CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Lopen Sangay Kinchen, left, a Bhutanese monk, uses an H2 Hummer to display his sacred images. Also pictured is Lopen Soman Dorji.
Wave of karma
Lopen Sangay Rinchen surely never imagined his path as a Bhutanese monk would lead him to the sunny shores of Hawaii. As a boy, Rinchen was taken by his mother to the town of Drongsa, where "the summer's not hot and the winter has snow," to follow in the footsteps of his older brother.
Surfboards painted by Lopen Sangay Rinchen can be viewed at these shops and galleries. Proceeds benefit conservation programs in Bhutan.
» Chinatown Boardroom, 1600 Nuuanu St., 585-7200
» Pacific Framing, 1258 Young St., 591-2412
» The ARTS at Marks Garage, 1159 Nuuanu Ave., 521-2903. Part of the exhibit "Just East of West: The Geography and Culture of In-Between," through Sept. 1. See F9.
After a year of employing vows of clean living, the young Rinchen earned the rare privilege of shaving his head, donning a Buddhist robe and drinking holy water, all of which meant that he would occupy one of 500 seats at the Drongsa temple.
"My mother wanted to make me good like my older brother," Rinchen says through interpreter Lopen Soman Dorji, a fellow Bhutanese monk.
Rinchen and Dorji recently spent several months in Honolulu learning modern techniques for conserving "thangka" (sacred Buddhist paintings) at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, where "The Dragon's Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan" will open in February. The men are among nine monks who will have participated in conservation training by the time the exhibit opens. Upon returning to their country, they will institute conservation programs and spend the rest of their lives restoring thangka.
AT 41, Rinchen is a renowned thangka painter and mandala teacher. He picked up a brush early in his monastic career when his older brother, himself a mandala teacher, told Rinchen painting would "make me a good person."
"I feel that if I can make one mandala like the ancient kind, and ... if someone gets a good feeling from it, there would be good karma," Rinchen says. "This is why I keep trying to get better."
While in Honolulu, Rinchen has riffed on his thangka skills by painting carefully selected sacred images onto the unlikely canvases of surfboards and SUVs.
"We have lots of free time in Hawaii, on weekends and after 5 p.m., so Eddie (academy chief conservator Eddie Jose) said we could paint his car," says Rinchen.
Word quickly spread of the monk's colorful, ornate work, and he was soon spending every lunch hour painting fierce-looking ocean creatures on surfboards, which he's sold to benefit conservation programs in Bhutan.
"There's a science, an appropriateness, to what they can paint," Jose says of the images. The creatures on the boards, for instance, are meant to protect riders.
Rinchen paints with ease and a serene smile as he concentrates on the minuscule details. But decades of monastic life keep him ever focused on the big picture.
"I make them very carefully," he says of the images, "because if an American is feeling nice when looking at them, then there's good karma."