You don’t need to be a master guru of Eastern mysticism to recognize the sublime beauty of a Tibetan Buddhist Thangka. Simply take a close look at one of these traditional religious paintings, and you can practically feel your heart, mind and soul being swept away to a higher plane.
The magic and mystery of this sacred art form is nothing short of mesmerizing. But the more you know about the stories and symbols that go into these rich religious paintings, the more respect you feel for the wisdom that they depict.
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The Thangka Tradition
Devotional Buddhists have special practices for creating a sense of sacred time and space, namely chanting and meditation. And though they don’t exactly worship idols, it is common for Buddhists and Hindus to create altars and decorate them with paintings and statuary to help maintain that sacred presence.
Among the most powerful of such religious images are the Tibetan Buddhist Thangka paintings, part of a tradition that dates back roughly 1000 years. Thought to be a spin-off of the far older tradition of cave painting, these exquisitely decorated artworks are typically created to be light-weight and portable.
Most often depicting a specific deity or bodhisattva, the monks and votaries paint these religious icons on silk or paper, which is further protected by a silk cover, and then rolled up like a scroll. Especially conducive to the nomadic or hermetic lifestyle, the devotee can travel with his Thankga and unroll it whenever he sees fit, for times of prayer and meditation, for example.
I like to think of them as the bonsai trees of religious art. Originally, the Samurai warriors kept bonsai trees, which they could carry along on their extensive journeys. Something like a family member in their solitary lives, the Samurais cared for the trees and were able to enjoy a special connection with nature, wherever they went.
As with the bonsai trees, the Thangka paintings are created with extraordinary care and attention. With a high quality Thangka, the finished work should inspire a sense of divine reverence, and that’s the same sort of devotion and concentration that the artists employ to produce these masterpieces.
Religious Imagery in the Thangkas
The variety of imagery in Thangka paintings has grown immense over the centuries, but traditionally, the artwork depicts a single Buddhist deity, a meaningful icon, or in some cases, a narrative scene.
Probably the most common subject of a Thangka painting is the Buddha, who may appear in his ascetic, meditating form as Shakyamuni, or in his more portly and jubilant incarnation as the Laughing Buddha. But the variations go on and on, eyes open or closed, hands lifted or clasped in prayer. The possibilities are endless. Check out this brilliant Buddha Thangka on Amazon for an example.
There’s no definitive, orthodox interpretation of the symbolism, but it depends more on the experience of the beholder. You cannot judge a Thangka painting by any objective measure, only by the sort of feeling it produces in you. If you are decorating an altar or shrine, you’ll want to consider the types of energy you wish to invoke, whether calming, invigorating, uplifting, transcendental, or something else.
Besides the venerable Buddha, there are dozens of other deities and bodhisattvas in the pantheon. One of the most popular and frequently depicted is Tara, who herself has a variety of avatars. We generally associate Tara with mindfulness and meditation.
The Green Tara, more specifically, invokes powers of protection from darkness, temptations and illusion. White Tara stands for health and longevity, as well as compassion. Here’s an example of a spectacular Green Tara Thangka on Amazon.
Another highly revered bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara represents the deepest embodiment of compassion. This deity can take either a male or female form, and very often appears as the goddess Quan Yin, frequently holding out a vessel to collect the tears of mankind’s sorrow.
One of the most terrifying images to adorn the Buddhist Thangka is Chemchok Heruka with his twenty-one heads and forty-two hands. The Tibetan Book of the Dead speaks of the Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities, and Chemchok Heruka is the most iconic of the 58 wrathful deities. He often appears in the presence of the 42 peaceful deities, including a panoply of buddhas, bodhisattvas and gatekeepers.
Instead of depicting a personal deity, another type of Buddhist religious art involves some highly symbolic icons. The most common of these symbols are the Mandala and the Wheel of Life, and both are well worth meditating over.
The Mandala holds a very special place in my own spiritual practice, and the first Thangka I acquired was a phenomenal Mandala painting from Bhutan. I have seen a few different explanations of this sacred geometric image, having to do with multiple worlds and layers of reality. But the following is my own interpretation of this cosmic symbol.
Mandalas come in many versions, but generally they feature a small circle at the center, enclosed by a square (or series of squares), finally surrounded by a greater circle. I read this pattern as a metaphor for psychological and spiritual development.
At birth we are in the small circle, at one with all things, unable to differentiate between self and other. This is the level of unconscious perfection. With time and age we learn, like Adam and Eve, to recognize the pairs of opposites. We enter the material world of squares, of us and them, heaven and earth, good and evil, the state of conscious imperfection.
Finally, with concentrated spiritual practice, we strive to enter the realm of cosmic unity, where all things are connected and interdependent. This is the state of enlightenment, the grand circle of conscious perfection. And in most Mandala paintings, the outer circle is surrounded by a multitude of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, enlightened beings.
The Om symbol shows up constantly in both Buddhist and Indian religious artwork. Surely you’ve seen the swirly icon on tattoos, yoga mats and tapestries. Often, the Om sits at the focal point of a mandala, in the center of the circle.
So what does it mean?
We frequently refer to Om as the sacred syllable. If you’ve ever attended a group meditation, you’ve probably heard or participated in the chanting of the Om. It represents the sound of everything in the universe resonating together. And in this sense, it signifies the interconnectedness of all things. It is the state of conscious perfection.
But some interpretations take it a step further, dividing the Om into parts. Like the mandala, an Om consists of three or four units. Alternately spelled a-u-m, each letter stands for a member of the Hindu Trimurti, the Indian trinity of gods, i.e. Brahma (creator), Vishnu (maintainer) and Shiva (destroyer or transformer).
You can think of the Om encompassing the three stages of life: birth, life and death. And you might also add the silence after the closing “m”. In the silence we have a return to the source, and a restoration of the life force. The Om inside the mandala reminds us to meditate upon this and recognize that life and death, joy and sorrow, are all parts of an endless cycle in which all is one.
The Wheel of Life
A powerful symbol throughout world religions, but especially in the far east, Hindu and Buddhist traditions look the Wheel of Life as a representation of endless and ongoing reincarnation. Metaphorically, we can also think of the Wheel as a symbol of the ongoing back-and-forth struggle between desire and fulfillment, one of the chief themes in Buddhist philosophy.
One of the primary goals of Buddhist spiritual practice is to break free from this arduous cycle. The cycle, after all, is based on the illusion (Samsara) that desire can be fulfilled and that fulfillment will bring satisfaction. In fact, we know from experience that the fulfillment of one desire only leads to the birth of new desires and dissatisfactions. The initiate must choose then, to break the cycle, or to accept its inevitability.
The iconography in these Wheels of Life can be some of the most fascinating and intricate. Keep an eye out for the rendering of the Three Higher Realms, in the upper portions of the wheel, occupied by humans, gods and demi-gods. And then look at the bottom spokes of the wheel to find the Three Lower Realms, including the hells, the animal realm and the hungry ghost realm.
Check out some of these stunning Wheel of Life Thangka paintings at Amazon.
Less common, but more visually appealing for some, narrative scenes make up another genre of Thangka paintings. These works depict various scenes from Eastern mythology, including episodes from the Mahabharata or from the life of Lord Buddha. This type of imagery might look better in other parts of the house, not necessarily confined to the altar corner.
If there’s a particular passage from Buddhist or Hindu mythology that really resonates for you, you can might find of beautiful Thangka painting of it somewhere. Although these sorts of Thangkas are much less common.
I’d be especially interested to find a detailed illustration of Arjuna and Krishna talking things over on the battlefield. The speech delivered by Krishna is one of the most profound passages in any sacred text. A depiction of young Buddha venturing outside the palace, encountering old age and sickness for the first time, would also make brilliant wall decor. Or, an image of Shiva lopping the head off of young Ganesh and replacing it with an elephant could really tie a room together.
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