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. Last week we explored gods and deities in Tantric Buddhism, and this week we will move the discussion onward to meditational deities.

Himalayan Buddhist Art 101: Meditational Deities

I am not going to tell you that learning all of the forms and functions of Tantric deities is easy. It isn’t. It requires interest, commitment, and a structured curriculum of some type. Can you imagine trying to learn all of the forms and functions of the classic Greek gods without reading any of the stories and myths about them or understanding the context and narrative that they existed within? Well, it is exactly the same situation with the Tantric deities. To learn about them, we must first learn about their context.

This context is the meditational systems that are taught in Sanskrit and Tibetan religious literature, representing hundreds of deity forms. More commonly referred to as a lineages, or lineages of practice, the major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism—Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, Jonang, and Gelug—are repositories for many of these meditational systems.

The most complex and complete explanation of deities is based on the meditational systems that come from the original Sanskrit literature of the Kalachakra, Guhyasamaja, Hevajra and Chakrasamvara Tantras, a few of the more important and well-known Tantras. There are, however, a number of partial and much simpler explanations for organizing and contextualizing deities.

Some of these explanations are based on deity hierarchy within the pantheon, with Buddhas first, meditational deities second, other deity types third, and protectors last. Others list the deities by function, such as the acquisition of wisdom and knowledge, long-life, wealth, purification, removal of obstacles, and protection. And still other explanations describe the physical appearance or mood of a deity and then divide them into categories of two or three groups based on these moods. The simplest method of this type is to group the deities as either peaceful or wrathful, a system that is commonly followed by the Nyingma tradition. The later Buddhist traditions used a slightly more complex method, grouping deities into three categories: peaceful, semi-peaceful/semi-wrathful, and wrathful.

Kalachakra works well as an example here (upper right). Kalachakra is a semi-peaceful/semi-wrathful meditational deity that is part of an enormous system originating from several Sanskrit source texts as well as countless Tibetan commentaries. Note the eye in the middle of the forehead, the furrowed brow, the weapons, and the animal skins, all of this completed by a circle of flames of pristine awareness surrounding the figures of Kalachakra and the consort Vishvamata.

Further Resources:

On The Three Appearances/Moods

Iconography in Himalayan and Tibetan Art

Image: From http://www.himalayanart.org/image.cfm/65001.html.