An inter­view with

Robert Beer

Pos­i­tion & Affil­i­ation: Artist and Inde­pend­ent Researcher

Part 1

April 24, 2018 in Oxford, United Kingdom

Part 2 (Com­ing soon)

June 16, 2019 in Oxford, United Kingdom

Inter­viewed by: Anna Sehnalova & Rachael Grif­fiths; VOX (Voices of Oxford)

Cite this archive

Oral His­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies. (2021, Decem­ber 2). An inter­view with Robert Beer. Retrieved 30 Janu­ary 2023, from https://oralhistory.iats.info/interviews/robert-beer/.
“An inter­view with Robert Beer.” Oral His­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies, 2 Dec. 2021, https://oralhistory.iats.info/interviews/robert-beer/.
Oral His­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies. 2021. An inter­view with Robert Beer. [online], Avail­able at: https://oralhistory.iats.info/interviews/robert-beer/ [Accessed 30 Janu­ary 2023]
Oral His­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies. “An inter­view with Robert Beer.” 2021, Decem­ber 2. https://oralhistory.iats.info/interviews/robert-beer/.

Dis­claim­er: The views and opin­ions expressed in this inter­view are those of the inter­viewee and do not neces­sar­ily rep­res­ent the offi­cial pos­i­tion of the Oral His­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies project.

Timestamps (coming soon)

Additional info

I was born in 1947 and spent my form­at­ive years in Cardiff, South Wales. At the age of four­teen I received a vivid ‘after death com­mu­nic­a­tion’ (ADC) from the spir­it of my recently depar­ted sis­ter, an exper­i­ence of such pro­found beauty which left me with an innate con­vic­tion that the soul is immor­tal, pure and incor­rupt­ible. This event marked the begin­ning of my spir­itu­al search or jour­ney. For I knew then what real love and bereave­ment meant, but not why they are vis­ited upon us, and the world of my child­hood was nev­er the same again.

Shortly after this my fam­ily broke up and by the age of sev­en­teen I was liv­ing on the road and encoun­ter­ing the first wave of the counter-cul­ture of the early six­ties. From an early age I had developed a keen interest in draw­ing, but was refused entry to art col­lege because I was col­ourblind. It was at this point that I met John Miles (1944–97), a col­our­ful char­ac­ter in every sense of the word, who was to become my main artist­ic ment­or and lifelong friend, and whom I con­sider to be one of the finest vis­ion­ary paint­ers of our time. Over the course of the next five years I became deeply involved in the gnostic tra­di­tions of the East, the sym­bol­ism of which pro­foundly inspired my artist­ic and cre­at­ive skills. But in late 1968 I entered a psy­che­del­ic­ally induced psy­chos­is or ‘kunda­lini-crisis’ that was to last for many years and again change the course of my life. It was in this extremely volat­ile state of men­tal and per­cep­tu­al dis­tor­tion that I left for India and Nepal in 1970, where I was to live for the next six years.

In India I stud­ied thangka paint­ing with sev­er­al of the finest Tibetan artists liv­ing at that time: includ­ing Jampa from Lhasa, the ‘state artist of Tibet’, who lived in Dharmas­ala; and Khamtrul Rinpoche, a great lama and artist who estab­lished the Tibetan Craft Com­munity at Tashi­jong. In Kath­mandu I first became fas­cin­ated with the art and archi­tec­ture of the Newar tra­di­tion, and was par­tic­u­larly inspired by the vis­ion­ary style and paint­ing tech­niques of the fam­ous Newar artist, Siddhimuni Shakya (1932–2001). Dur­ing these years I also deeply immersed myself in all aspects of Indi­an spir­itu­al­ity and cul­ture, study­ing clas­sic­al music (sar­od) in Varanasi, and learn­ing much from the count­less sadhus, gurus, schol­ars, beg­gars and magi­cians that it was my des­tiny to meet.

In 1976 I returned to the UK and began to eke out a liv­ing in Lon­don as an artist and illus­trat­or, cre­at­ing ori­ent­al fab­ric designs, the first silk-screened thang­kas, and my first cov­er illus­tra­tions and line draw­ings for books. At this time there was very little under­stand­ing, appre­ci­ation or demand for Buddhist deity images, and what little there was ten­ded to be char­it­able work for newly estab­lished dharma cen­ters. But I per­sisted, con­tinu­ing to draw and study with a devo­tion that bordered on obses­sion, until an under­stand­ing began to devel­op through the dir­ect intu­ition of the imagery that I was work­ing upon. The essence of the Vajray­ana tra­di­tion is encap­su­lated with­in its deity sym­bol­ism, and the deep­er that one pen­et­rates into this vis­ion­ary realm the more expans­ive is the pan­or­ama that is revealed. I have nev­er ceased to be amazed by the incred­ible soph­ist­ic­a­tion of the ‘Mind’, which con­ceived of this vast pan­theon of visu­al­ized deit­ies with their highly eso­ter­ic med­it­a­tion­al prac­tices. And although I would describe myself as being self-taught and liv­ing by a dharma that has no cre­den­tials, intu­ition has always been my greatest teach­er. For ulti­mately the dharma exists nowhere except with­in our own mind, and it is mainly through dir­ect rev­el­a­tion that I have really been able to com­pre­hend and pro­cess it.

I spent twenty-five years at the draw­ing board, often work­ing around the clock, and the many draw­ings and paint­ings that I made dur­ing this time have appeared in hun­dreds of books, and now adorn count­less web­sites and spir­itu­al arti­facts, from Tibetan pray­er flags, jew­elry and offer­ing scarves, to incense pack­ets, t‑shirts and com­puter mats. The most ambi­tious pro­jects that I have so far under­taken are a series of lin­eage hold­er draw­ings, which are still unpub­lished; and The Encyc­lo­pe­dia of Tibetan Sym­bols and Motifs, with its more con­cise off­spring, The Hand­book of Tibetan Buddhist Sym­bols. Shambhala Pub­lic­a­tions and Ser­in­dia Pub­lic­a­tions respect­ively pub­lished these two books in 1999 and 2003.

Much of my finest work was done in the remote­ness of the Scot­tish high­lands, where I lived with my wife and our two daugh­ters for ten years. In 1988 I went back to Nepal for the first time in over twenty years, and was sur­prised to see how much my pub­lished paint­ings and draw­ings had influ­enced the mod­ern Tibetan and Newar art world there. In 1997 I went back to Kath­mandu again and with the assist­ance of my dear friend Phun­sok Tser­ing (1957–2008), recon­nec­ted with Siddhimuni Shakya and began to research the Newar paubha paint­ing tra­di­tion of the Kath­mandu Val­ley, with its unique pan­theon of Hindu and Buddhist deit­ies. Since then I have spent one month of each year in the Val­ley, gain­ing the trust, alle­gi­ance and respect of these artists as their main pat­ron and ment­or, and assem­bling the largest and most exquis­ite col­lec­tion of their work. Some of these paint­ings I have exhib­ited at the Octo­ber Gal­lery in Lon­don, the Ori­ent­al Museums of Bath and Durham, Tibet House in New York, and the Mahadevi Gal­lery in California.

I now live in Oxford with my part­ner Gill Far­rer-Halls, where I con­tin­ue to work on my long-term pro­ject of writ­ing upon the icon­o­graphy and sym­bol­ism of the deit­ies of both the Indo-Tibetan and Newar tra­di­tions. Yet even though I have been involved in this seem­ingly obscure and aca­dem­ic research for the past forty years, I have always ten­ded to view it as a vehicle for my own self-real­­iz­a­­tion, a by-product of the same spir­itu­al pro­cess of intro­spec­tion and ana­lys­is that began for me at the age of four­teen. It defines what I do, but not who I am.

Through­out my life I have had many dif­fer­ent mys­tic­al and spir­itu­al exper­i­ences, some pro­longed and bliss­ful, oth­ers spon­tan­eous and image shat­ter­ing. They are part of the ima­gin­at­ive and spir­itu­al land­scape that I have chosen to explore and inhab­it, with its vast pop­u­la­tion of peace­ful and wrath­ful deit­ies. All of these exper­i­ences are trans­it­ory, they come and go, they have a begin­ning, middle and end, and they no longer serve to con­di­tion my understanding.

In 2006 my eld­est daugh­ter, Car­rina, died in a diving acci­dent at the age of 23, and from this tragedy I real­ized that although the Tibetan tra­di­tion is rich in its the­or­et­ic­al teach­ings on death and dying, it is actu­ally quite impov­er­ished when it comes to deal­ing with an intense grief of this nature. For the death of a child can often take one far bey­ond any belief sys­tem or doc­trine, and it cer­tainly has in my case.

So for the past four years I have been research­ing the ‘after­life’ out­side of the con­cep­tu­al doc­trines of any reli­gious sys­tem, and guided purely by my own intu­ition I have come to under­stand all things ‘spir­itu­al’ in an entirely dif­fer­ent light. And this under­stand­ing is not based upon any doc­trine or dogma, but on my own dir­ect insight and exper­i­ences of the ‘spir­it world’, which I now real­ize is the source of the supreme intel­li­gence, com­pas­sion, aware­ness and energy that per­meates our mul­ti­di­men­sion­al uni­verse. And in the bene­vol­ent light of our time­less and form­less exist­ence as pure ‘spir­itu­al beings’ the bio­graphy of anyone’s life upon this plan­et is ulti­mately as insub­stan­tial as a dream. We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and I am only now just begin­ning to awaken.

© Robert Beer 2010.

  • R. Beer, The hand­book of tibetan buddhist sym­bols, 1st ed. ed., Chica­go ; Lon­don: Ser­in­dia, 2003.
    [Bib­tex]
    @book{BeerRobert2003ThoT,
    publisher = {Serindia},
    isbn = {9781932476033},
    year = {2003},
    title = {The handbook of Tibetan Buddhist symbols},
    edition = {1st ed.},
    language = {eng},
    address = {Chicago ; London},
    author = {Beer, Robert},
    keywords = {Art, Tibetan -- Themes, motives; Symbolism in art},
    }
  • R. Beer, The encyc­lo­pe­dia of tibetan sym­bols and motifs, Lon­don: Ser­in­dia, 1999.
    [Bib­tex]
    @book{BeerRobert1999TeoT,
    publisher = {Serindia},
    isbn = {9780906026489},
    year = {1999},
    title = {The encyclopedia of Tibetan symbols and motifs},
    language = {eng},
    address = {London},
    author = {Beer, Robert},
    keywords = {Buddhist art and symbolism -- China -- Tibet Autonomous Region -- Encyclopedias; Art, Tibetan -- Themes, motives; Symbolism in art -- Encyclopedias; Art, Tibetan -- Encyclopedias},
    }
  • G. Far­rer-Halls and R. Beer, A gift of awaken­ing, Lon­don: Mqp, 2004.
    [Bib­tex]
    @book{Farrer-HallsGill2004Agoa,
    publisher = {MQP},
    isbn = {9781840723977},
    year = {2004},
    title = {A gift of awakening},
    language = {eng},
    address = {London},
    author = {Farrer-Halls, Gill and Beer, Robert},
    keywords = {Spiritual life; Karma},
    }
  • G. Sah, R. Beer, and G. Houghton, Govinda sah ‘azad’, Lon­don: , 2013.
    [Bib­tex]
    @book{SahGovinda2013GSA,
    isbn = {9781899542420},
    year = {2013},
    title = {Govinda Sah 'Azad'},
    language = {eng},
    address = {London},
    author = {Sah, Govinda and Beer, Robert and Houghton, Gerard},
    keywords = {Sah, Govinda -- Exhibitions},
    }
  • G. Far­rer-Halls and R. Beer, A gift of pos­it­ive think­ing, Lon­don: Mqp, 2004.
    [Bib­tex]
    @book{Farrer-HallsGill2004Agop,
    publisher = {MQP},
    isbn = {9781840723960},
    year = {2004},
    title = {A gift of positive thinking},
    language = {eng},
    address = {London},
    author = {Farrer-Halls, Gill and Beer, Robert},
    keywords = {Thought and thinking -- Religious aspects -- Buddhism; Karma},
    }
  • G. Far­rer-Halls and R. Beer, A gift of inner peace, Lon­don: Mqp, 2003.
    [Bib­tex]
    @book{Farrer-HallsGill2003Agoi,
    publisher = {MQP},
    isbn = {9781840723953},
    year = {2003},
    title = {A gift of inner peace},
    language = {eng},
    address = {London},
    author = {Farrer-Halls, Gill and Beer, Robert},
    keywords = {Karma; Peace of mind; Peace of mind -- Religious aspects -- Buddhism; Meditation},
    }
  • G. Far­rer-Halls and R. Beer, A gift of hap­pi­ness, Lon­don: Mqp, 2003.
    [Bib­tex]
    @book{Farrer-HallsGill2003Agoh,
    publisher = {MQP},
    isbn = {9781840723984},
    year = {2003},
    title = {A gift of happiness},
    language = {eng},
    address = {London},
    author = {Farrer-Halls, Gill and Beer, Robert},
    keywords = {Karma; Happiness; Happiness -- Religious aspects -- Buddhism; Meditation},
    }