Roads to Heaven 

Dongba funeral scrolls

-parts I & II-

From the  Camel House Exhibition   (Photo: Samantha Silver)

From the Camel House Exhibition (Photo: Samantha Silver)



Road to Heaven I (2014)

Scroll construction + linework: HeXiudong

Color + editing: Wu Zhimi

Q&A at JiyunSi

Working on the Road to Heaven (Dongba funeral scroll) at entrance of Jiyunsi Tibetan Buddhist Temple. A casual exercise in inter-religious conversation. With excerpts from journal entries and personal notes. Blog entry: [here]


Today Eric (our Canadian guest) wanted to go see the temple, so I biked there with him. I brought the scroll. He said I didn't have to go if I was busy, but after thinking about it, I decided that it would be interesting to work on Dongba paintings in front of a Buddhist temple while I waited for him to look around inside. I wondered what kind of reactions i would get, if any. 

Once I set up and began painting, a bunch of monks gathered around to ask questions.

Their Questions for Me (他們問我的問題): 

Q: "Did you draw this?"

A: "A Dongba teacher drew the lines, then told me to add color for him."

(Note: sometimes I responded by only saying “teacher" instead of "Dongba"- to ambiguify the religion)

Q: 這是你畫的嗎?

A: 這是我的東巴老師先畫的線,他要我現在加上色彩。


Q: “How long is it? Can we open it up? All the way?”

A: “Sure! But it’s pretty long…”

Q: 這一幅畫多長?我們可以打開嗎?整個打開, 可以嗎?

A: 可以!但是,是蠻長的....

Q: "What is it? Who is that?"

A: “Paintings of gods. And humans, and demons.”

Q: 這是什麼?那是誰?

A: 這是神象。也有...人類, 和魔鬼。


Q: "Why are you working on this here?"

A: "Sometimes I like to come look at the drawings upstairs. Today I brought a visitor to see this place, and I'm working on this while I wait for him outside."

Q: 你為什麼要在這裡畫畫?

A: 有時我喜歡來這裡,看你們樓上的壁畫。今天我帶了一個朋友來看這個地方, 我現在在外面等著他... 就一邊等, 一邊畫。

Q: "There's Xiuqu, the Dapeng bird. But where's Siu Lao Dao?"

A: "Who's that?"

Q: "The one with the trees, growing out of the thing, with the thing, and that other thing."

A: "...Is it that one?"

Q: "No."

A: "Is it in Heaven or Hell?"

Q: "Heaven."

A: "Is it this one on top?

Q: "No."

A: "Do you see it anywhere here?"

Q: "No."

A: "Can you please say that name again for me?"

Q: "What happens if you draw wrong?"

A: "You won't."

Q: "But what if you drew wrong?"

A: "You can’t! This paint is acrylic, waterproof, it’s not erasable. You can’t make a mistake, or else you can't wash it off."

Q: "But... what if?" 

A: "Then… you must fix it, somehow. Or cover it with white, and start over." 


Q: 畫錯了怎麼辦?

A: 不會畫錯。

Q: 可是*萬一*畫錯了, 怎麼辦?

A: 不能畫錯!這種漆是丙烯…會防水,不能洗掉。不能畫錯, 否則,你不能把它洗掉。

Q: ...可是*萬一* 呢...???

A: 那... 你就必須要想辦法來把它修好。或是用白色來蓋過它, 然後再重新開始。


Q: "Can I draw?”

Q2: “Let me draw! I want to try drawing it!" 

A: "Yes... But be careful.”

Q: "Uh oh- i messed up!!!”

A: "That's OK, I'll fix it later."


Q1: "Can we ride the bikes?"

Q2: "Can I take photos with your camera?"

Q3: (pops a big yellow balloon in my ear, leaving a ringing sound) “…Did that feel nice?"

My Questions for Them (我問他們的問題):

Q: "What's the difference between Dongba and Tibetan Buddhism?"

One monk’s answer: "Not much."

Q: 你覺得東巴教怎麼樣?有沒有什麼想法?

A: 還可以。跟我們佛教沒太大的差別。


Q: "What do you think about Dongbaism?"

Another monk’s answer: "It's alright. It's not very different from Tibetan Buddhism."


Q: "Are the gods the same?"

First monk’s answer: “More or less."

我: 東巴教和佛教的神是一樣的嗎?

第一個和尚: 差不多。


Q: "Are the gods the same for both?”

Second monk’s answer: "I don't know. Maybe."

我: 東巴教和佛教的神是一樣的嗎?

第二個和尚: 我不知道。也許是。


Q: "Are the gods the same for both?"

Third monk’s answer: "No! Dongba and Tibetan Buddhism have different gods!"

我: 東巴教和佛教的神是一樣的嗎?

第三個和尚: 不一樣!東巴教和佛教的神, 不一樣!

Q: "Who is Siu Lao Dao?"

Q: "Who is Siu Lao Dao?"

I let them borrow the bikes and the camera. If you’ve ever wondered what a 6-year-old Tibetan monk’s photographs look like, here’s your chance: 


After S and V left this morning, I finished up another section (the frame with the 33-headed elephant) and I started the section with sitting deities in the 33-story Heaven. 

I realized that all the figures in Heaven were pretty much the same for each line, with only slight differences in color, detail, or positioning. Since I was painting them in succession, the rhythm of color shifting (mostly in intervals of four) began to hypnotize, and put me in trance. 

Rendering simpler, symmetrical shapes also promoted that trance… and sped up the whole process in general. (Painting Hell was not like this.)

The portion that I spent most time on painting, for each sitting figure, was the Vesica Piscis (mandorla) behind them. Halo on top, feet at the bottom. As I pushed arcs of color towards each center, they would meet with the form of a smaller mandorla at the chest, held within the figure's hands (re: Heart Chakra?).

I remembered reading: the brighter the holy light depicted, the darker the paint one should use- to indicate brightening, in reverse.

(Photos by: Eric M. + D. Wing + various monks: Team JiyunSi)

(Photos by: Eric M. + D. Wing + various monks: Team JiyunSi)

Road to Heaven II (2015-present)

Our second Road to Heaven painting is currently underway. We finally got the primer mixture correct. This time WuZhimi executes both linework and color, while older Dongba oversee the process. 

We intend for this iteration of the scroll to leave Lijiang and travel overseas when finished, as well as providing template for a Road to Heaven III (roughly scheduled for sometime between 2020-2035).

August 2017:  Painting the Dongba  #roadtoheaven  in front of Xingjiao Temple in Shaxi (Tea Horse Road). Photo:Alfred/ Christine ///  repost:  @theparhelia

August 2017: Painting the Dongba #roadtoheaven in front of Xingjiao Temple in Shaxi (Tea Horse Road). Photo:Alfred/ Christine /// repost: @theparhelia