Do the strange and potent images of Tibetan art—so often misunderstood—represent a deeper and truer reality? Francesca Fremantle on the symbolism of awakened mind.
Brightly-colored Buddhas holding strange ritual implements, meditational deities wearing human bone ornaments, voluptuous goddesses and terrifying, wrathful manifestations—the exotic Buddhist art of Tibet is often misunderstood through ignorance of its meaning and purpose. We ask, how can such strange images have a spiritual function? More fundamentally, since the teaching and practice of Buddhism is concerned with realization of the nature of the mind, what place can these gods, goddesses and demons have within it?
The characteristic images of Tibetan art are those of the Vajrayana deities. Based on the inspiration of the Indian tantric tradition, Tibetan artists interpreted these visions with their own genius, depicting them with great subtlety and expressiveness and imbuing them with numinous power and mystery.
Although, perhaps confusingly, they are known as gods and goddesses, these great deities are buddhas, awakened beings. They are not like the inhabitants of the realm of the gods (devas), who are still within samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth. They are the living presence of all the various aspects of enlightenment—both its qualities and its activities—envisioned as male and female buddhas, bod- hisattvas, protectors of dharma, and so on.
Every detail of the deities’ bodies, their adornments, the instruments they hold, and their environments conveys some aspect of dharma, which is absorbed into one’s own being through meditation upon them.
The Vajrayana deities belong to the sambhogakaya, the second of the three bodies, or dimensions, of enlightenment. The sambhogakaya is the level of communication between the dharmakaya, the formless essence beyond concepts, and the nirmanakaya, its physical manifestation in the six realms of samsara. The sambhogakaya deities are spontaneous expressions of wakefulness, appearing in a multitude of forms in order to liberate sentient beings.
The visionary forms in which the deities are perceived in meditation and portrayed in art are simply appearances— their compassionate play, as the tantras say. Yet for the practitioner these conventional forms are of great significance, for every detail of their bodies, their adornments, the instruments they hold, and their environments conveys some aspect of dharma, which is absorbed into one’s own being through meditation upon them.
There is no sense in which Buddhist deities are ever treated like the eternal God of a monotheistic faith. Nor are they worshipped as independently existent, external beings. Even when they are imagined outside oneself for the purpose of meditation, at the end of the ritual the visualized images dissolve into light and enter the meditator’s heart.
The forms of the deities are imagined as hollow and insubstantial. Made of light, they appear from the emptiness of space like the colors of a rainbow, and they dissolve back into space leaving not the slightest trace behind. The purpose of meditating upon them is to realize one’s total identity with them, for our true nature is none other than buddhanature itself.
Symbols of the Awakened State
A short text of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, The Aspiration of Great Power, describes how the inexpressible basic ground of reality, common to all beings, is experienced in two different ways: through the paths of awareness and unawareness. The primordial buddha Samantabhadra (Universal Goodness) represents the original awakened mind, which is the true nature of every living being. He has never strayed from the state of awareness; therefore, his experience is completely free from dualistic consciousness and flows forth from the ever-present knowledge of ultimate truth.
This knowledge is expressed in five different modes, five facets of enlightenment. From this fivefold knowledge the five awakened families arise. When the knowledge expands fully, as the text says, the peaceful deities appear, and then, out of its creative energy, come their wrathful transformations.
In contrast, the experience of confused beings develops as a result of unawareness, and instead of the five modes of knowledge, the five poisons, or emotional afflictions, arise. The dualistic sense of self and other is born, and the illusory self gradually perceives the external world as filled with the objects of its desire, hatred, pride, envy and delusion. In this way, existence in the six realms of samsara comes about, entirely based on mistaken perception.
All the deities, then, are symbolic representations of the awakened state—how the primordial buddhanature perceives, responds and acts—and they correspond exactly to the confused experience of ordinary beings in the six realms. The five families pervade the whole of existence: since samsara is a subtle distortion or misperception of their reality, all living beings and all phenomena arise from them and share in their characteristics. Becoming aware of these correspondences provides a powerful means of transforming ordinary perception into the sacred vision of the buddhas and their pure lands.
The Five Buddhas
The source of all the divine forms, the fivefold knowledge, appears as rays of light in the colors white, blue, yellow, red and green. It is as though the pure brilliance of enlightenment is displayed as a rainbow. These colors pervade the whole range of vajrayana imagery. The great buddhas Vairochana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi, whose images are familiar throughout Tibetan art, embody the essence of the five families. They are generally portrayed wearing the elaborate costume of Indian royalty, to indicate the sovereignty of the truth, and their crowns contain jewels of all the five colors, reminding us that each aspect of enlightenment is complete in itself. But they may also be shown in simple monastic robes, emphasizing their identity with Shakyamuni, the Buddha of the present age.
Vairochana, Buddha family
The first of the five families is called the Buddha, or Tathagata, family, and is represented by Vairochana, the Illuminator. His nature is the all-encompassing knowledge of all phenomena throughout space and time. The negation of this knowledge appears as the poison of ignorance, the basis of existence in samsara.
Vairochana is placed at the center of the mandala of the five buddhas. He is white in color and he is connected with the element of space. The emblem of the family is the wheel of dharma, which symbolizes both universal sovereignty and the dharma as the path of Buddhism. He sits on a throne supported by lions, symbolizing fearlessness, and with his hands he makes the gesture of teaching, or “turning the wheel.”
Akshobhya, Vajra family
Akshobhya, the Unshakable, embodies the Vajra family. Vajra means both diamond and thunderbolt, it conveys brilliance, purity, indestructibility and power. The Vajra family experiences all phenomena as reflections in a mirror, seemingly real and vivid, yet without any genuine reality of their own. But for ordinary beings, the serene clarity of the mirror knowledge mutates into the poison of hatred and aggression, arising from the sense of separation between self and other.
Akshobhya is blue in color and he occupies the eastern direction. He is connected with the element of water. He touches the ground with his right hand, recalling the moment when Shakyamuni invoked the earth goddess to witness his resolution. His throne rests on the backs of elephants, symbolizing strength. The emblem of this family is the ritual five-pronged vajra, symbol of the indestructible awakened mind; its prongs represent the five male and five female buddhas.
Ratnasambhava, Ratna family
Ratnasambhava, the Jewel-Born, represents the Ratna (Jewel) family. He perceives that the whole of existence shares the same essential nature and is one in the awakened state. The enlightened characteristics of this family are equality and generosity, which can become distorted into their opposites of pride and possessiveness.
Ratnasambhava’s color is yellow and his element is earth. He is found in the southern direction. He makes the gesture of giving, with his right hand facing forward. He sits on a throne carried by horses, whose speed and endurance symbolize miraculous powers. The family’s emblem is the wishing-fulfilling gem of Indian mythology; it represents the awakened mind, in which all qualities are complete and all desires are fulfilled.
Amoghasiddhi, Karma family
Amoghasiddhi, “Unfailing Accomplishment,” embodies the Karma (Action) family, also known as Samaya or Commitment. He represents the tireless activity of the awakened state for the welfare of all beings, and he possesses the effortless accomplishment of all actions. When this quality is frustrated, it turns into envy, suspicion and rivalry. Amoghasiddhi is green, his element is air, and he dwells in the north. He raises his right hand in the gesture of fearlessness, in the same way that Shakyamuni repelled the onslaughts of Mara. His throne is borne aloft by mythical birds, symbols of enlightened activity. This family has two emblems: a sword, symbol of swift and powerful action, and a double vajra, whose prongs radiate energy in the four directions.
Amitabha, Padma family
Amitabha, Infinite Light, represents the Padma (Lotus) family. He is the embodiment of love, and he embraces the diversity of all phenomena, seeing their individual characteristics. Without awareness, this quality can manifest as grasping, desire and passion. He is red in color, his element is fire, and his direction is the west. He sits in meditation holding his hands in his lap. His throne is supported by peacocks, which in Indian mythology are believed to eat poison and transform it into the beautiful colors of their feathers. The family’s emblem is a red lotus, symbolizing the transmutation of passion, just as the lotus flower arises unstained from out of the muddy swamp in which it grows.
The five buddhas are known as peaceful deities. They are peaceful because they simply exist, indestructibly and without compromise, whether they are recognized or not. Nonetheless, the energy of compassion continuously flows forth, appearing in a multitude of different transformations. The most awe-inspiring of these are the wrathful deities. They represent the overwhelming power and energy of the awakened state. Their all-consuming rage is directed solely against ignorance and the suffering that results from it. But the majestic intensity of their presence evokes awe and terror in the confused minds of unawakened beings, and their horrific forms appear threatening to the grasping, self-protective ego.
The charnel ground is the ultimate symbol of the transformative power of the tantras. Everything that disgusts us, everything we fear, hate or despise, must be recognized as fundamentally pure, and its essence liberated.
Wrathful deities generally have many heads, arms and legs, all illustrating various qualities or aspects of the path. They wear flayed skins, are adorned with bones, skulls and serpents, and carry weapons in their hands. They drink blood from skull bowls, and they delight in offerings such as severed limbs, entrails and human hearts. These gruesome attributes are connected with the charnel ground, where corpses are burned or left to be devoured by wild animals and birds of prey. The charnel ground is the ultimate symbol of the transformative power of the tantras. Everything that disgusts us, everything we fear, hate or despise, must be recognized as fundamentally pure, and its essence liberated.
Deities in Union
The two essential elements of awakening are the wisdom of emptiness and the skillful means of compassion. Male deities in general embody skillful means, arising from compassion. The wisdom of emptiness arises from the realization of the nonexistence of ego, and simultaneously the illusory nature of the external world, which is created by ego’s projections. This is the feminine principle, taking the form of female buddhas or goddesses. It is the mother of all existence, the vast openness of space in which phenomena appear and dissolve.
Emptiness is the essential partner of compassion, for without it compassion would be based on an egocentric concept of benefiting others. This is the meaning behind the depictions of male and female buddhas in sexual union, known as “father and mother.” When these two join together, their union produces the transcendent bliss of awakening, which is wonderfully depicted in Tibetan art by the ecstatic attitudes and expressions of the embracing pairs.
Hosts of other deities emanate from these couples, expressing different aspects of enlightened energy. For example, there may be bodhisattvas, offering goddesses, dharma protectors, dakinis, guards, messengers and servants of many kinds, all carrying out the work of dharma throughout the six realms.
A bodhisattva is an awakened being who does not rest in the peace of nirvana but manifests in the world in order to liberate others. So, while the principal buddhas of the five families represent their basic awakened qualities, the bodhisattvas put these qualities into action. For example, the buddha Amitabha is the principle of universal compassion, and the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvaft is found wherever acts of love, compassion and mercy are performed.
The deities that perform a protective function, such as guardians of the gates of mandalas, or great dharmapalas like Mahakala, are fierce and wrathful. They act as the practitioner’s conscience, using every means to prevent us from doing harm and straying from the path of dharma. Out of compassion they will ruthlessly destroy evil, yet their essential nature is totally peaceful. We can recognize them in daily life in any kind of incident that forcibly brings us to our senses and wakes us up, even if these warnings may be unwelcome, coming in the form of accidents, illness or the sudden awareness of death.
Dakinis, too, are constantly bringing us messages and inspiration. They embody the feminine principle and are the keepers of the tantric teachings. They inhabit the magical and miraculous dimension of life, and they open the door to the secrets of spiritual powers. They are depicted flying through the air, exulting in the boundlessness and freedom of nonself, or dancing with their male partners in the passionate embrace of emptiness and compassion.
Numerous other attendant deities are found in some Tibetan paintings, arranged around the central figures. Their colors indicate their connection to the five families, and they carry emblems or weapons that symbolize their functions. Frequently they have bird or animal heads and are shown cavorting wildly, gesticulating furiously, killing, devouring corpses, and so on. They are like sparks of energy sent out by the wrathful deities, pursuing their dharma activities into the farthest and most hidden corners of life.
This entire system of imagery illustrates the tantric precept: that which binds us in samsara is the very thing that sets us free. The basic nature of the five families, the modes of primordial knowledge, is the pure form of the five poisons. The five female buddhas embody the empty essence of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air and space. The male buddhas represent the five components of the individual: form, feeling, perception, conditioning and consciousness. The male bodhisattvas are the eight kinds of consciousness, including the five senses, while the female bodhisattvas are their respective objects: whatever is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched or arises in the mind. The surrounding deities illustrate all kinds of mental and emotional phenomena and their projection into the external world, including aspects of our nature that we normally choose to ignore—instincts and impulses whose energy must be brought onto the path and used in the service of dharma. Since we are naturally composed of all these things, this means that all the deities are contained within our being. Meditating in this way, the entire realm of samsara is revealed as the sphere of enlightenment.
On the path of vajrayana the practitioner discovers his or her innate awakened being by means of deity yoga, union with the yidam. The great tantric buddhas, such as Guhyasamaja, Chakra- samvara, Hevajra or Vajrakilya, embody the teachings and practices of their own particular tantras. Each one of them represents the totality of the awakened state, thus containing all five families within themselves, but each emphasizes the transmutation of a particular poison, and these differing approaches are expressed through their immensely complex and detailed imagery.
Understanding and absorbing this imagery through repeated visualization is a powerful tool in the process of developing confidence in the reality of the sacred world. The practitioner must learn to let go of his or her habitual, conditioned selfperception as an ordinary sentient being in order to identify totally with the awakened nature of the deity, to become the deity itself. But the visualization of the deity’s form is only the first step along the path to awakening. In the end, the nature of the buddhas is inexpressible, secret and profound, far beyond the scope of thought or imagination.
Only someone who has accomplished realization of the deity can transmit the empowerment to practice it. Therefore, the Vajrayana teacher is always regarded as a buddha. By recognizing the actual presence of the awakened state in another human being, the practitioner develops the trust and confidence to follow this difficult and dangerous path, which is a process of complete opening and letting go. The practitioner also feels intense gratitude that so many enlightened men and women have shown compassion by working for sentient beings instead of resting in the peace of nirvana.
Spiritual teachers are frequently portrayed in Tibetan art, and these images are remarkable in conveying simultaneously an iconic and human quality. They combine a sense of respect and devotion with sensitive and sometimes extremely touching depictions of individual personality.
Certain vajrayana figures, especially mahasiddhas, may be shown dancing, flying or enacting scenes from their lives, but the majority are portrayed seated cross-legged, their hands forming the gestures of the five buddha families. This identifies them with Buddha Shakyamuni himself, and in particular with some specific aspect of enlightened manifestation. In paintings, their own meditational deity, their true being, is often shown in the sky above them. They may hold symbolic objects, such as a text indicating scholarship, or emblems of tantric practice. These include: the vajra and bell, representing the male and female principles; the skull bowl, containing blood transmuted into the elixir of life; and the threepronged staff or three-sided dagger, which destroys greed, hate, and delusion with a single blow. Through the imagery of these portraits, the world of sentient beings and the world of enlightenment are brought together in a manner that reveals the most profound possibilities of our own nature.
Paintings from the Rubin Museum of Art