Why are there so many images of buddhas, godlike creatures, and demons in Tibetan art and temples?

tibetan buddhist deities art

Tibetan Buddhist thangka paintings depict (left to right) the Buddha, a wrathful deity, and a peaceful deity. | Charles O. Cecil / Alamy Stock Photo

Tibetan temples are decorated with a wide variety of figures: mythological animals; fierce protectors armed with weapons; and peaceful, meditating figures clothed in silks and jewels and sitting on lotus flowers with moon-disk seats.

Many of the beings we may think look like gods or demons are actually buddhas and bodhisattvas appearing in either a peaceful, semi-wrathful, or a wrathful form. Peaceful forms attract and inspire the dharma practitioner; wrathful forms provide a feeling of protection from negativity—including the practitioner’s own negative emotions and states of mind.

Where do these representations come from? Although the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, is revered in all schools of Buddhism, he is not the only person to have achieved spiritual awakening, or buddhahood. The teachings say that all beings have the potential to reach buddhahood, and the Mahayana sutras and Buddhist tantra texts tell the stories of many practitioners who have attained awakening in various eras and places. These “awakened ones” are said to manifest in different ways, in accordance with their aspirations and the needs of others.

Chenrezig (the bodhisattva of compassion) and Tara, for example, are two peaceful bodhisattva forms. They are richly dressed in silks and jewels, symbolizing all the qualities of enlightenment, and their crowns are adorned with five gems, symbolizing the fact they transformed five negative mental afflictions into five types of wisdom. Their peaceful, loving gazes are like that of a parent for her child.

Vajrayogini, one of the buddhas described as “semi-wrathful” (having both peaceful and wrathful qualities), wears jewelry and carries a cup made of human bone. She is the embodiment of absolute wisdom: having overcome the fear of death, she can now bear the symbols of death as ornaments. Her blade held aloft represents the wisdom that cuts through delusion, and she is depicted trampling a body—the corpse of ego-fixation.

Tibetan teachers explain that just as there are countless sentient beings, so there are countless doorways to enlightenment that respond to the various needs and inclinations of different beings. The many buddhas and bodhisattvas in Tibetan iconography reflect these differences in orientation, and they provide inspiration to many different kinds of dharma practitioners to follow the Buddha’s path of self-knowledge and awakening. 


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