have three, you know. 

This planet and Dolpo is changing very fast now. 

Olivia Clementine: What are some of the changes?

Tenzin Norbu: Yeah. Everything, even now we have no road there they bring for, they bring for transfer for donkeys mules, and we have no mule before we use yak. Yeah. You know, now the people easy to move, you know, to bring from down lower Dolpo and mules bring gas. 

But now even you are great practitioner or great people it’s not depends on old system and now modern city. I think this problem we are always dependent on outside. Not outside, our mind to, to compare, the good, bad, you know, this is only our problem.

I am here now, but my practice is since 20 years in Dolpo. You practice very strongly, your mind, I am sure your dream is also practice your day is practice, your life is practice. –

I was assistant for my father many place in Dolpo since 12 years. And then 1991 I met French guy. He’s photographed for National Geographic and since there, then I start to work with him together. Some, we make some books, you know?

 Then I have a lot of knowledge, ideas. I saw many books, museums. Then also my, I have more strong connection in Dolpo culture. I say, okay, now this is very important. And it is good for art, but to keep culture even in continuing in the life, you know, for in the future to see. Then every day, like Himalaya, I put in my art. Now I am changing again. Artist means this in Tibetan we say སྒྱུ་རྩལ་། (gu-tsel). 

– I was beginning as a painter, but now I try to be artist. Artist means you have to, you have to put in the paper your idea. Not 70 years before, no thousand years before, 2000 years before. This is just painter, I think mm-hmm.

I think practitioner and all Buddhist, all, all practitioner in beginning you are like painter, you are, you are making copy practice then final after last I think you have to make your special way. We have six different tradition why there are six different because they are, they want to show our own idea own way.

Mm-hmm. There is same destination and same place, but different, different way to go. 

Olivia Clementine: You come from five at least generations of painters 

Tenzin Norbu: Yeah. Five. 

Olivia Clementine: And they were all Thangka painter. 

Tenzin Norbu: Yeah. They’re all thangka, 

Olivia Clementine: and you’re the only one that took a new path 

Tenzin Norbu: My father from my grandfather, grandfather, four generation is not much change because little change, but not much. All, almost same culture, you know? Then I start with my art, my, my life is world is changing. Same time then I, I’m followed there already automatically. 

Olivia Clementine: Is there a certain style for Dolpo thangka painting that you have taken on aspects of it 

Tenzin Norbu: Dolpo thangka painting is, is not so special.

Dolpo is style, but I think they are not artists, they are thangka painter. Mm-hmm. They respect all culture. They respect all rules. Tibet there’s many different art style also in thangka. But if you don’t know thangka, you can see always same. There is style, but there always to follow at one rule, you know, and not very free. When I was young, when I was 21, 22, and my father was a very strong teacher.

He wanted to keep his way continue for me, I see different planet already than I, I want to go my own place to, to, to play my old tradition, into new modern. I want to play. That he don’t understand, difficult in the beginning a little bit.

And finally before he was passed away, I show him books, I explained everything. He was happy. Mm-hmm. It’s good. Yeah. 

Olivia Clementine: He understood. 

Tenzin Norbu: He understand. 

I think this time is changing. Mind is changing everything changing. Now I understand is most important, true, to give our own. Then you can play. Many artists now in Nepal or of many country, I saw that. Then they want to make copy. They want to do same way, but, no, I think. Mm-hmm. 

Olivia Clementine: I’ve always. Wanted the edges of thangkas. 

Tenzin Norbu: Mm-hmm. 

Olivia Clementine: And your work allows one to actually experience that, like the landscape, the people versus just the diety.

 They’re very peaceful, but they’re very alive. 

Well also kind of going back to the very beginning of this conversation, going back to Dolpo and the simplicity and you were saying it’s changed a lot. Mm-hmm. You capture in your paintings are moments in the year, like rituals of the season, rituals of the day, like just what people do in ordinary life.

What happens in, in winter, spring, summer, fall? 

Tenzin Norbu: I think most simple in the winter term, but summer time, they have just nice time because warm and flowers. But they’re so busy to taking care of collection before become winter. They have to take, they have to collect wood to make fire. They have to collect food, they have to anything close border before, but sometimes you have some big snow.

Few months, you know? Then that’s why some of them very busy, but winter time is cold is, life is very slow. 

Olivia Clementine: What are people doing in the winter? 

Tenzin Norbu: Of course the women making and men are making shoes of course to -. They tailor, men are all tailor. Women are making, you know, weavers and we are ourselves, although we are selling down place also to sell to Lower Dolpo.

Upper Dolpo my town they’re very talented, they are working very hard. Mm-hmm. Then summer time, the people coming from Lower Dolpo, nepali, Nepal language, they come by goat Caravan, maybe thousand goat 500. They have their own friend to exchange it. We go to Tibet take salt. Some rich people has a little room full of the salt. They come and we exchange salt, and they have wheat, they have corn. 

Then we are selling not only salt and then woman making many, many blankets. March we finish all field. You have barley field. Then we exchange also food, you know, collection because we have not enough food. And autumn time they, they’re coming from Tibet. From from Tibet sheep caravan. No goat caravan, sheep caravan they are coming. All sheep has a little, maybe 10 kilo one sheep brings. They bring salt and we give a barley, you know? Mm-hmm. Our barley I think 50% we eat 50%, we need to exchange different kind of food. We buy salt because we give one, kind of one kilo, and they give a two kilo of salt. 

Then we keep this salt, June, July they come. We like this life since many year, and now it’s gone, you know, salt is coming from India now, even now salt they make very nice packing money, you know, natural gone now.

Olivia Clementine: So that’s not happening, that people aren’t coming with the caravan and exchanging anymore? Not so much. They just buy in. 

Tenzin Norbu: No, it’s shop now in Dolpo, you can have shop. Yeah. My, my area there. No, not many shop, but one village, one shop. They’ll go there. They buy. That’s why. Big changing. Thousands donkeys come now. Now they’re bring these things, materials, salt, food, rice all from Nepal, you know. Indian from India. They bring local. 

Olivia Clementine: Are women still making skirts and men shoes? 

Tenzin Norbu: Yeah, some, but the women make this blanket now, it takes one month to make this, so expensive, then nobody interested. Because the lower people, they buy Chinese blanket very cheap. They can get maybe 1000 rupees per day now and they work three days they will get blanket, you know. In Dolpo blanket, you have to pay 30,000 rupees every day. Yeah. Yeah. I think, no good to lose this, we keep this tradition continue. 

Olivia Clementine: What’s something that’s really important to you right now? Where, where is your attention right now in your life? 

Tenzin Norbu: We have very nice culture in Himalaya and especially in Kathmandu, we have very nice city. Mm-hmm. One of the best weather in the world I think, temperature is fantastic here, always never below 40, you know.

And you can have very nice view Himalaya here. We don’t have Himalaya museum that is very sad. Mm-hmm. I hope my dream of some who has really interest this kind of culture, I think we need talk about that. Mm-hmm. Very good one, but we have one in Nepal now in Patan is a small one. This made by foreign people, not Nepali and this is not enough. I think we need a Himalayan Museum in Kathmandu. 

Olivia Clementine: And how about you in your own art, and just daily life, is there something these days you’re putting attention towards that’s different or the same? Like what are you interested in every day now these days? What are you spending your time? 

Tenzin Norbu: I spend a lot of time my art. Morning and evening I spend on practice. Mm-hmm. From my father from all tradition also. That’s my morning. I can make one hour. I keep one hour, maybe two hours, something depends my time and evening. I give one hour like that every day. I’m making practice, ngondro. Yeah. I’m very happy yeah. 

We have to be natural. But to practice. There’s no worry. Yeah. Yeah. Depends with your mind everything. It’s not easy. Not easy. Yeah. But it looks very easy.

It seems very simple, but it’s not simple, not easy. Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah. 

Olivia Clementine: Well, thank you so much, Tenzin. 

Tenzin Norbu: No problem. Thank you. 

Olivia Clementine: So what do we have here Tenzin? 

Tenzin Norbu: Himalayan people in the salt, salt caravan. They bring salt. We buy from Tibet and to buy salt and exchange barley.

Then after this salt, we Sell down lower Dolpo, they need salt. But long time it, it works, maybe one century. This kind of one two century, now it’s gone there. That’s why when I was a little child, until this kind of, this our salt caravan and yaks and of course family, they live there. Let’s say it’s my life.

You can see this here, yaks here, people moving. This wind is very strong there. This is Himalaya and so strong wind and very clean sky, very fresh, and big space, open space. 

When I was first in Kathmandu there was no coffee. But now in Dolpo, we have everywhere, coffee planet, just play in this case. Maybe one day we pray we make a tsok, you know, tsok, make coffee tsok. It’s nice you know. The monk are very relaxed. They like coffee now. You see in Boudha there is Himalayan Java there is a good coffee shop , many monks are relaxed drinking coffee. They are single, you know, no need to think of lot of problem. Okay, maybe one day they, they like what they like they have to offer you know, it’s true. Mm-hmm. So then I think. Maybe we just make joke. 

 This is the winter I need to finish four painting. This is winter, spring, summer, autumn. I – must finish. Typical Dolpo house, you know, we have Himalayan cow also. The children are playing in the ice and they, typical winter time, you have to make well to drink water. She’s taking water. He’s carrying for the wood. The mother is giving milk for children with two children to – some. The dogs and he’s bring yak down. We have grass, you know, all activities . 


And your masks. My mask – with mask. You see, this is very old mask, in Dolpo we have very beautiful, I make from dirt.

This Green Tara is quite new. You know, I never make Green Tara. 

Green Tara I want to put my style always, you know, and they are very, very far, maybe so close. They’re very worried and she praying. Tara, pray. Maybe Tara’s coming . 

Olivia Clementine: It’s so beautiful. 

 I have to get the fact that you’re here. Yeah. On the roof here is your studio. 

I start this last year. I’m very interested in these Four Noble Truths. Not finished yet, but I explain Tibetan language this is ཀུན་འབྱུང་གི་བདེན་པ་ means you want to keep everything your yourself even. It’s too big, too impossible. We want to keep our mind. I think now this planet, same. Everybody want to be top. Everybody wants to be very famous. Everybody want to be very rich, you know? Then finally, result is like that. This is also true if you have too much to think with your you have no capacity and you can get results like that. This also true, this is true, and then you have to this ཀུན་འབྱུང་གི་བདེན་པ and སྡུག་བསྔལ་བདེན་པ་ and ལམ་གྱི་བདེན་པ་ lam means the way. That’s also true. Lam means the way, way you have to first to (receive teachings). Then after you finish and you have to think about how it’s important, what is important, then not only think, you have to practice. This kind of step.

You know, for this three we say ཐོས་བསམ་སྒོམ་གསུམ་ three (hearing, contemplaton and meditation) for this is ལམ་གྱི་བདེན་པ the way. It’s two of the, in the way. Then if you do that, you can get results like this. This is karma and result and karma is result. And this Four Noble Truths is very interesting. And Buddha Shakyamuni Varanasi first teaching is that. – 

Olivia Clementine: Thank you. Tenzin.