Thangka artist

"Faces of Pilgrimage," 2008, based on a photograph by Diane Barker of two Tibetan girls returning from pilgrimage. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo)

It started innocently enough as an adventurous trip to India. But what Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo discovered during her years traveling to India was both a spiritual calling and an artistic revelation.

That’s what she shares in her new book Threads of Awakening (with a foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama), which was released by She Writes Press on Aug. 23.

“Encouraging of wonderment”

Rinchen-Wongmo made her first trip to India after she graduated from UCLA in 1988 with an MBA focused on urban planning and nonprofit and land development. On a summer break, she decided to go to India. A land of diversity and beautiful landscapes, with multiple cultures and breathtaking mountains. And why not? Jobs were plentiful, she was young and there were a couple of months in which she could enjoy herself before starting work in September.

“It was just supposed to be a summer trip to Kashmir and Ladakh,” Rinchen-Wongmo recalled.

What she learned surprised her.

“The first trip was when I got hooked on the idea to travel more spaciously,” she said. “I met people who were backpacking for a year. That’s when the idea got into me to return for a longer stretch.”

Rinchen-Wongmo felt compelled to return to India.

“There was something about the freedom in being in a very different world, in a different culture. It removed all the standard assumptions that we live with every day. I found it very freeing and encouraging of wonderment.”

Eventually, Rinchen-Wongmo returned to the States and moved to Boston to work in urban planning. But the seed was planted. She knew that she would come back to India. Not just for adventure. She wanted to stay and spend extended time with Tibetans, whose government had been driven into Northern India by the People’s Republic of China.

Cultural and spiritual fabric

In 1992, her plan was to go to Dharamshala for a year. While living there, she had arranged a volunteer job with the planning council for the Tibetan government in exile, doing economic development proposals and census planning. She ended up staying for eight-plus years, studying the Tibetan language and Buddhism and pursuing her passion for thangka fabric art.

Thangka as a visual art form has a long, storied history in Tibet. Thangka paintings were art scrolls used to uplift and encourage Tibetan citizens toward the virtues of Buddhism. They sometimes painted historical figures like the Buddha but, most commonly, the art form featured iconography for idealized Buddhist virtues.

A rarer form of thangka, known as fabric art using silk applique, caught Rinchen-Wongmo’s eye. While both forms of thangka serve the same purpose, thangka fabric art can be much more prominent, and function as a large, bordered wall hanging that can be several stories high and placed on the side of a high wall or building.

What drew her to this particular form of thangka?

“It’s almost unexplainable,” Rinchen-Wongmo noted. “It was just a powerful emotional experience.”

While she had previous experience with quilting, thangka fabric art was something different. It was pictorial and reflective of Buddhist thought. Patches of silk cloth pictures were sewn together by horsehair thread. It required a delicate hand to create the patches and sew the images together.

“I was studying Buddhist philosophy,” she recalled, “and somehow it just pulled these two things together, and it was beautiful.”

It was love at first sight, and so, with careful forethought and gentle persuasion, she inquired around Dharamshala and convinced a local teacher to get her started. Between studying Buddhism and practicing thangka fabric art, she spent several years learning the craft and the culture.

It was a serious shift in her life. Describing her previous self as an art “dabbler,” she transformed from a curious observer to a committed practitioner. Starting from square one, she found her life’s purpose in the art form and the study of Buddhism. Both had a significant impact on her life.

“Buddhism and my art are intertwined,” she stated. “They carry out my life’s values.”

Threads of Awakening

As for her new book, there’s a different story to be told. It takes a lot of energy and focus to write a book. Rinchen-Wongmo is scrupulous in her wordsmanship and has openly admitted there are times when she doesn’t care for writing.

“I can get lost for hours in one sentence,” she said.

However, she can write and feels this book gives essential details about her life’s journey toward Buddhism and art.

“I have a skill,” she emphasized, “and I have a rare position and opportunity. I think I knew early on that it would be good for me to write a book about this art form. There are no other books about it. It’s worthy of a book.”

It took her 20 years to get to it and five years after that to finish and find the right publisher to support it. But she persisted, and the result has been worth the effort.

Threads of Awakening is a memoir with added value. While recounting her years in India, the book is also a lay introduction to Tibetan art, culture and Buddhist philosophy. It puts in readable language the impetus for her art and her fascination and immersion into Tibetan culture.

“What I have is the gift and opportunity of my personal experience with the art,” she explained. “It became a memoir because I wrote it from my perspective.”

But beyond the personal experience, Rinchen-Wongmo writes about the beauty, humor and strength of a culture that has been seriously undermined and forced to leave its home state. It’s a cultural exploration through the written word at a level that a reader will find interesting, insightful and even inspirational.

“Over the years, I realized that my story might also impact other people who may not get to India,” she said. “But they might do something else outside their normal path. And even if it’s Buddhist, the book is intended to be universally helpful.”

As for her own journey, she paused to reflect:

“I’m grateful to have lived a very fortunate life, both in my origin and family background,” she said, “and for having the resources to travel like this. I was welcomed by the Tibetans and my teachers who were completely open to sharing their art, their culture, and themselves with me.”

But it also says something about Rinchen-Wongmo’s willingness to leave a comfortable career and pursue a different life in a foreign language and culture.

“I was able to blend myself into what was happening in Dharamshala,” she said. “I was inspired by other people I met doing the same thing. It freed me to be open to this new experience without stressing out. My usual fears just dissolved.”

Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo’s Threads of Awakening is available for purchase at threadsofawakening.com/book/; at Timbre Books, 1924 E. Main St., Ventura, timbrebooks.com; and at several other booksellers.

She will give a talk at Ventura College on Thursday, Sept. 22 (time TBD) and at Santa Monica's Mystic Journey Bookstore on Saturday, Sept. 24, at 11:30 a.m. For full details on these and other events, visit threadsofawakening.com/events/.