Buddhist practice and Buddhist art have been inseparable in the Himalayas ever since Buddhism arrived to the region in the eighth century. But for the casual observer it can be difficult to make sense of the complex iconography. Not to worry—Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt is here to help. In this “Himalayan Buddhist Art 101” series, Jeff is making sense of this rich artistic tradition by presenting weekly images from the Himalayan Art Resources archives and explaining their roles in the Buddhist tradition.
This week Jeff explains the common depiction of Padmasambhava set amid a copper-colored mountain.
Himalayan Art 101: Padmasambhava and the Copper-Colored Mountain
Padmasambhava is certainly a well-known character in Tibetan Buddhism. In Himalayan Buddhist art, he is portrayed in a variety of different ways, such as a host of meditational deity depictions, both peaceful and wrathful, and among the well-known Eight Forms, which describe his life story. Within the Buddhist tradition, Padmasambhava is understood as both a man and a deity.
Aside from this great variety of depictions, Padmasambhava is also associated with a geographic location that is perhaps real, perhaps only mythical. Somewhere off the coast of India there is a land know as Demon Island—possibly Sri Lanka—known since ancient times as an island of demons. It is here that Padmasambhava is believed to reside, continuing to teach the dharma and making himself available to devotees—especially the “treasure finders” of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. In the middle of the island lies the copper-colored mountain where Padmasambhava holds court within a large, three-storied palace.
The principal compositional elements of these paintings are the mountain and palace containing Padmasambhava, located at the center of the canvas. The mountain is surrounded by water and the land below is inhabited by numerous demons—wild and fearsome looking beings. Peaceful deities and goddesses occupy the sky above. Sometimes there are groups of buddhas located toward the top-center of the composition, such as the buddhas of the three times, the buddhas of the five families, or the thirty-five confession buddhas.
The third floor of the palace contains Amitabha Buddha, the second floor, Avalokiteshvara, and the ground floor, Padmasambhava, surrounded by his eight traditional forms, relating to the chronology of his life story. The three figures of Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara, and Padmasambhava form an important trinity in the Nyingma religious tradition.
The distinguishing elements of copper-colored mountain paintings are found within the groups of deities and lineage teachers who flank Padmasambhava. These surrounding figures are not at all consistent from composition to composition; they are substituted according to the particular Nyingma sub-lineage to which the patron of the artwork belongs, and, in addition, the training and preferences of the particular artist.
The first example above is very standard in general appearance, but distinguishes itself in its relation to a specific lineage of Tibetan teachers seated in front of Padmasambhava. A small figure identified as Jatson Nyingpo (1585-1656) allows us to associate the painting with a particular tradition known as the “Northern Treasure” lineage. The second example highlights the various protector deities of the Nyingma tradition. The third example depicts the copper-colored mountain as described by Choggyur Lingpa (1829-1870), who visited the sacred mountain in a dream.
All of these compositions are similar in fundamental appearance, but each is unique in regard to its secondary figures, patron, and the intention of the artist.
Learn more about Padmasambhava and the copper-colored mountain from Himalayan Art Resources here.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.