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 explores different types of Himalayan Buddhist charts.
Himalayan Buddhist Art 101: Charts
Charts in the Himalayan Buddhist context generally consist of portable paintings or murals in a temple setting. The content of charts diverges from the common subjects of most other paintings we’ve looked at, which depicted buddhas, bodhisattvas, deities, and religious teachers. Charts are different. They are diagrammatic in composition and didactic in function. Probably the most striking thing about charts and their variety is that they are often just plain interesting, sometimes fun, and challenging like a puzzle that begs to be solved.
At least eleven types of charts can be easily identified and described:
-Hands & Footprints
-Wheel of Life
Astrological charts are probably the most commonly depicted and readily examined after the very well-known and documented mandala paintings of tantric Buddhism. Astrology is a popular subject and the unique charts can serve a number of different uses, such as calendrical, religious, and secular. Charts like the one shown here are frequently displayed in the homes of Buddhist followers, museums, and private collections. They are commonly used in conjunction with funerary rituals and displayed as auspicious talismans to ward against spirits and “ill-aspected” astrological signs and occurrences.
Medical charts became commonplace after the late 17th century, following the standardization of Tibetan medicine under Desi Sanggye Gyatso, the 3rd Regent of the 5th Dalai Lama and one of the great Tibetan luminaries, scholars, and systematizers of his time. During his incumbency, a standardized corpus of medical knowledge was compiled into the text known as the “Blue Beryl.” Its content was depicted cleverly, by a great feat of imagination, in a set of paintings numbering over eighty. In addition, a few original sets of paintings were created. Many subsequent copies of the full set were created over the centuries in a variety of different styles with many minor variations in content.
One of the most fascinating charts presents the teachings of Dzogchen in a systematized and structured graphic rendering. It consists of highly linear and sometimes repetitive horizontal elements bridged by rainbow ribbons and pathways that join and synchronize many, if not all, of the essential graphic features.
Charts of this kind are not fully explored and documented. The study of Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism has progressed, but the study of tantric Buddhist visual culture is only just beginning.
To learn more about the astrological chart, click here.
To learn more about the medical chart, click here.
To learn more about the Dzogchen chart, click here.
To explore more diagrammatic art, click here.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.