Catalogue by Kenji Babasaki
- Shakya-muni Buddha,two disciples, nine arhats, two direction kings not for sale
- One thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara, All-Encompassing Glance not for sale
- Kala-chakra Euro 8000,-
- Guru Rinpoché's Paradise Euro 7500,-
- Shambhala Euro 8000,-
- Four-armed Avalokiteshvara sold
- Amitabha Buddha's Sukhavati Heaven I Euro 5000,-
- Amitabha Buddha's Sukhavati Heaven II sold
- Maitreya Buddha's Tushita Heaven sold
- Ushnisha Vijaya
- Wheel of Cyclic Existence Euro 5000,-
- Chakra Sa'vara Euro 4500,-
- Vajra Vidarana Euro 4000,-
- Shakya-muni Buddha, two disciples, nine arhats, two direction kings
Shakya-muni, the Sage of the Shakya clan, is shown with his left hand in the meditation pose and his right hand touching the earth. The gestures allude to the crucial moment just preceding his enlightenment at Buddhgaya, North India, when the Earth Goddess bore witness to his incomparable acts of altruistic benevolence over innumerable lifetimes. These acts had now come to fruition. Above him are two other Buddha figures, one of an identical golden orange, one blue. They represent the teachers under whom, ages before, he took the vow to emulate their attainment.
The Buddha is seated on a lion throne. Flanking the throne are the "Foremost Two" disciples: on the left, holding a begging bowl, stands Maudgalyayana, famed for his supernatural powers, one of which was that he could visit the heavenly residences of the gods and the hell realms; and, back on earth, report back to surviving relatives or disciples the karmic results of the former acts of the ones encountered in those other spheres.
On the right, holding a ritual flask, stands Shari-putra, the wise. In a previous life, he was the son of a king. He aspired to monastic ordination but, being heir to the crown, met with a firm refusal. Later he encountered a beggar who held the same aspiration, but was thwarted by poverty: he could not afford a set of robes and a beggar's bowl. The prince immediately donated these to him and made the wish in all future births to be spared from (1) "the curse of being born wealthy", since the many obligations of a person of power and addiction to luxury create obstacles to a spiritual career; and from (2) "the curse of being born poor", since all one's time is then taken up with sheer survival. In his subsequent life, these conditions were perfectly met.
The story of the Buddha's early disciples is amply documented in the literary sources. Few of the sixteen Great Elders (Sthavira) received such attention. All sixteen were monks and are depicted in monastic robes. It is said that certain trainees, then as now, have a hard time accepting as authentic any teaching of the Buddha beyond the first revelation of the Four Noble Truths, 'the four basic facts of life' starting with the Truth about suffering: 'life is difficult'. Hence the appearance of superior teachers under the guise of 'Basic Vehicle' (Hinayana) monks, who are in fact illusory forms emanated by the historical Buddha Shakya-muni, and given the task of protecting his teaching for as long as cyclic existence will endure. Each of the Sixteen Arhats dwells on a particular mountain, island, forest or in a certain town (all duly listed in the eulogies dedicated to them), in quasi immortality.
Babasaki has spread them out over two paintings, the one here examined and the next (catalogue no.2).
One Great Elder who appears several times in the life of the Buddha is the one third down from the larger seated figures on the right hand side. He holds a book and an alms bowl: Pindola Bharadvaja, the alms receiver of the still existing Brahmin clan Bhara-dvaja. He became a monk in the secret hope of indulging his obsession with food; but barely ordained he was put on a strict diet by the Buddha. His ability to overcome eternal thoughts about food led him to the level of an Arhat, one no longer subject to the cycle of uncontrolled death and rebirth.
In commemoration of his earlier vice, it became the custom, in Chinese monasteries, to reserve a place for him at the table, with a bowl of food in front of an empty seat. The custom had an Indian precedent: "As long as nourishment is provided, he appears willingly to those who call upon him", as happened at a great-donor event organized by Emperor Ashoka, to whom Pindola appeared as an extremely old man with drooping eyebrows (as in his portrait here!) and gave an account of what it had been like to meet Shakya-muni in person.
Biographical sketches exist for each of the other Arhats too, except for the central figure in the bottom row. He is only known by his Chinese name Hashang, which is not a name at all, but simply means "monastic teacher" or "abbot" (upadhyaya, mkhan po). This is all the more strange since he is always depicted as a religious lay person (upasaka). A correct assessment is Rhie & Thurman's, who call him a "Chinese Buddhist Santa Claus".
Hashang is depicted as a potbellied uncle who gives precious things or delicious fruit to one of the childen that usually surround him. He is never addressed or even mentioned in the liturgies addressed to the Sixteen Arhats, and is only their servant.
Is it likely that Hashang is identical with the "Hashang" known to Tibetan history, the one who lost (or was declared the loser) in the famous 8th century Samye debate against the Indian scholar Kamala-shila? Not very, since, in most Tibetan doctrinal histories, a "Hashang doctrine" has become emblematic for a debased teaching: in a debate, few insults are worse than calling one's opponent a follower of Hashang doctrine. However, he may have been added as a sort of joker to the pack; a well-meaning, goodnatured simpleton, included for good luck (nice to children, because like a child himself?) but strictly excluded from the ritual supplications.
One set of previous birth stories tells about a pair of naga serpent spirits and a pair of garuda man-eagles who were arch-enemies, but then the four of them became friends and, on the basis of vows made in that life, later (at the time of Shakyamuni) took birth as kings of the four directions, each in charge of protecting meditators against interferences. All four are shown dressed in the costliest armor, like generals of a Mongol army; their aureoles are flames, "the wisdom that eliminates outer and inner enemies".
Since they are the guardians of the Buddha's precepts and since a monastic complex is often referred to as a House (khang) that contains the Buddha's Collected Precepts (Gtsug lag), the Four Direction Kings are often depicted in mural paintings or as large statues adjoining the entrance of a temple. Occasionally part of their entourage is accompanying them, represented in the act of making offerings.
Having already decided to divide the 16 + 2 arhats over the two paintings, the artist does likewise for the Direction Kings, assigning the lute playing Dhrita-rastra (left corner below) and the mongoose bearing Vaishravana (right corner below) to the first panel of the diptych.
- Dhrita-rastra, Protector of Countries, has poison in his hearing: when a sound reaches his ears, the one who produced that sound gets into trouble. Therefore his helmet covers his ears, and any sound that might still get through is drowned by the music issuing from the lute in his hands. He is also the chief of a group of heavenly musicians known as gandharvas, who feed on smells and offer flowers of sweet aroma. He guards the eastern quarter.
- Virudhaka, Born Sublime, has poison in his touch. To keep anyone from touching him he draws his sword that also keeps away untimely death: he guards the southern quarter which is also the residence of Yama, Lord of Death. His entourage consists of ocean dwelling spirits, known as kumbhandas; they have an animal head surmounting a human body, and webs between their fingers and toes. They are depicted as fantastic water beings half covered in algae, presenting precious stones.
- Virupaksa, Eye (up to) No Good, has poison in his eyesight: anyone who meets his gaze comes to harm. To avoid looking at anyone he stares continuously at a stupa he holds in front of his eyes. Although formerly the sworn enemy of the nagas he becomes their protector; and hence holds in his left hand a snake that is his infallible sling. If depicted along with him, the nagas offer him pearls, the precious gem of the ocean. He guards the western quarter.
- Vaishravana, Son of Perfect-in-Learning, has poison in his breath and keeps his mouth firmly shut (sometimes, in painting, translated as a grimace). He is seated on a lion, to betoken his having appeared as a general of the gods riding a lion and defeating the asura non-gods. He carries a banner that guarantees victory in his right hand, and on his left hand gently holds a mongoose that spews jewels. He is the ruler of the nature spirits known as harm-bestowers (yaksa), who are themselves in charge of the wealth (especially gold and silver) contained in the earth. So Vaishravana is himself a wealth god. He guards the northern quarter.
The Buddha's lotus seat symbolizes total purity, since a lotus grows out of the bottom of a muddy pond, but remains immaculate.
Starting from below, to either side of the lotus throne is a backrest framed by ornaments that consist of seven levels: (1) a crouching elephant who supports (2) a snow lion, who supports (3) a griffon on whose back rides a youth who with his free hand holds up the next layer on which stands (4) a makara sea monster, surmounted by (5) a naga queen, who acts as the attendant of - or is sometimes controlled by - (6) a garuda man-eagle.
It is often claimed that these "Six Ornaments" symbolize the six Transcendant Perfections: generosity, ethics, patience, enthusiastic perseverance, meditative concentration, and wisdom. It can however be observed in early thangka art that the backrest ornaments show much variation. Hence the strict symbolism thus assigned to these figures is likely to be a relatively recent codification, elements of which could well have been inherited from Hindu esthetics.
- One thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara, All-Encompassing Glance
Two different accounts exist about the origin of this heroic being (sattva) who vowed to attain enlightenment (Bodhi) so as to lead all beings to that same goal.
Seated above the large central figure of thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara the All-Encompassing Glance is one of the Thirty Buddhas of Confession, Nageshvara-raja, Ruling King of the Serpent Spirits, with the unusual color division of a blue body, a white face below a cobrahood, and his two hands in front of his heart displaying the mudra named "extracting transmigrators from evil realms of rebirth". This hand gesture echoes one of the epithets most commonly applied to the Great Compassionate one below him: "He who Stirs and Dredges the Depths of Samsara". It is a fine example of intelligent borrowing of rare material while remaining within the limits of orthodoxy.
- All-Encompassing Glance vowed to liberate all beings in the six spheres of existence (depicted in Painting 11), without taking a break until this goal has been achieved:
Should such thoughts (of rest or ease for even a single moment) arise, may my head crack into ten like (the skin of overripe) cotton pods, and may my body split into a thousand fragments like the petals of a lotus.
He traveled to the hells and hungry spirit realms, among the animals and jealous gods, to the divine spheres and the humans of the Snowlands of Tibet. In each of these he taught the techniques associated with the Six Syllable mantra and thus eliminated the specific misery prevalent in each of these situations of rebirth. Later it occurred to him that not even one hundredth of the living beings of Tibet have been led to the goal. Exhausted, for just a moment he gave in to thoughts of despair and of rest. As a result, in keeping with his earlier vow, his head exploded into ten, his body into a thousand pieces. At which point his spiritual mentor Amitabha Buddha transformed the broken pieces into the cosmic form of Avalokiteshvara: the ten fragments became ten heads - each embodying one of the Transcendent Perfections - crowned by a copy of Amitabha's own head; and the thousand bodily fragments turned into a thousand arms, each hand of which contained an eye of wisdom.
- But an alternative account stresses that All-Encompassing Glance had been a perfect Buddha since many eons; and that the thousand Buddhas of the Auspicious Eon (of which Shakya-muni is the fourth) are emanated, each from one of his hands.
Learned commentaries then stress that account II is the explanation at absolute level, 'as it is'. Account I is an adaptation, in the mode of relative truth, such as to assist beginners in their understanding; and eventually requires re-interpretation from a higher perspective.
The Buddha's first prophecy about the Great Compassionate becoming the main Protector of the Land of Snows was delivered to the entourage of Arhats, in the Veluvana Bamboo Grove, "when from the point between his eyebrows a mass of five-colored rainbow light radiated and travelled north to the Lands of Snow, where it came to a halt". Hence Babasaki's idea of spreading the portrayal of the sixteen Arhats over two paintings with, respectively, Shakya-muni and Avalokiteshvara as the main focus of the composition, makes sense. Painting 1 could then be described as depicting the Arhats hearing the Annunciation of that prophecy, while they also follow the Buddha's miraculous vision to the Land of Snows, the background depicted. And in that Tibet of the future, we are in Painting 2 allowed a privileged preview of what has been prophesied: Avalokiteshvara as the presiding deity, "whose mantra is already on the lips of children before they are able to talk". The Arhats, thanks to their longevity, are witnesses of the fulfillment of that prophecy.
The Tibetans, in that prophecy, are the Chosen People brought to the training ("being tamed") by the thousand-armed All-encompassing Glance, not because they are in some way superior, but rather the opposite: because they are considered the most difficult cases, "so hard to tame". He had made prayer wishes in front of a thousand Buddhas to achieve exactly that.
Here too there is a historically well attested figure among the Arhats, the second figure from the right in the lower register. This Rahula-bhadra is none other than Shakya-muni's son, from before he became a renunciate.
The Vinaya scriptural tradition states that Yashodhara, the Shakya prince's spouse, became pregnant the very night he surreptitiously left the palace. Her pregnancy continued for the six year period during which he lived an extreme ascetic life. She gave birth to their son Rahula on the very day of the Buddha's enlightenment. Since that night was marked by a moon eclipse (in Indian astrology viewed as the planet Rahu devouring the moon), the boy was named Excellent Eclipse Catcher: Rahu-la bhadra.
Before this, Yashodhara was accused of having had an extra-marital affair: how could she become pregnant by a husband absent since more than five years? She countered this accusation by a Vow of Truth. Placing baby Rahula on a flat rock, she had it moved onto the surface of a pool, where it remained afloat - ample proof to everyone that Rahula was indeed the son of crown prince Siddhartha.
From reliefs and Indian cave painting we know the episode where Yashodhara, assisted by the young Rahula, tried to make her prince (now the Buddha) rejoin her. From a sorcerer she obtained a beetroot, 'magically charged' so that it would make donor and recipient forever inseparable. She sent out Rahula to present it to his father. The Buddha accepted it, then later returned it to his son (who ate it); and henceforth, the new donor and recipient became indeed inseparable. The Buddha thereupon entrusted Rahula to Shari-putra, who ordained him as a monk.
In this standard presentation, Rahula-bhadra holds up a tiara in front of his heart. It became his defining emblem after he ascended to the Heaven of the Thirty-three gods and taught the Buddha's doctrine there; in gratitude, the gods presented him with their own tiaras which he all gathered into one. He is also the only Elder seated on a cushion of leaves.
In this composition too, the attendant in secular dress (center below), usually called Dharmatala, is the most enigmatic of the Sthavira assembly. The most acceptable hypothesis identifies him as the Chinese pilgrim to India, Hiuen Tsiang (603-664; an abbreviated version of his detailed travel account has long been available in Tibetan translation). He is shown as a pilgrim on his return journey from India to China, carrying on his back a load of Buddhist scriptures that are surmounted by an umbrella; a visionary image of Buddha Boundless Light in a circle of rainbow light precedes him. The accompanying tiger might be the product either of a Chinese 'road novel', such as the famous "Monkey" by Wu Ch'êng-ên (circa 1550-1590); or could be a survival of the Tiger Tamer that used to accompany the Sixteen Arhats in early Chinese Buddhist scrolls.
Another hypothesis views him as an early Chân master in Tibet; or even as Bodhidharma. Either possibility would seem incongruous with Dharmatala's preoccupation with book knowledge - exactly what the historical Hoshang Mahayana (unsuccessfully) reproached his Indian opponent with during the "Samye debate".
In the Tibetan meditation scenarios, his name occurs as the Sanskrit term for Suchness, dharmata, accompanied by its Tibetan translation, chos nyid. It could then well be the case that both attendant figures refer to Masters of Chinese Buddhism: Hashang to a misleading one and Dharmata, as his name implies, to the one who speaks from direct insight in the nature of mind and phenomena. This would then also explain why Hashang is excluded from the mandala formation, whereas Dharmata is securely posted at the (main!) eastern gate. He examplifies what is missing in the Basic Vehicle view: direct insight by the most subtle level of mind.
The two remaining Direction Kings, the sword bearing Virudhaka (lower left corner) and the stupa gazing Virupaksa (lower right corner) complete this elaborate work.
After completing at least part of the preliminary training, the Buddhist meditator engages in deity yoga; in creative imagination, one's ordinary appearance is replaced by an ideal Buddha manifestation, and one's environment is transformed into a divine palace charged with symbols, "all beauty condensed into one". The deity Kala-chakra, Wheel of Time, together with the cycle of esoteric learning that bears his name, was the last of the great systems to be revealed in the human world, just over a thousand years ago. The deity's mandala palace is also the most elaborate in the entire repertoire.
Up above we recognize the Buddhas of the Three Times, flanked by first and the last kings of Shambhala, the country where the entire population is said to abide by this yogic practice; but which, nowadays, is only reachable in the visionary journeys of great adepts; it is portrayed in Painting 5.
The group of three in the next register consists of Tsongkhapa and his two chief disciples, indicating that the painting illustrates Kala-chakra and attendant deities - a meditation system followed by all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism - according to the techniques of the Gelugpa school of which Tsongkhapa was the founder.
At the center, trampling a pair of enemies, stands majestic Kala-chakra embracing his consort Vishva-mata, Manifold Mother. Surrounding them are the eight Ladies of Power (Shakti) of the first circle in the mandala, all of them with four faces and eight arms. The meaning involved requires study and instruction, in cosmology, ancient Indian astronomy and astrology, for, in its outer form, the emphasis is on the conquest of ordinary time. In turn, these too are preliminaries for the inner yogas of the completion stage.
Below are three wrathful protectors, Palden Lhamo the Goddess Resplendent on the left, possibly Pehar on the right, with Vajra-vega, the wrathful form of Kala-chakra in the center.
- Guru Rinpoché's Paradise
The late 8th century King Thrisong De-tsen, frustrated at the slow progress and the interminable obstacles encountered while building Tibet's first monastic complex at Samye, invited the great yogin Padma Sambhava the Lotusborn from his residence in Nepal to Tibet.
After completing positive works all over the country, including the erection of the Samye temple and the training of his twenty-five main disciples, the Lotusborn left the human world for the realm of the raksasa cannibal demons. He remains for his followers in the sense that they can direct their prayers to, and center their meditation on his Pure Land, Resplendent Mountain the Copper-colored, here rendered by Babasaki after an 18th century painting.
The three-dimensional mandala palace is arched by a rainbow, inside and outside of which are female sky-walkers and male heroes, all dancing in space. So, too, are the drum-beating "ging", the heavenly equivalents of the bards who, in trance, chant the Guru's interventions in the epic of King Gesar. They are recognizable by the white flags above their heads and also include athletic clowns (the warriors amidst the nearby clouds could well be Gesar's). Halfway down, still outside the rainbow circle, are various Protectors, including, amidst the clouds on the right, the Five Long-life Sisters who ride animals like the snow lion in front. Still further down, among whirls of smoke, is the red many-headed Rahu, deity of the eclipses.
Copper-colored Mountain's upper storey houses red Boundless Light Buddha, with in the level below the four-armed All-Encompassing Glance (subject of Painting 6). At ground level the Lotusborn Guru sits enthroned, with near his knees his Tibetan and Nepali consorts, Queen Wisdom Lake and Mandarava. Closest to the retaining wall are his eight manifestations, including two wrathful ones. The remaining space is taken up by several of his main disciples, three on either side, and by four offering deities shown dancing in front of him.
The bright orange of the rocky island base translates the epithet 'Copper Colored' of this Pure Land. Of the three visible gates, only the frontal one allows a view of its Direction King, the lute playing Dhrita-rastra. Three cave entrances reveal, respectively, a yogin, a monk and a nesting vulture. Rising from the surrounding waters are two naga serpent deities who present precious stones; one of their underwater palaces, famed for fabulous wealth, appears as if due to low tide. One ascetic is seen traversing this moat over a path of 'dark rainbow' light. It leads to the realms of the cannibal demons shown in the lower register; realms which the Guru, through various wrathful manifestations, is 'taming'.
The upper left provides a panoramic view of the mystic land of Shambhala. In the foreground, surrounded by a rainbow, stands the three-dimensional mandala palace of Kala-chakra. Above right is the deity residing there: Wheel of Time in embrace with Manifold Mother (subject of Painting 3), encircled by a group of Bodhisattvas, similar to the ones we will see in the Pure Land of Bliss (Paintings 7 and 8). A swirl of light rays carries a red shield-like wheel, conveying the order to the Shambhala king enthroned there to activate the Wheel of Wrath. The start of the action is conveyed by the armies of Shambhala who make an incursion into the human realm; midway in the register on the right, the king himself, from a horse-drawn chariot, directs the action.
Enthroned in the center, with a garuda man-eagle supporting his left foot on a lotus, is Rudra-chakrin, Holder of the Wheel of Wrath; the future and last ruler of the kingdom of Shambhala who, according to some calculations, some three centuries from now will wage this great war against the black magicians about to take over the world. In the lower right, their monstruous forms are seen in utter disarray.
In the lower left, the armies are led by a general who has taken on the shape of a wrathful deity. He is surrounded by elephant-drawn carriages and preceded by an armoured carriage from which a canon fires a salvo.
Modelled after an eighteenth century thangka, this is one of Kenji Babasaki's most ambitious works.
- Four-armed Avalokiteshvara
We recognize the Buddhas of the Three Times, already seen in Painting 3, flanked by two other forms of the Great Compassionate one (from among 108). The two-handed upright one (upper right), known as Padma-pani the Lotus-in-Hand, is the form manifest in the famous sandalwood statue of Kyirong, the Pakpa Wati.
The deity in the center is again All-Encompassing Glance, now in the form known as Sad-aksari, He of the Six Syllables. The mantra OM MANI PADME HUM, which embodies an vast and profound ensemble of philosophical insights and meditation techniques, is meant here. Each syllable of this 'mind protecting' device stands for a beneficient intervention in one of the six realms (depicted in Painting 11).
This central "Chenrezi" - the Tibetan translation of his name - together with the two deities in the lower corners, forms another triad: the Lords of the Three Classes of Beings. Whereas Chenrezi embodies compassion and loving kindness extended to all, meditation on orange Manjushri the Gentle Splendor (lower left corner) enhances wisdom; hence his flaming sword that cuts through ignorance and, borne on the lotus in his left hand, the volume of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra. Vajra-pani the Vajra-in-Hand (lower right corner), in wrathful appearance amidst a blaze of flames, is the guide for enlightened activity, which no demonic force can withstand.
The concluding figure (bottom center), again in wrathful stance, is the Lion-headed Sky-walker, depicted dancing as on a corpse.
The best known and most widespread supplication addressed to the Great Compassionate one was composed by the 7th century King Srongtsen Gampo:
When I am beclouded by the darkness of ignorance and misunderstanding,
Chenrezi be a radiant lamp.
When I burn with anger against my enemies,
Chenrezi, act as a pacifying stream of water.
When I am a whirlpool of passionate attraction towards those close to me,
Chenrezi, allow me to understand the nature of being. ...
When terror and fear of death arise,
Chenrezi, comfort me with the vision of your face.
The painting belongs to Kenji's mature period; the range of various shades of lapis lazuli blue overlaid with intricate ornamental designs in the golden aureoles make this one of the most inspiring pieces in the exhibition; highly conducive to "the vision of your face".
- Amitabha Buddha's Sukhavati Heaven I
The Sutra "Array of Wondrous Qualities Adorning the Land of Bliss" assures us that "Ten great aeons have passed since Amitabha achieved Buddhahood; yet, in Sukhavati, no more than ten days have elapsed. The Protector of all embodied beings actually resides there in a pure body and showers down a continuous rain of teachings. Numerous transmigrators, without any great trouble, are thus being led onto the path of great enlightenment; in this, his kindness is truly unfathomable." And although "it is impossible, at present, directly to visit this Buddha sphere, still, by gaining a clear mental picture of it, one can engage in meditation on this topic with devotion. Eventually it becomes possible to actually visit it, as is borne out by historical accounts (of people who did so)."
Although the actual topic of this scroll painting is Pure Land the Blissful (Sukhavati), commonly known as "the Western Paradise", it would be wrong to view the place exclusively as a "heaven above". Allusions to Shakya-muni's earthly career are very much in evidence. The five monks are obviously his first five disciples, depicted in front of Boundless Light Buddha, around the lotus pool. They attained nirvana, the state beyond sorrow, but this liberation was later defined as not quite Buddhahood which has a sense of universal responsibility. The painting makes it clear that their subsequent instruction takes place in a beyond-worldly sphere.
Whereas the presence of the first disciples evokes the Buddha's first Turning of the Wheel of Doctrine, the eight great Bodhisattvas, manifest amidst their own radiant light, are to be understood as the receivers of his subsequent rounds of instruction, at the more advanced stage of the Universal Vehicle, Mahayana.
The scene in the foreground has Shakya-muni strolling on a path of rainbow light as he accepts a newly ordained monk by touching him on the head with a blessing.
- Amitabha Buddha's Sukhavati Heaven II
One regularly recurring question of those who are new to thangka art concerns the amount of creative input allowed. Babasaki routinely answers by stating that he does little else than copying what his teacher taught him. Yet a comparison between two different versions of the same subject here presented (Paintings 7 and 8) allows us to take such statements with a grain of salt - all the while appreciating his humility, admiration and gratitude vis-à-vis the late Master Champa Tsewang 'who taught him everything'.
- The first difference concerns the general composition: a three quarter angle in Painting 7, a full frontal view in Painting 8. Partly as a result, the previous painting was asymmetrical from every point of view: in the disposition of the Buddhas of the four families as well as of the flying offering deities above the highly ornate temple roof; in the place allotment of the eight Bodhisattvas, where even the upper two, Avalokiteshvara and Maha-stama-prapta (Great Vigor, a form of Vajra-pani), are not shown in positions of equal rank. By contrast, the dark painting (nag-thang) observes a strict symmetry with far fewer exceptions.
- 'Heaven' is placed in a natural setting akin to 'daylight' for the former painting (although in either case, there is the sun and moon, indicating a light different from that associated with the day and night cycle); against a black background, usually reserved for wrathful topics, in the latter. The orthodoxy of such an approach finds its origin in the text where we learn about Pure Land the Blissful:
As beings there are endowed with their own radiance,
even the words 'sun' and 'moon' do not exist.
The idea of 'self radiance' will come across in a much stronger way when juxtaposed against a the black of the night.
- The eight Bodhisattva disciples are all equal in size in Painting 7, but with two of them enlarged as the central Buddha's attendants in Painting 8. If, moreover, we compare this two-handed upright form of the Great Compassionate one with the way he is depicted in Painting 6, it becomes obvious that the hand postures of Lotus-in-Hand have been reversed. The 'law' of symmetrical harmony allows for this. Yet such laws are never written down; an apprentice often only becomes aware of them after attempting a composition that 'sins' against them, leads to faults in meaning.
- Maitreya Buddha's Tushita Heaven
The crowned figure, seated 'Eurpean fashion' off-center, is the future Buddha Maitreya, the Loving one. We are in the Pure Land of Tushita the Joyful. The crown is important, since it is the one this heroic being received from he who was soon to become Shakya-muni, right before he had determined the land, parentage, clan, caste and time for his upcoming birth in the human realm. As for Maitreya's unusual posture, its intended meaning is 'ready to get up any time' - in strong contrast to the vajra posture with legs interlocked that is the recommended seating position for inward looking contemplation.
At Maitreya's feet on the left is the Bengali Master Jowo Atisha (982-1054), recognizable by the emblematic objects on both sides of him. There is an oval basket containing scripture, a reminder of how once, in his youth, he had become proud about his unmatched knowledge, until some divine fairies revealed to him in dream a monumental library, recited the titles of its books, none of which he had even heard of, and pointed to a tiny pile of books on the side, which they described as "Atisha's knowledge". The other attribute is the small stupa on a stand, in front of which he would do a confession rite for the smallest infraction against the directives of monastic discipline (although commonly depicted thus in his portrait, a stupa should not normally be represented as tilting, but be drawn or constructed with perfectly upright vertical axis, in accordance with its role of 'stabilizing' the environment). Atisha's close connection with Tushita was expressed in a prediction to his disciples about his next rebirth there.
To the right is his spiritual descendant Lord Tsongkhapa, responsible for setting up a giant Maitreya statue near his retreat cave at the Hot Springs of Hölkha and also reborn in Tushita.
Both have their hands in the mudra "setting in motion the wheel of the doctrine"; while doing so, Tsongkhapa holds at his heart the stem of two lotuses which support a flaming sword and a scriptural text. Enthroned above all three of them in the upper right is Shakya-muni, in order to indicate that Maitreya is his substitute in this Buddha sphere the Joyful.
Sons of the gods, from in between the clouds, 'steer' a floating honorific umbrella above the crowned Maitreya, as if guiding a giant kite.
The elegant palatial buildings set in a lush surroundings are there to evoke the notion of such a sphere of rebirth, where mind training ('yoga', in Buddhist parlance) becomes a natural way of life, as demonstrated by two disciples in an act of adoration in the lower right. Somewhat unusual in present-day Tibetan painting and possibly typical of Kenji Babasaki's art is the dark background sky which allows for a shimmering play of clouds and curling mists. Thangka painting colleagues agree that the luminous quality in his artwork is the main trait he inherited from his teacher.
- Ushnisha Vijaya
Seated in the center of the upper region is Shakya-muni, the Buddha of the present age. On his right is the previous Buddha D?pamkara the Lightbearer, and on his left is Maitreya, the future Buddha (residing in his own Pure Land of Tushita the Joyful, depicted in Painting 9). These three form one unit: the Buddhas of the (immediate) past, the present age, and the (immediate) future - from among the one thousand Buddhas that will appear in the present cosmic cycle known as the Auspicious Eon, the Bhadra-kalpa. Although they all teach the same eternal Dharma, they will not all reveal the same range of training methods - Shakya-muni being one among the very few to teach the advanced methods of Vajrayana, the Lightning[-fast] vehicle.
The remaining space is taken up by three divine figures associated with longevity. Victorious Lady Sprung from the Crown (Ushnisha Vijaya), with three faces and eight arms, rules in the center. With two hands she holds at her heart a double vajra, and, with one of the three threatening mudras, a sling; the upper pair holds a white lotus with Buddha Boundless Light seated on it, and shows the mudra of offering refuge; the central pair of lateral hands carries arrow and bow, and the lower pair displays the gestures of supreme generosity, and meditative equipoise while holding a precious flask with nectar of immortality.
The composition is completed by red Boundless Life (Amitayus - a different form of Buddha Boundless Light, whose Pure Land we have visited in Paintings 7 and 8) in the lower left and white Savioress (Tara) who, besides her 'third eye', has an eye in the palm of each hand and the sole of each foot, in the lower right.
The places of the latter three main deities can be interchanged, meaning that any one of the three can take up the central position and the remaining two be depicted as attendant deities; Babasaki has in fact done in some of his other works. All three of these constellations are among the most commonly commissioned topics, since the positive potential ('the merit') of such thangka will then be dedicated to the long life of a person in ill health; or to a favorable rebirth of a recently deceased acquaintance.
A direct allusion to the long life ritual and the summoning of good fortune can also be read from the upright arrow among the offerings located right behind the skullcup on the table in front. The role of this arrow, adorned with silk bands of five colors to which a small mirror is attached, is aptly illustrated by the following episode in the autobiography of the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoché:
A symbolic arrow of longevity was brought, and they measured its length. Adzom Drukpa recited a long life invocation, and they measured the arrow again. It had shrunk in length by a finger-span.
"There," said Adzom Drukpa, "that is the obstacle [to the child's life] I told you about!"
My father did not seem particularly impressed. Adzom Drukpa recited the invocation three more times, and pulled on the arrow. Once again, they measured it, and this time it was longer than it had been at the outset. ... Every day for seven days, Adzom Drukpa gave me a long-life blessing. On the last day he announced, "Now I have dispelled the obstacle."
It is perhaps not inappropriate to pinpoint in this scroll painting some of the dilemmas faced by a thangka painter at work, and how he reaches pictorial solutions with a delicate balance between what is suggested in the texts, what was taught by his teacher and what is seen in earlier art. For the three faces, for instance: the left face, blue in color, is in the meditation scenario described as "slightly wrathful". Where Kenji Babasaki opted for almost "plain wrathful", different artists of the past, operating in different styles, have offered different interpretations. Occasionally, the face is made to look peaceful, even smiling, except that the mouth reveals a pair of barely perceptible, grinning fangs. Elsewhere, "slightly wrathful", especially for male figures, is indicated by no more than a frown.
Again, is it important to establish correct proportions between the different hand attributes? In actual practice this will often be out of the question, especially for a multi-armed deity, if one wants to depict certain large objects (a lance, a tentpole) as fitting the proportions of the figure holding them, next to small objects (a pestle, an arrow) which must be made large enough to be recognizable. In the present case, one could object that the bow is far too small compared to the arrow in the opposite hand; which may be countered by the ascertion that, like objects held by masked dancers, the symbolic intent and recognizability count most; the adjustment being left to the viewer's imagination.
Some artists have, likewise, reduced the sling lasso to the size of a miniature toy. Kenji, in this case, opted for more realistic dimensions, so that the end-ring and the end-hook of that sling pass well beyond the confines of the deity's backrest, where they appear right below the red chrysanthemum in bloom. Technically speaking, this was a rather daring choice, as it involved a risky superimposition of the bright red rope above the hellishly difficult lightrays of the backrest.
Why did he do so for the sling and not for the bow? As with syntax in language where some rules, in pronunciation, are overruled by euphony, the requirements of sheer grace occasionally supercede rigid rules and regulations.
- Wheel of Cyclic Existence
As the Buddha's disciple Maudgaly›yana described the torments and the bliss he witnessed in other realms (see the story with Painting 1), these demonstrations of the law of karmic action and result attracted many new disciples. Upon his disciple's request, the Buddha allowed representations of the Wheel of Cyclic Existence, after his own design, to be depicted on the entrance portals of temples and monasteries - a custom still continued throughout the Buddhist world today.
As if it were a circular TV screen, the entire tableau is held up by the monstrous looking Lord of Death.
The demonstration starts at (I) the inner circle where a pig, a snake and a rooster - self-delusion, aggressiveness, and passion - bite each other by the tail and seem to be moving in a gloomy-go-round.
They are the fuel for what is depicted in (II) the next circle. Uncontrolled, these three mental poisons inspire actions that harm others and, like the demonic forces in the picture, draw the individual into increasingly worse conditions and worse rebirths, shown on the right/dark half. Transmuted, they inspire selfless compassion that leads to better circumstances and future lives under superior conditions, shown on the left half, against a clear background. Where these lives may occur is shown in the six fields of (III) the main circle.
It explains dependent origination, from basic ignorance about an imagined independent self (personified by a blind woman; in the frame to the right of Yama's fangs), over eleven more stages leading to death (symbolized by a corpse being carried to a sky-burial place and devoured by a vulture; in the frame to the left of Yama's fangs). The adept studies, then contemplates, how each stage in this psycho-physiological process inexorably leads to the next; how the wheel of cyclic existence keeps on revolving, life after life; but especially, how the process can be reversed and lead to Buddhahood, exemplified by the standing Buddha in the upper right of the painting, outside the wheel. He points to the figure in the opposite corner, the magic key: Avalokiteshvara, the power of compassion.
- Down below, enthroned on a human skin, sits Yama holding up a mirror. A tiny human figure kneels in front of him. His fate is about to be decided by the Lord of Death's two frightening, animal-headed lieutenants. One reads out an account of the recently deceased's life; his companion, holding a pair of scales, weighs positive against negative deeds. The intermediate state being watches his own life being replayed in Yama's mirror as one long flashback.
The rest of this section depicts scenes of torture in the hot hells and the cold hells.
- Only slightly less miserable is rebirth among the hungry ghosts, to the right of the hells,
- or among the animals, to the left. The idyllic scene is misleading: rebirth as an animal is all about constant fear of being devoured, starving if not devouring others, and mental dullness.
- The upper left section shows the jealous demi-gods or asuras. A tree grows in their territory, but its magic fruits are only accessible to their neighbors, the long-living gods. Hence a constant war, driven by jealousy.
- The inhabitants of those heavenly abodes (above, center) live blissful lives of such duration as to imagine themselves immortal. Then the feast comes to an end, after all the 'capital' derived from positive actions in the past has been used up in frivolous ecstasy, the reversal is hard to bear.
- Rebirth as a human (upper right) is preferable to rebirth as god since it gives the best hope of reversing this cycle of lives. This hope is expressed by the monastic building and the three monks in its courtyard. And one basic means taught by them is depicted in (IV) the twelve vignettes of the outer rim.
- Chakra Sa'vara
Like Wheel of Time (Painting 3), Chakra Samvara, Wheel of Supreme Bliss, is a meditational deity of Highest Yoga, incorporating one of the three known methods of achieving the "clear light", the topic of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. He is shown in Father-Mother form, indicating the indivisible union of Wisdom and Compassion, which constitute the enlightenment set off by the recognition of this clear light, the true innate nature of mind.
This main pair of deities in sexual embrace is surrounded by four other forms of the consort, all of them dancing yoginis.
High above is Buddha Vajra-Holder who first revealed these esoteric methods of contemplation. Seated at his feet are the first two human Gurus of the Chakra Samvara system, the great adepts Tilopa and Naropa. The latter, a contemporary of Atisha, was a renowned professor at Nalanda's monastic university before he set out for the jungles and a life centered on meditation.
Below left is a dancing pair of skeletons. A form of the Great Black one, Mahakala, is a further Protector in the opposite corner. In-between is a miniature model of the cosmos, laid out as an "offering of the universe", with, in front of it, a gruesome offering of the sense organs heaped on a skullcup.
Painted representations of this kind led early western explorers to revile the Buddhist tradition of Tibet as debased, mixed up with shamanism, sorcery or worse. It would indeed have been very difficult for them to accept sexual union or scary looking imagery in a spiritual context. Strange that they were blind to the superb art as well!
- Vajra Vidarana
The central figure is Buddha Vajra Vidar›?a, Diamond Scepter of Irreversible Conquest, shown sitting crosslegged. The right hand raised to his heart bears a crossed diamond scepter, the left hand holds at his side a bell (often with crossed vajra handle). This being a semi-monochrome scroll-painting, of golden figures on a light crimson background (in Buddhist art, any color may be replaced by gold), it is not immediately evident that the deitiy's color is to be imagined as blueish green. The facial expression is semi-wrathful: three extremely bright eyes in a frown, with a smile that is half threatening, sometimes (though not here) revealing corner teeth "sharp like reedpens".
All of this points to his purifying activity: cleansing the environment of sinister influences and interferences such as curses or haunting, including the breaking of sacred vows by both guardian deities and people in authority. In the Tibet of old, an annual rite of Cleansing the Mountains, Cleansing the Rivers (Ri khrus klung khrus) was often government-sponsored or proclaimed by a regional monastery. It coincided with a period of truce during which hunting and fishing were either strictly prohibited; or the people of a region themselves vowed to refrain from it for a number of months. But a Vajra Vidarana ritual can equally be applied for the reconsecration of a monastery or the blessing of a house or even the protection of an individual.
The central position is occupied by Lord Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the most revered teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist school of the Gelug, The Path of Virtue. He is flanked, in the upper left, by the four-armed Great Compassionate Lokeshvara, in a form specifically associated with the Six Syllables mantra, the OM MANI PADME HUM (main topic of Painting 6); and in the upper right is the wrathful Vajra-in Hand, indicating enlightened energy. An educated Tibetan viewer will immediately understand that Tsongkhapa is here viewed as Manjushri, Gentle Splendor. Indeed, the sword that cuts through ignorance and the Perfection of Wisdom scripture - Manjushri's chief hand attributes-are here depicted as resting on the two lotuses (one at each shoulder) of which he holds the stems at his heart, with hands in the teaching gesture of Turning the Wheel of Dharma. Manjushri's wisdom stands central, and it translates in Lokeshvara's boundless compassion for others and Vajrapani's fearless altruistic activity. The three figures in the top row, accordingly, constitute the same group known as The Lords of the Three Families who in "Four-armed Avalokiteshvara" (Painting 6) appeared in a different configuration.
Vajra Vidar›?a is surrounded by a group of goddesses known as the Pancha-rak?a or Five Protectresses, each of whom possesses her own Sanskrit formula (dharani) for neutralizing a specific hindrance. They are (clockwise starting from the figure just below Vajrap›?i in the upper right): (1) Lady Adherence to Secret Mantra, (2) Great Lady of the Garden of Coolness (the 'garden' is a famous cremation ground in ancient India), (3) Great Individual (Amulet) Protectress, (4) Great Lady of the Peacock, who protects against poisonous snakes, and (5) Lady who Eliminates (opponents by the) Thousands.
Much of the impact of this scroll - inspired by a 17th century painting from Central Tibet - is in its austerity, the 'holding back' as it were. The figures in unburnished gold with the barest of outlines are only highlighted by their backrests and aureoles that alternate in color between dark olive green and lapis lazuli blue, and by the pink-shaded white clouds that support their lotus seats. Only the central figure's rich throne provides the kind of depth that a mere gold on pink could not otherwise have achieved.