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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Cosmic Buddhas in the Himalayas

The Buddhist tradition in the Himalayas has a complex pantheon of deities who give form to Mahayana and Vajrayana ideology. At the foundation are the unchanged teachings of the historic Buddha Shakyamuni, but there emerged a belief that he was just one among many who had attained enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhists looked to living Buddhas residing in heavens that can be accessed through veneration and ultimately by rebirth in one of their realms. Vajrayana Buddhism builds on these ideas, formalized in a corpus of esoteric texts called tantras written in India between the eighth and twelfth centuries. According to the Yoga Tantra, at the moment the Buddha reached enlightenment (2012.458), he left his physical body and ascended to the highest heaven, where he assumed the perfected, crowned, and bejeweled form of the Buddha Vairocana (1997.152) and taught the path to enlightenment to the assembled gods. He then returned to our realm of existence and in his physical body went out into the world to teach the dharma, or the path to breaking free from the cycle of rebirth. After the Buddha’s death, his physical body was cremated and his relics enshrined in stupas that served as the devotional focus of Buddhist sacred areas across South Asia. Small votive stupas, such as one in the Museum’s collection that may have contained the ashes of a monk (20.70), were placed near massive stupas with the Buddha’s relics. By this time, the connection between the historic Buddha Shakyamuni and Vairocana in his heaven was known from texts and accepted in religious practice. Thus the dome of the stupa simultaneously represents Shakyamuni’s relics and Vairocana’s celestial presence in a heaven, with the four Buddhas looking out from foliate niches being understood as the celestial Buddhas (Tathagatas) who presided over the four directional pure lands.

For a devotee, the most important of these celestial Buddhas was Amitabha (2004.139), who lived in the western paradise. Being reborn in his heaven gave the individual access to Amitabha and his teachings of the uncorrupted path to enlightenment, and in this way offered an immediate way to escape the cycle of rebirth (samsara). Hence, being reborn in Amitabha’s western pure land became a central goal for lay and monastic practitioners, and could be achieved by simply saying the Buddha’s name. In a painting on cloth (tangka) dated around 1700 (2004.139), Amitabha sits beneath a flowering tree adorned with jewels and auspicious symbols. Throngs of the reborn fill the western paradise of Sukhavati, presented as a vast, panoramic landscape with lotus pools and courtyards. Below Amitabha, flanking tables of offerings, are the eight great bodhisattvas, while filling the sky are gods and flying celestials (apsaras) who scatter flowers.

Amitabha, like the other Buddhas of the four cardinal directions, could be approached and accessed through his emanations. A good example is Avalokiteshvara, also known as Padmapani the Lotus-bearer (2016.752), a bodhisattva of compassion that emanated from Amitabha in a ray of light emitted from his urna (a dot in his forehead understood to be an inward-looking eye) as he sat in meditation. Avalokiteshvara presides over our realm of existence in the period after the death of the Buddha Shakyamuni and before the coming of the future Buddha Maitreya; he achieved enlightenment but chose to help all sentient beings break free from the cycle of rebirth before entering nirvana. It is in this sense that the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism recognizes the Dalai Lama as the living incarnation of Avalokiteshvara.

Another of these directional Buddhas, Amoghasiddhi, presides over the northern pure land. In a thirteenth-century painting in the Museum’s collection (1991.74), Amogasiddhi can be identified by various iconographic markers and by his green color; his heaven and many of his emanations are also green. Lay worshippers using this image readily understood this depiction as a celestial Buddha (note his crown, jewelry, and elaborate textiles), but also as one who is essentially equivalent to the historic Buddha Shakyamuni. In fact, Amoghasiddhi shares the important hand gesture of approachability (abhayamudra) with the historic Buddha. However, as with so much imagery from the Himalayas, this painting also contains embedded secondary figures only a monk or learned Buddhist could interpret. At the base, for example, are five multi-armed Pancha Raksha goddesses who embody five early Buddhist texts and simultaneously serve as female emanations of the five celestial Buddhas (the four directions and the center). From left to right are the goddesses Maha Pratisara, Maha Sahasrapramardini, Mahamayuri (the green emanation of Amoghasiddhi), Shitavati, and Mantramanudharani. This seeming complexity in part is an effort to give sophisticated ideological concepts pictorial form, but for the average lay devotee, while these goddesses were known to have deeper meanings, effectively they served as protectors.

When the eleventh-century Indian Buddhist monk Atisha (1993.479) came to Tibet, it was with the intention of clarifying Mahayana ideas surrounding the directional celestial Buddhas and their various manifestations. Appearing to him in a dream, the goddess Green (Syama) Tara told him he would be of great service to Tibet. At the center of a fourteenth-century stela (2015.500.4.19), Green Tara holds a lotus and bestows boons with her lowered right hand (varadamudra). The five Taras above (which relate to the cosmic Buddhas) and the nearly identical representations below visualize the twenty-one forms of Tara described in an Indian tantric text. Each verse recalls a form of Tara offering protection against disease, malevolent spirits, or war, among other dangers. Some Taras bestow boons of health, abundance, and prosperity, while other emanations help devotees on the more abstract path to enlightenment by engendering knowledge and wisdom. The monk Atisha is credited with building the first temple in Tibet to the twenty-one forms of Tara. While the monastic community would have conducted tantric ritual to the many complex forms of Tara for the benefit of the lay community, even the average person would have understood Green Tara’s connection to Amoghasiddhi, reinforced by their shared color.

The Buddha of the eastern pure land, Akshobhya, seen here in a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century terracotta sculpture from Nepal (62.207), shares iconography with the historic Buddha Shakyamuni and here touches the earth with his right hand marking the moment of enlightenment. Akshobhya has mirrorlike wisdom that allows him to see reality without distortion, and he is the unshakable one that presides over deities in the vajra family (vajrakula). One of Akshobhya’s most powerful and important emanations is the deity Hevajra, seen dancing with his consort Nairatmya at the center of a fifteenth-century mandala (2015.551). A monk versed in tantric Buddhist practice would have used this mandala to visualize and self-identify with this three-headed, four-armed form drawn from the text of the Hevajra Tantra. Central to this practice is the concept of dualism, echoed here in the deity’s name, which fuses the male he (compassion) with the female vajra (wisdom, or shunyata). Surrounding the couple is a ring of ferocious yet beautiful female dancing dakinis, powerful deities credited with obtaining secret doctrines. At the corners are four Hevajra images that are color-matched to the directional cosmic Buddhas.

The Buddha of the southern pure land, Ratnasambhava, seen here in a late eleventh-century image produced at the beginning of the surviving Tibetan painting tradition, has a much more practical meaning for the average devotee. He is associated with material abundance and enriching worshippers with the knowledge of Buddhist teachings, or the dharma. His name means “jewel-born,” and it is not surprising that his hand gesture is one of giving boons (varadamudra), associated with the historic Buddha Shakyamuni. One of Ratnasambhava’s most important emanations is the goddess Vasudhara (1983.547). As the consort of Jambhala (48.30.12), the god of wealth, she brings prosperity and offers protection. In our Nepalese example, she holds wheat, jewels, and a pot of foliage, marking her role as one who bestows abundance. Like Ratnasambhava, she holds her lowered hand in the varadamudra, or boon-giving gesture. As with so many Buddhist deities, she embodies ideology that here is signaled by the manuscript held in her upraised left hand; in this sense, the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine is conceived in terms of her physical form.

Although seemingly complex, nearly all of the Himalayan Buddhist pantheon can be related to these five celestial Buddhas, a structure illustrated in a fourteenth-century Vajradhatu (Diamond World) Mandala. The Buddha Vairocana, shown in white, sits at the center of this diagram of the heavens, framed by the four directional cosmic Buddhas, each with their own distinctive color, that together make up the focal circle. The most important of these heavens is the western pure land, at the top, where Amitabha (red) presides, and where pious devotees hope to be reborn. Akshobhya (blue) is below, with Ratnasambhava (yellow) to the left and Amoghasiddhi (green) to the right. Around this central group is a square, multitiered palace, inhabited by one thousand bodhisattvas. For the devout, the veneration of these five Buddhas offered a direct path to breaking free of the cycle of rebirth, a goal facilitated by their innumerable manifestations that make up the Himalayan Buddhist pantheon.