When people are involved in Tantric practice and deity meditation, they want to know what the deity should look like. What is the deity’s proper form?

It’s easy to look at a painting and assume that it is iconographically and textually accurate. But what the practitioner takes to be iconography may just be added glitter and adornments—details and affectations that the artist has pulled from regional aesthetic preferences and a particular artistic lineage rather than from the tantras themselves. In fact, the descriptions of deities in Tantric texts are not meant to be instructions for artists. They are descriptions of the deities for meditational purposes—technical manuals for visualization practice in Tantric Buddhism.

There is usually a chapter within a tantra that provides some instructions for the artist, but these instructions are not iconographic descriptions of the subject. They are usually about what kind of cloth to paint on, what kind of ink or paints to use, what kind of brush. Sometimes instructions are about determining an astrologically propitious time to paint: When should the painting be started, and when should it be finished? The iconographic instruction is left for the teacher to explain to the student, and for the student to use in practice.

In Buddhist art, generally, paintings depict a narrative from a sutra or other text—Manjushri visiting Vimalakirti in his home, or one of the Jataka tales, stories of the Buddha’s past lives. In Tantric art, though, every detail has—or should have—a specific meaning.

his contemporary painting of a four-armed Avalokiteshvara is textually accurate: the painter examined the textual description and produced only what the text says and nothing more. The figure is fairly plain, and its adornment is minimal compared with most traditional depictions of the same figure, which are crowded, with added details not found in the texts. There are no extra ribbons in the hair in this figure. There aren’t any wild colors, and even the halos around the head and the body are neutral compared with what you would see in traditional art. Although the painting is contemporary, the artist draws from the style of the early 1920s. The figure is slender and pixie-esque. The crown and the jewelry are culturally neutral; it’s something you might find in early-20th-century Europe.

The image adheres to the text, where traditional art usually does not: the four-armed Avalokiteshvara is described as having a small red Amitabha Buddha on its forehead, inside its crown. But in the Tibetan system, painters usually put only the head of Amitabha on the crown of Avalokiteshvara. This is a common painting convention that is not textually correct, and it is not what a practitioner is instructed to visualize.

It’s not that traditional art is static, but Tibetan artists, slow to change, generally stick to tradition because there is an imperative to preserve their culture. In other places, like Kathmandu—a major arts center—artists are far more innovative in depicting deities. But iconographically correct figures for meditators or shrines is not the intention. It’s simply a matter of artistic preference, and the art is commercial—the kind you might hang on your dining room wall.

Here in the West, there is no reason we cannot be likewise innovative. Why the allegiance to a particular cultural style, especially when so much of it is an embellishment based on regional aesthetics rather than Buddhist texts? Why not more experimentation? The work opposite is an example; if we had to categorize it, for instance, we might say this is a typical Fort Lee, New Jersey, four-armed Avalokiteshvara—and it works.

What Does The Text Say?

From the great sphere of reality, limitless and free, bestowing various wishes, is a jeweled throne; unsullied by faults of samsara, a lotus seat; naturally luminous, a moon mandala; above, I arise as the nature of all buddhas, Avalokiteshvara, in color, like stainless conch and crystal; very resplendent, smiling, peaceful and radiant. With four arms the first are folded at the heart; the lower hold a crystal mala and jeweled lotus; two beautiful feet seated in vajra posture; adorned with many attractive silks and jewels; beautified with dark blue hair in tufts, [some] loose. On the crown of the head, the wisdom of all buddhas, is the Lord, source of all refuge gathered as one, in essence the Guru, in the aspect of Amitabha, in the manner of the Lord of the Family, seated happily; I, in the form of the deity, like the reflection in a mirror, the union of appearance-emptiness, the dance of illusion; like an excellent dancer with many beautiful adornments. Beautiful and resplendent is the mental appearance.

From “The Practice of Great Compassion and Mahamudra in Union” by Ngorchen Konchog Lhundrup (1497–1557). Translation by Jeff Watt.

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