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 tells us about the significance of colors in Buddhist iconography.
Himalayan Buddhist Art 101: Color, Activity & Iconography
Colors mean something! They don’t always have to mean anything in particular in paintings, but when it comes to Buddhist representations of deities, colors become very significant. The many varieties of Buddhas have different colors.
Some Buddhas are known by their color such as red Amitabha Buddha, blue Medicine Buddha and the Five Symbolic Buddhas commonly associated with the four directions and center of a mandala. Shakyamuni Buddha is described as resplendent and shining like a “mountain of gold.” There are a few indeginous Tibetan worldly protectors that are described as being copper-colored.
Colors correspond to the tantric practices of the Four Activities: peaceful, increasing, powerful and wrathful. Colors can also relate to the four elements of earth, water, air and fire. There are many complex relationships and associations with colors deriving principally from the cultures of the Indian sub-continent of the first millenium.
The colors that represent the four activities are white, yellow, red, and black. The yellow color can be rendered in any shade, even orange. The color red also has many shades including pink. The color black is usually depicted as a dark blue, navy blue, or blue-black. When all of the four tantric activities are included together, along with the four colors, the result is the color green. With regard to the four activities, green is believed to represent all activities. The most well-known example of this combination of activities and colors is Green Tara—known as the “Mother of All Activities.”
The four colors of the four activities are an organizing principle based only on tantric literature. There are many more colors represented in the pantheon of Mahayana and tantric Buddhist deities. Other examples are blue or green for Vajrapani, orange for Manjushri and Maitreya, and maroon for guru yoga practices as well as some forms of Mahakala. There are even deities with the right half of the body one color and the left another, divided down the middle, head to loJeff Wattwer torso. Understanding the color of a particular Buddha or deity, along with gender and general appearance (peaceful, semi-wrathful, or wrathful) is key in identifying Buddhist figures.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.