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 how teaching lineages are represented in paintings.

Himalayan Buddhist Art 101: Teaching Lineages Depicted in Paintings


Lineages of teachers are very important in tantric Buddhism. They represent the line of continuation for specific meditation practices as well as function as a statement of legitimacy. The idealized guru and lineage teachers are the principal subjects of the more general refuge field paintings. For specific meditational deities and cycles of tantric practice, in a single painted composition (not a set of paintings), the lineage of teachers can be presented in several different compositional types or schemes.


In early paintings, in which registers are the standard presentaion for all secondary figures, teachers and deities, the lineage begins at the top of the composition. There are three early types differentiated by where the first figure in the lineage is located in the top register. Most early painting examples place the first figure at the top left of the composition with the following figures continuing to the right. If there are too many teachers to arrange in the top register, then they continue down the left or right register, or both registers in an alternating sequence. This type of lineage composition is called “linear” and is found in our first image example of eleven-faced Avalokiteshvara (at right). In this painting, the first figure in the lineage of teachers is located at the top left corner—Avalokiteshvara with one face and four arms. There are also two other early lineage composition types called “dual lineage” and “asymmetrical lineage,” but these are far less common.

For late paintings, especially after the 16th century, register composition almost totally disappears and “floating figure” composition, along with the introduction of natural settings and landscape backgrounds, becomes the standard. This type of composition—the most common type of lineage depiction—is called “alternating.” In this type of composition, the first figure is placed at the top center. The following sequence of teachers alternates outward and downward, beginning on the left and then the right, and descending along the sides of the composition and around the central figure.

The first figures in the alternating scheme are a cluster of Buddhas, primarily Amitabha and Shakyamuni Buddha at the top center. The lineage continues on the left side with a two-armed form of Avalokiteshvara, white in color. It then continues on the right side with Buddhist nun Bhikshuni Shri, wearing a blue shirt. She was the first human teacher of a lineage of practice, who received the teachings directly from Avalokiteshvara. The following teachers descend at the right and left sides down to the time of the commissioning of the painting. Paintings such as these can easily be dated based on the identification of the last figure.

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