The historical Shakyamuni Buddha is shown here in his most popular iconographic form. He is seated in the 'lotus posture' (padmasana) with his right hand in the 'earth touching gesture' (bhumi-sparsha-mudra, sa la reg pa'i phyag rgya) signifying his attainment of nirvana, and his left hand, in the gesture of meditation (dhyana-mudra, bsam gtan gyi phyag rgya), holding a monk's begging bowl in his lap. He is wearing a monastic garment like that of the first members of the Buddhist community, and his golden body is silhouetted by dark blue (lightly lined with thin gold rays) and green halos. The surrounding landscape reflects a Chinese influence, and is painted in the Eastern Tibetan style. It is this form of the Buddha who is said to have uttered the Sutras and Tantras such as those on display here, which are commonly referred to as 'The Buddha's Word' (buddha-vachana).
These colorful silk pennants are traditionally draped on the pillars inside the main assembly halls of Tibetan monasteries, and may also be hung on either side of a family altar. They are marked by a set of eyes symbolizing the omniscience of the Buddha and a common decorative motif on stupas throughout Nepal and Tibet at the top, below which are Tibetan transliterations of the three Sanskrit syllables Om,Ah, and Hum, symbolizing the body, speech, and mind of the Buddha.
These prayer flags are printed in black ink on blue, white, red, green, and yellow panels of fabric. Each panel is printed with identical Tibetan text with a representation of the "Wind Horse" (rlung rta)--a symbol of good fortune--bearing a blazing jewel at the center. In the four corners of each panel are the Tibetan words for four highly symbolic creatures: top left, the garuda (a magical bird found in Hindu and Buddhist mythology); top right, the dragon; lower left, the lion; and lower right, the tiger. The Tibetan text on each flag includes various transliterated Sanskrit mantras and Tibetan prayers for averting obstacles, and for the increase of luck and prosperity. Such flags are traditionally placed at high mountain passes so that their prayers and good wishes will be carried on the wind to the sentient beings in all directions.
Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and is iconographically depicted as a golden hued 16-year-old prince holding a sword with which to cut through delusions in his right hand, and the stem of a lotus upholding a Perfection of Wisdom (prajna-paramita, shes rab pha rol tu phyin pa) sutra in his left hand. Wisdom is perhaps the most revered virtue in all Buddhism, and is called the 'Mother of all the Buddhas' since only wisdom can lead to the bliss of liberation from the endless cycle of birth and death (samsara, 'khor ba). This thangka depicts the heaven or 'pure land' (kshetra-shuddhi, zhing dag) of Manjushri to which the faithful and spiritually advanced practitioners are transferred immediately upon dying, and where they will be able to receive teachings directly from Manjushri himself. Here the bodhisattva is seated in his paradise surrounded by various important figures. Among these, Padmasambhava, the legendary founder of Tibetan Buddhism, is in the top center, flanked by his two consorts; the Medicine Buddha (bhaishajyaguru, sangs rgyas sman bla) and Shakyamuni Buddha to the right and left, respectively; below them are seated the Buddha of Limitless Life (amitayus, tshe dpag med) on the right, and the goddess Ushnishavijaya (rnam rgyal ma) on the left. In the lower portion of the thangka, seated outside the courtyard, appear from left to right Green Tara (sgrol ma), the god of wealth, Kubera, Vasudhara, and White Tara (sgrol dkar). Seated within the courtyard are 8 bodhisattvas, various offering goddesses, and monks in the attitude of supplication.
This stunning thangka depicts the cosmic Buddha Vairochana (rnam par snang mdzad) together with all the peaceful and terrifying deities described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead emanating from his heart and forehead respectively. The mandalas of the Book of the Dead are comprised of 100 deities who are said to appear to the intermediate-state being (bar srid pa) during the first fourteen days after death. During the first week of the bardo, the forty-two peaceful deities appear before one; if the intermediate-state being is unable to recognize this more serene vision, however, then the fifty-eight wrathful deities manifest. If even these visions are not recognized as expressions of enlightened activity, then the being will be compelled to again take birth in cyclic existence. Also illustrated in the painting are the popular deities Avalokiteshvara (spyans ras gzigs) and Tara (sgrol ma) in the upper corners, with two unidentified lamas most likely from the Druk-pa ('brug pa) sect below them. Like other works depicting the deities described in the Book of the Dead, this painting is meant to be used for contemplative preparation for the post-death experience.
This winged 'heruka' (wrathful) type deity with three faces and six arms is shown in union with his wisdom consort. Together they represent the union of feminine aspect of wisdom (prajna, shes rab) and the male aspect of method (upaya, thabs). They stand on prostrate human figures to represent their triumph over delusion. Vajrakilaya is wearing shawls fashioned from flayed elephant and human skins, a tiger-skin skirt, skull crowns for each of his faces, and a garland of fifty-one human heads representing the transmutation of the fifty- one base emotions. His consort has one face and two arms, and is holding a flaying knife (katari, gri gug) in her right hand and a skull-cup (kapala, thod pa) in her left hand, and is wearing a leopard skin skirt. Vajrakilaya is one of the most important Nying-ma tutelary deities (ishta-devata, yi dam), and is related to the type of triangular ritual dagger displayed below, which represents the unity of the three bodies of the Buddha (tri-kaya, sku gsum) brought to a single point to subjugate negative forces.
The 'Wheel of Life' (bhava-cakra, srid pa'i 'khor lo) represents the entire process of cyclic existence (samsara, 'khor ba). It is held in the mouth of Yama, the Lord of Death (yama, gshin rje), symbolizing the fact that all beings constantly dwell in the 'jaws of death.' The main body of the thangka is composed of a series of concentric circles. In the center are a pig, a snake, and a cock symbolizing the three 'poisons' (tri-visha, dug gsum) of ignorance, anger, and lust. The animals are depicted as biting or chasing each others' tails, representing the vicious and cyclical nature of these emotional distortions. The next circle illustrates the two paths open to sentient beings: one dark and leading downwards to the three 'unfortunate' transmigrations (ngan 'gro), and the other light and leading upwards to the three 'happy' transmigrations (bde 'gro), and ultimately nirvana. The next circle is divided into five or six separate sections representing the six transmigratory states: the upper realms of the gods (deva, lha), the demi-gods (asura, lha ma yin), and human beings (manusya, mi), and the lower realms of the animals (tiryak, dud 'gro), hungry ghosts (preta, yi dvags), and hells (naraka, dmyal ba). The outermost circle is composed of a series of illustrations depicting the twelve links of interdependent origination (pratitya-samutpada, rten 'brel), the causal process whereby beings continually are born, live, die, and are reborn. Outside the wheel stands a Buddha pointing to the path leading out of this vicious circle.