Posts Tagged ‘buddhism’
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.
DISCLOSURE: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. This means that, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a small commission if you click through those links and make a purchase. This helps us meet the cost of maintaining our website and producing great articles.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.DEITIES
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.BUDDHIST ICONS
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
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
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.NARRATIVE SCENES
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.Further reading
If you enjoy these sorts of philosophical excursions and interpretations, you’ll also want to check out the following articles.Meanings in the Mandala: Roadmap of the Mind Om is where the Heart is: Meditations on the One The Symbolism of the Indian Ganesh Archetypal Dimensions of Kermit the Frog Bamboo Symbolism and Mythology
Even before the emergence of myths and drama, our ancestors produced symbols to express the meaning of existence and explore the mystery of their condition. No image encapsulates the pattern of human experience quite so precisely and succinctly as the ancient mandala, rendered most elegantly in the icons of Tibetan Buddhism, but dating back dozens of millennia to man’s most primordial symbol making and as far forward as his most contemporary dream weaving.
DISCLOSURE: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. This means that, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a small commission if you click through those links and make a purchase. This helps us meet the cost of maintaining our website and producing great articles.The circle in the square
Stripped bare of its elaborate ornamentation, the mandala essentially consists of three basic elements: a small circle, enclosed by a square, enclosed by a large circle. As I see it, these three simple shapes correspond ever so neatly with the three elementary components of every great story, namely every great myth that has endured the ages. In The Odyssey, the classic hero’s tale, we have departure, adventure and return. In the Riddle of the Sphinx we hear of childhood, manhood and old age. The Book of Genesis speaks of Paradise, Paradise lost and Paradise regained, or in the parlance of the New Testament, we have birth, death and rebirth. These are but four of the best known examples, from which we could extrapolate endlessly to draw parallels with every familiar storyline.
In other words, the simple geometry of a mandala acts as a metaphor for the simple structure of the myth, which is a metaphor in itself. So, let’s see if we can’t do a little unpacking here to unravel the meaning and the symbols of human experience.Birth
Our story begins in the small circle. A one-sided shape with neither top nor bottom, the circle signifies wholeness, unity. This is the circle of bliss, in the ignorance of infancy, where the undeveloped and undifferentiated psyche draws no distinction between itself and the other. Then the child grows and enters the square, defined as having a top and a bottom, a left and a right, perfect pairs of opposites. As she encounters the unknown, the child must learn to classify things, to differentiate between good and bad, and to categorize the objects of her world into neat little boxes. The hero spends a lifetime navigating this terrain, which many mandalas aptly portray as an intricate maze, much like the labyrinth of the Minotaur.Death
The rigorous complexity of the square eventually takes its toll. The unity collapses, fracturing into all those pairs of opposites. In maturity, the mind requires order, logic, and categorization. We learn to identify things as good or bad, male or female, healthy or unhealthy. Everything must belong to one category or the other.
The individual longs for the simple unity it knew in the womb or in childhood. But there’s no going home again. To fulfill his destiny, he must advance to the next level, and this metaphor functions equally well for every stage of development and maturation. When the going gets rough, you can’t just move back in with your parents and resume the life of a happy child anymore than you can squeeze your toothpaste back into the tube.
And yet, how many unhappy adults do we know who try to pass themselves off as happy adolescents?
Finally, the initiate rescues the princess; the martyr is reborn and crowned king; the Jedi knight reconciles the forces of darkness and light. The protagonist overcomes his challenge after grappling with the pairs of opposites, and he comes to terms with good and evil, right and wrong, earthly and divine.
The cycle is now completed in this state of enlightenment. He enters the higher circle and recognizes his oneness with an understanding he never had as a child. He has differentiated himself from the other, wrestled with the unknown, and now he embraces a unity vast enough to include all of it.
The terminology of archetypal psychology describes these three stages with marvelous clarity. The mandala diagram essentially illustrates what Carl Jung calls unconscious perfection (of childhood), conscious imperfection (of middle age), and conscious perfection (of old age). We may recall a passage of the Bible that puts it similarly. “Except ye become as a child, ye cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) Indeed, the ultimate destination is a circle, just as the starting point is a circle, but a circle at a whole other order of magnitude.Communion with the Universal Mind
It is vitally important, in the imagery of the mandala, that each shape is contained inside the other. Moving from one level to the next does not mean abandoning the previous stage, but requires the act of transcending and including. This is worth remembering through any and all stages of maturation, for the initiate will inevitably be tempted to reject his prior identity and cling to the “better” and more sophisticated self. But this is a mistake. The true sophisticate will retain all of it, understanding that even those inferior qualities contribute something valuable to the whole.
The large circle seems to represent the highest realm of consciousness, enlightened Buddhahood and oneness with the divine. For most of us then, the mandala provides a helpful roadmap for spiritual development, even as we realize we are unlikely to attain that state of total nirvana on any regular basis. It this case, it is useful to see the image as a metaphor for incremental improvements, as we climb upward step by step. So don’t get too comfortable when you reach the big circle; it is not the finish line, but merely the opening of the next mandala, in a cycle that repeats itself indefinitely, as we continue to step out of our comfort zones and into the unknown, always striving to include and transcend and grow as humans.Evolution of Consciousness
Finally, we can read the mandala as a metaphor for human development on a larger, historical scale. In antediluvian times, our as forefathers gathered around the fire, danced naked in the moonlight, and threw virgins off of the pyramids, they experienced a unity with god, or imitatio dei. Even in more recent history, the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament spoke to God, through angels and shrubs.
Only in the last three or four centuries, thanks to the paradigm shattering discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, Newton, etc., whose discoveries literally moved the earth, mankind has been driven into a quagmire of spiritual uncertainty where God is dead. We have succeeded in naming the elements, categorizing the life forms, and dating the universe, but we have separated ourselves from Mother Earth and Father Sky.
We have learned to dominate our environment, but at what cost? The last century has seen a mad rush to return to the comfort of the small, infantile circle, in the form of religious fundamentalism, archaic astrology and backwards-looking wicca. Yet we know that this regression will get us nowhere, unless they can be directed at opening the larger circle of the One.Enter the Kingdom
In order to thrive and regain the state of blissful unity, we must move forward, we must take the next step up that spiraling staircase. Our faith in the forces of the market are no substitute for an immovable faith in the All Father, but this is where we have arrived. Adam Smith’s invisible hand cannot replace Neptune’s triton, but for many it has. To restore the lost paradise we must rediscover one another, we must reconnect with highest forms of human potential, we must abandon the false idolatry of materialism, and we must learn to see through the eyes of others as if they were our own.
Further Reading: If you enjoy these sorts of metaphysical interpretations, you’ll also want to check out the following articles.The Ten Thousand Things of Taoism The Symbolism of the Indian Ganesh Om is where the Heart is: Meditations on the One Buddhist Thangka Paintings: Meaningful and Sublime Archetypal Dimensions of Kermit the Frog Bamboo Symbolism and Mythology
As we prepare for the major undertaking of relocating the House of Bamboo, it’s a good time to pause and reflect on the fact — sometimes hard to swallow — that everything is always in a state of flux. Or as the ancient Greeks were wont to say, “Panta Rhei,” that is, everything flows. And as other philosophers have pointed out, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” The Tao, like a steady stream, is in constant motion, permanent transition.
Consider the following story, about a boy, the son of a hardworking peanut farmer in the inner Shandong province.
“The Boy and his Horse” | A Zen Parable from Bambu Batu
One autumn, at the annual harvest festival, the young lad is awarded a handsome young horse for having grown the largest peanut in all the province, some eight inches in length.
The boy gallops back to his village at top speed and shares the great news with his family and friends. Hearing the story and admiring the healthy steed, the boy’s father proclaims, “This is truly marvelous! What good fortune you’ve brought on our family.”
Overhearing this brief exchange, the local Zen master nods his head and surmises, “We’ll see.”
Over the course of weeks, the boy and his horse become inseparable companions. Productivity on the farm increases; the family is in high spirits. But one night, in a fierce storm, the horse gets spooked by thunder, breaks loose and disappears. The boy is devastated and grief stricken. “Oh, what a disaster,” his father declares.
Looking on, the Zen master scratches his chin and mutters, “We’ll see.”
Another week goes by, and one morning the horse is seen coming over the hillside, returning to the farm with a new mare at his side. The boy and his family are ecstatic. “What wonderful news, son!” “Yes, daddy, everything is awesome now!”
The Zen master, hearing the commotion, raises his eyebrows. “We’ll see.”
The boy now spends all his spare time — getting up early and staying out late — working in the stables to break in his new mare. She’s a healthy mount, but stubborn too. One evening after supper, the boy takes her on a run across the field. In the dim twilight she grazes an irrigation ditch and throws the boy from his saddle. A small crowd has gathered when the village doctor arrives. He makes a splint for the boy’s leg which has been broken. “He’ll walk again, but I’m afraid he’ll always have a limp.”
“Oh, what rotten luck,” says the father. And the Zen master sighs, “We’ll see.”
Another year passes, and kingdom is now in turmoil. Mongol hordes are raiding many of the provincial villages, and the emperor is recruiting soldiers from the countryside. When they come to the farm of the boy, now a young man, he is exempted from military service on account of his limp. “Oh, thank heavens!” his mother declares.
The Zen master, observing from a distance, just shrugs his shoulders and mumbles, “We’ll see.”
It is a fundamental tenet of far eastern philosophy that the mind is the forerunner of all things. The idea echoes in the words of the Buddha, above. Shakespeare, too, in all his Elizabethan wisdom, was well versed in this universal truth. “It is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.” From the tradition of Zen Buddhism comes a parable, much older if not as well-known as Hamlet, which illustrates this point with profound clarity.“Mind is the Forerunner of All Things”
This is the story of another young prince, traversing the countryside in search of glory, romance and adventure. Having crossed rivers, climbed mountains, and made his way through deserts and forests, the young man finds himself nearly exhausted, as he treks over the sun-baked prairies of a high plateau. In need of shade and relief, he comes to a lone elm tree under which he takes his much needed respite.
After a short nap, he wakes up feeling rested, recharged and most contented. Then he thinks to himself, “After all this hiking, I could sure use something cold to drink.” And looking over his shoulder, he sees on the rock beside him, a great pitcher of ice-cold jasmine tea.
“Oh, how wonderful,” he says, and draws a long draft from the pitcher. For a good half hour or so, he enjoys himself in the cool shade, sipping from his tea and listening to the rustle of elm trees.
“This is truly idyllic,” he reflects, “but I could really use a bite to eat.” And just as he looks down, he notices a picnic blanket all laid out with a full spread of spring rolls, noodles, sauces, tempura and rice. “Fantastic!” he marvels, and quickly dives in. “This is just what I needed. Now I’m completely satisfied.”
After a good hour of feasting away on all manner of delicacies and quenching his thirst with refreshing jasmine tea, it occurs to him that he’d be much happier if he had some company here to share in these pleasures. And just as he thinks this, a lovely young maiden strolls across the prairie and joins him under the shade of the great elm tree. He offers her a cup of tea and bowl of sustenance. Soon they are laughing and smiling, and before long they are making passionate love in the rolling grass.
By now the young man is feeling perfectly contented. His belly is full, and he wears a wide smile on his face. He and his partner rise and see that the sun is getting low. Wondering what they’ll do as it gets dark, he thinks how nice it would be to have a small cabin with some furniture and a bed and blankets. No sooner does this thought enter his mind than a small cabin appears before them. So the two walk inside and make themselves at home.
Sitting by the window watching the sun set, the young man turns to his tender companion. “There’s something very strange about all of this. Ever since I arrived under this elm, each of my thoughts has been effortlessly fulfilled. I’m beginning to worry that this tree may be cursed.”
And just as he utters these words, the majestic elm transforms into a giant goblin and swallows them both.
For more enchanted Zen Parables to tickle your mind and soothe your soul, be sure to check out Heaven and Hell, The Magician and the Prince, and Everything Flows. You might also be interested in our article on Bamboo Symbolism and Mythology.