Tibetan Religion Figures
Overview of Tibetan Religion Figures
When you visit Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, temples and palaces, you will come across with incredible numerous of gods and goddesses such as Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and deities worshipped by Tibetans, and many of which appear on different forms. Somehow, in general speaking, there are four main types of images found in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and temples, each conveying a different level of being in Buddhist cosmology: 1. Images of the Buddha; 2. Images of Bodhisattvas; 3. Images of deities, spirits, heavenly beings, and guardian god; 4. Images of Dharma kings who made a great contribution to Buddhism flourishing in Tibet.
The pantheon of gods in Tibetan Buddhism is derived from Hinduism and Bon religion spirit, therefore, mostly the sacred images in the monasteries and temples are given characteristics to Hinduism and Bon, they are intended to show the many sides of enlightenment, a particular god may have a wrathful, vengeful side as well as a peaceful and beneficent side. Many monasteries contain Tara figures that are said to have miraculously materialized out of the thin air.
But who is who and how can we distinguish the individual personalities from each other? There are usually some very clear attributes, symbols, and colors that help identify the Buddha or deity in front of us. Following are some nutshell tips about how to recognize some of the main religion figures in Tibetan monasteries and temples.
Buddha Shakyamuni – The Historical Buddha
Buddha Shakyamuni is the historical Buddha, who lived around 600 BC and is considered the founder of the Buddhist religion. Buddha Shakyamuni’s representations are usually scarcely decorated and show him scantily dressed. The hair is typically blue, and the head is surrounded by an enlightenment aura. He is always depicted in a sitting position, with his legs crossed in the lotus position and has 32 marks on his body, including a dot between his eyes, the Wheel of Law on the soles of his feet, and bump on the top of his head. Manifesting the “witness” mudra, he holds a begging bowl in his left hand and touches the earth with his right hand. His two favorite students often flank him on his right and left side.
Marmedze (Dipamkara) the Past Buddha
Marmedze (Dipamkara) Buddha the past Buddha. Buddhist believe that there has been a succession of many Buddhas in the past, and Buddha of the Present is Sakyamuni Buddha, and the Buddha of the Future is going to be Bodhisattva Maitreya. In Buddhism, it is estimated that Dipankara Buddha lives on Earth about one hundred thousand years ago. While there no archeological proof of Buddha Dipankara’s existence, he was prominently mentioned by Shakyamuni Buddha himself in several of the sutras. Therefore, Tibetans believe that the Dipankara Buddha is one of the Buddha of the Past.
In Tibetan art, Dipamkara Buddha is usually depicted as a sitting Buddha, is almost always depicted along with Shakyamuni Buddha and the bodhisattva Maitreya – depicted as a Buddha. These three collectively are known as the Buddhas of the Three Times.
Maitreya Buddha – The Future Buddha
Maitreya literally means the future Buddha. According to Buddhist history and tradition, Maitreya Buddha is considered as the 5th Buddha that is believed to appear in this Kalpa or era. Thus, Maitreya Buddha is believed to be Bodhisattva who will appear in the Earth in the future, 4000 years after the death of Sakaymuni, he will achieve Nirvana and will teach the people of Earth the pure Dharma just like Shakyamuni Buddha did. He is usually seated, with a scarf around his waist, his legs hanging down and his hands by his chest in the turning of the Wheel of Law.
Avalokiteshvara- Bodhisattva of Compassion
Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, may be the most well-known and beloved of the iconic bodhisattvas. Throughout all schools of Mahayana Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara is venerated as the ideal of karuna. Karuna is the activity of compassion in the world and the willingness to bear the pain of others. The bodhisattva is said to appear anywhere, even in hell realms, to help all beings in danger and distress.
There are 108 (this is a sacred number in Tibetan Buddhism) different manifestations of Avalokiteshvara. However, the most common form of representation is with 11 heads and 1000 arms. On the palms of each of the 1000 hands you can see the eye of compassion. Its main distinguishing feature is Amitabha Buddha, pictured in his crown or as the last face at the top of the highest of his 11 heads.
Manjushri – Bodhisattva of Wisdom
Manjushri is a Bodhisattva in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions of Buddhism, he is the bodhisattva associated with wisdom, doctrine and awareness and in Vajrayana Buddhism is the meditational deity (Yidam), who embodies enlightened wisdom. Manjushri normally holds a sword in one hand, to cut off all delusion, and a Prajnaparamita Wisdom text in the other. Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) texts, are said to be the closest Buddhists ever got to putting truth into words. Manjushri, as meditation experience, is a powerful image representing ever-present wisdom plus the sword of awareness to cut off all delusion. Manjushri is frequently depicted in Chinese and Japanese traditions as riding on the back of a lion.
Tara – Female Deity
Tara the female Buddha, also known as Jetsun Dolma, is a female Bodhisattva typically associated with Tibetan Buddhism. She is the “mother of liberation” and represents the virtues of success in work and achievements. The most widely popular Tara forms are the White Tara and Green Tara. But there can be many more, one of the main Tara practices in Tibetan Buddhism is Praises to 21 Tara or Homage to 21 Tara, which is practiced in all four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Taras differ primarily by their different foot placement. For example, while the white Tara sits in meditation posture, the green Tara’s right foot rests on a small lotus flower. Also, in the white Tara, we can see the open eye of compassion on her forehead, her palms and her soles. Other symbols that we can find are the full-blown white lotus (representing the day) or the blue closed lotus (representing the night). The hands, both with their palms outwards, point in opposite directions: the right one down (a giving, conceding gesture), and the left one up (a gesture that grants protection).
Padmasambhava – Guru Rinpoche
Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche was an 8th-century master of Buddhist tantra who is credited with bringing Vajrayana to Tibet and Bhutan. He is revered today as one of the great patriarchs of Tibetan Buddhism and the founder of the Nyingmapa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. According to the Tibetan iconography, he is the embodiment of the Dharmakaya.
Padmasambhava may have been from Uddiyana, which was situated in what is now the Swat Valley of northern Pakistan. He was brought to Tibet during the reign of the Emperor Trisong Detsen, (742 to 797). He is associated with the building of the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet, Samye monastery.
In Tibetan art, Padmasambhava is depicted in eight aspects. The most common of them is fairly easy to recognize: he is depicted sitting with a special hat with upturned ear flaps and a spring at the top. He is pictured with a beard and in his left hand he holds a blood-filled skull-cup and in the right the Vajra. With his left elbow, he holds a magic wand, which tip is usually a flaming trident. He often appears with Yeshe Tsogyal and Mandareva who are his spiritual consort and important disciples.
Tsongkhapa Lobsang Drakpa
Tsongkhapa is the founder of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism and he was also a great reformer. In 1409 he founded the Gaden the mother monastery of Gelugpa and in the same year, he started the annual great prayer festival in Jokhang Temple. Tsong Khapa was born in the Tsongkha valley in the Amdo province of eastern Tibet. According to traditional biographies, his birth was the culmination of a process of spiritual development that began during a previous life, at the time of Shakyamuni Buddha.
Tsongkhapa is very easy to recognize – he wears the yellow hat reserved for the Gelugpa, his hands make the gesture of Dharmacakra-Mudra (The Turning Wheel of Doctrine), and on his right and left sides we can find, respectively, the sword (a symbol of wisdom) and the book, supported by two lotus flowers.
Marpa Lotsawa the main disciple of Naropa and the lineage master of Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. Marpa’s full name was Lhodak Marpa Choski Lodos. He was born as Marpa Chokyi Lodro, in Lhodrak Chukhyer in the southern part of Tibet.
He is the first Tibetan member of the lineage and began his career as a translator of Buddhist texts into Tibetan. He made three trips to India and eventually received all of Naropa’s teachings, becoming one of his Dharma heirs. He spent the rest of his life in Tibet, giving teachings and transmissions and translating Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan. The image of Marpa Lotsawa appears fearsome, he was also quite aggressive. His natural look of power and strength so frightened all the people in his village that he was not welcome in many homes.
Jetsun Milarepa is the greatest yogi in the history of Tibetan Buddhism. He was born in the 11 century in Gungthang which is located in the west of Tibet close to the border of Nepal. Jetsun Milarepa who is renowned throughout the Tibetan cultural area as one of the greatest figures of Tibetan Buddhism. Milarepa would also become one of Tibet’s greatest poets and yogis, therefore his life became one of Tibet’s favorite epic stories. Jetsun Milarepa is very easy to identify as he holds his left hand to his ear to ‘listen to the echoes of Nature, he normally holds a skull cup or a begging bowl in his right hand.
Thangthong Gyalpo was an important Shangpa Kagyu master and he was also a famous civil engineer, doctor, and artist. He was born in the latter part of the 14th century in Olpa Lhartse Upper Tsang, Tibet. He is well known for his founding of Ache Lhamo, the Tibetan opera, and the numerous iron suspension bridges he built to ease travel and pilgrimage through the Himalayas. He established a song and dance troupe of seven sisters to raise the money needed to build these bridges. Moreover, Thangthong Gyalpo has designed and built several large stupas of unusual design including the great Kumbum Chorten at Chung Riwoche in Tibet, established the monastery of Derge Gongchen Monastery in Eastern Tibet.
Thangtong Gyalpo is usually portrayed as a paunchy old man with brown or red skin color. He is sitting in the lotus posture on a double lotus throne. He wears, like many of the yogis and Mahasiddhas, a white cotton garment and a red cloak. In addition to these characteristics, he wears a meditation belt, a jeweled chain, earrings and arm tires with the flame jewel. In the left hand, he holds the skull cup, Thopa (Kapala) and the nectar vase. The right hand, which is almost in the ‘earth-touching’ gesture lies on top of the knee. Finally, a piece of chain, mostly five chain links may be seen in his right hand. Only in the small sculpture, which is in Merak, is he shown as a young man, holding five chain links high above his head.
Mahakala – Nagpo Chenpo
Mahakala is a wrathful emanation of Avalokiteshvara, belongs to the Dharmapala, the protectors of Buddhism. He is regarded as a wish-fulfilling jewel and one of the Eight Guardians of the Buddhism law by Tibetans, whose duty is to protect Buddhism. Mahakala is one of the most important guardian deities of both the Karma Kagyupa school as well as most other schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
There are 75 different kinds of manifestations, and the wrathful emanations often appear with one face and six arms. He is usually standing up with fiercely wrathful in black color with three round bulbous eyes, a large gaping red mouth with bared white fangs, his yellow beard, eyebrows, and hair flow upward like flames.
The right-hand holds aloft a curved flaying knife with a vajra handle. The left holds a white blood-filled skullcup to the heart. Adorned with a crown of five dry white skulls, earrings, bracelets and a garland of freshly severed heads, he wears a great black cloak with a green jacket beneath. He stands surrounded by black smoke and faint red licks of the flames of pristine awareness.
Palden Lhamo – Female Guardian
Palden Lhamo is one of the more wrathful female deities of Buddhism, she is the only female deity of the 8 Dharmapalas, and wrathful manifestation of Tara. Among her many roles, she is one of the two-state oracles of the former local government of Tibet, special protector of the city of Lhasa, the Gelukpa Order, and the Dalai Lamas of Tibet. She was invited to Tibet in around the eleventh century from India.
Palden Lhamo appears in a very wrathful form, she rides her mule through a sea of blood, surrounded by wisdom fire. The flayed skin of her son used as the saddle blanket on her mule shows that he did not agree to his mother’s request. She rides across a sea of blood, around her waist is a belt hung with severed heads. She is also surrounded by the loops of a string made with 15 severed heads. In her navel, we can see a bright sun disc. These images of violence are understood by initiates as sacred symbols of inner transformation in a compassionate religious culture that shuns every form of action, thought or word that might be harmful to other living beings.
Vajrapani – Chan Dorje
Vajrapani the Bodhisattva of power and energy, he is an important bodhisattva who embodies the spiritual power of all the Buddhas. His name means “Wielder of the Thunderbolt” and he protects those who walk the Mahayana path, removing all inner, outer and secret obstacles from their practice. Enlightened eons ago, Vajrapani is said to have incarnated as one of Buddha Shakyamuni’s primary disciples.
He is often represented in conjunction with the Manjushri (the embodiment of the Buddhas’ wisdom) and Avalokiteshvara (the embodiment of the Buddhas’ compassion). Together these three bodhisattvas comprise the three factors of Buddha-nature and the three necessary ingredients for enlightenment.
Vajrapani is depicted in the warrior’s pose, with one leg bent and the other outstretched. In his right hand, held aloft, he brandishes a vajra, representing his diamond-like motivation and impetus to accomplishment. His left hand holds a lasso, with which he binds the demons of delusion. He has three eyes, symbolizing his knowledge of past, present, and future. He wears a crown adorned with five human skulls, representing his transformation of the five poisons into the five transcendent wisdoms, as well as his purification of the five aggregates. Around his neck is a garland of serpents, a reminder of his aspect as protector of the Nagas. He is clothed in a tiger-skin and is surrounded by the blazing fire of exalted wisdom which consumes all neurotic states.
Yamantaka- Dorje Jigje
Yamantaka or the lord of death is the most well-known protector of the yellow hat sect the Gelugpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. He is symbolizing as the ferocious emanation of bodhisattva Manjushree and also known as the destroyer of death. He destroys the ignorance of ego-grasping, which is keeping us trapped in recurring misery, the self-cherishing attitude preventing us from generating bodhicitta, and all defilements, including those of our presently deluded form, which arise from these afflictions.
Among various appearances, the simplest form of Yamantaka has one bullhead and two arms with blue color. He sees the reality of the world through his third eye and has a crown of skulls. He carries a chopper in his right hand and a skull cup in his left hand.
Hayagriva – Tamdrin
Hayagriva is another wrathful manifestation of Avalokiteshvara. It is said that Hayagriva deity was originally the attendant of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who had the power to destroy negative forces. Hayagriva is associated with the Hindu god Vishnu.
In Tibetan Buddhist context, he is always depicted with a crowned horse head and with one wrathful red faced. A tiger skin around his waist and a garland of 52 chopped off heads. On his back are the wings of Garuda. In his six hands are a lotus, club sword, skull cup, snare and ax. Under his four legs a sun disc and corpses.
Heruka Chakrasamvara – Demchok
Heruka Chakrasamvara “Wheel of Perfect Bliss” is regarded as the most important Yidam or meditational deity of the Highest Yoga Tantra of Vajrayana Buddhism. Chakrasamvara is the primary Yidam of the Kagyu tradition that finds its origin in the meditation of the 84 Mahasiddhis of India. It passed to Tibet from the great siddha Naropa, to his disciple Marpa, to Milarepa and this spread throughout the various meditative traditions of the Geluk and Sakya. Many great Tibetan masters have also accomplished perfect realizations through this practice.
Chakrasamvara is pictured with his body in blue color and four faces, each looking in one of the four cardinal directions and twelve arms. He is often depicted in his simpler one-faced, two-armed form. He is in union with his Wisdom Consort Vajravarahi. She is as simple as he is complex. She holds a skullcap in her left hand and a vajra chopper in her right, both behind his back. Their embrace symbolizes the union of wisdom and skillful means. They symbolize the sameness in the distinctions of relative truth and the non-distinctions of absolute truth. Unity and diversity are one.
The Four Guardian Kings
The four guardian kings represent the first Indian gods incorporated into the Buddhist narrative. The Four Guardian Kings came before Shakyamuni Buddha just after the Buddha achieved enlightenment under the bodhi tree. The four offered, each individually, a black bowl made of sapphire or lapis lazuli to the Buddha. The Buddha accepted the offer and the four bowls miraculously became one bowl. This is the black bowl that is typically seen in the lap of Shakyamuni in painting and sculpture.
Often found at the entrance hallway of monasteries and believed to be Mongolian in origin, they protect the four cardinal directions:
- The eastern king Dhritarashtra (Yul Khor Srung in Tibetan) is white and carries a lute
- The southern king Virudhaka (Pag Pi Kye Bo in Tibetan) is blue and carries a sword
- The western king Virupaksha (Chen Mizang in Tibetan) is red and carries a thunderbolt
- The northern king Vaishravana (Nam To Se in Tibetan) is yellow and carries a banner of victory and a jewel-spitting mongoose. He is regarded as the god of wealth and is depicted riding a snow lion.
Dharma King Songtsen Gambo
King Songtsen Gambo was born in Gyama Trigang at the beginning of 7th century. His father, Namri Sontsen was poisoned and so he became king in 627 when he was only 13 years old. He is considered as the manifestation of Avalokitesvara and also one of the three great ancestors of Tibet. He Unified Tibet in the 7th century and moved the capital to Lhasa.
King Songtsen Gambo is considered as the first of the three great ancestors of Tibet. He had married princess Brikuti Devi from Nepal and Wencheng from Thang dynasty. Both of them were Buddhist followers and each of them brought a holy statue of Buddha Shakyamuni to Tibet as their dowry. To this end, Jokhang and Ramoche temple was built in Lhasa to enshrine the statues brought by the two external princesses.
King Songtsen Gambo sent his wise minister Sambhota to India to learn Sanskrit who developed the standard Tibetan script after his return from India. Out of his great compassion, the king also supported the promotion of Buddha Dharma and the first Buddhist scripture was translated into the Tibetan language. He also made the ethical law often positive deeds and sixteen humanitarian deeds.
He is pictured with Buddha Amitabha on his head which shows that he is a manifestation of Avalokitesvara and at the same time it also shows the importance of having great respect to one’s teacher. His statues and placed almost in all the temples, palaces and monasteries all over Tibet in order to remember his kindness to the Tibetans.
Dharma King Trisong Detsen
Dharma King Trisong Detsen was the 38th king of Tibet in the 8th century and he is believed to be a manifestation of Manjushri, the Buddha of wisdom. He was born in 42 A.D and his father was Tridezug Tsen and his mother was Nanamza.
He is the second of the three great ancestors of Tibet. During his ruling period Tibet was quite powerful in terms of military forces and so he expanded his territory and collected tax from those areas he had dominated. Another important deed of this king was that he strongly supported the development of Buddhism in Tibet. He organized a debate between Bon and Buddhist masters, finally, he had chosen Buddhism as the main religion of Tibet.
King Trisong Detsen sent people to invite famous Indian Buddhist masters like Padmasambhava and abbot Shantarakshita. With these tow master’s guidance, the king constructed the first Buddhist monastery of Tibet, Samye. It was here in the 8th century that the first seven monks of Tibet received their Buddhist vows from abbot Boddhisatva. Following that, a big quantity of Buddhist scriptures was translated into Tibetan from Sanskrit.
Dharma King Trirelpa
Trirelpa was the 41st king of Tibet and he is the last of the three great ancestors of Tibet. He rulled Tibet during the 9th century and he was the younger brother of Utum Tsepo, the last kind of Tsenpo period. The reason why he was appointed as the kind before his older brother was because he was more promising and dedicated while his older brother had a strong character.
Trirelpa made a big contribution to the development of Buddha Dharma by setting up new Buddhist learning centers and meditation centers. He also made new laws to let few families supot one monk and that if one became a monk then he wouldn’t have to pay military service. His respect for the monks was so high that he let monks sit on his long hair. Because of his strong support for the Buddhist monks many ministers were against him and they supported his older brother Utun Tsenpo or Langda Ma.
Finally, he was killed by these minsters, but Tibetans consider him as one of the three great ancestors because of his tremendous dedication to the development of Buddhism, culture, military and economy of Tibet at that time. He is also believed to be a manifestation of Vajrapani, the Buddha of energy.
The epic of King Gesar has been the national treasure of Tibet for almost a thousand years. An open canon of tales about a Tibet national hero, one of the major epic cycles of central and east Asia, known throughout and beyond the Tibetan and Mongolian cultural regions. The epic is still a living oral tradition, and his epic is the longest one in the world representing rich folk culture of Tibet. Therefore, the king Gesar story is been included on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The epic dates back in between the 11th to 13th century. It has a long history and is widespread. When it is sung in the Tibetan language, it is accompanied by a lute made of a cow horn. Since the epic is rich in content, its structure and musical composition are rich or bulky in nature. Normally, only episodes from the story are sung by traveling minstrels whose function is to recount the history of the Tibetan people.
The King Gesar story is one of the Tibetan people’s most popular epics and deeply rooted in the Tibetan community specially in the region of eastern Tibet, still very much alive in the folk Tibetan culture. During the thousand years, this epic has been passed down orally from generation to generation. The Story of King Gesar epic has a rich diversity of expressions: singing, dialogue, explanations by means of illustrations, etc. His stories being enacted and sung at festivals and on important ceremonial occasions.
He is also considered as a manifestation of Padmasambhava who came to Tibet in the eighth century to subdue demons and sow the seed of Dharma. At that time Tibet was very scattered as it was during the decentralization period and the surrounding kingdoms like Hor and Turks often tried to invade Ling.
So, he defeated many kings of different kingdoms including Gurkar of Hor kingdom. Because of his great ability to defeat demons and evil beings, he is highly respected and loved by all Tibetans. In the eyes of Tibetan people, he is the manifestation of Buddhas and he is the best example of a great national hero.
There are two sets of early Gesar life story paintings known to exist: Le Guimet in Paris with 2 paintings and Sichuan Provincial Museum with 11 paintings.
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