Glossary: Caution Words & Sensitive Subjects

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(Caution words, Sensitive Subjects and Common Misconceptions in the Study of Himalayan Art).

Adamant/adamantine: an adjective that means hard, impenetrable, intractable. In the past this word 'adamantine' was used by some Western scholars to translate the Sanskrit word 'vajra'. Found to be wholly inadequate and misleading in its attempts to translate the highly symbolic and complex term vajra into English, the word adamatine is now generally not used. It can however be used quite comfortably along with a host of other adjectives in describing the concept and meaning of vajra. (See vajra and vajra posture).

Altar: a sacred space where religious services are conducted or animals and humans are sacrificed. A less biased word is shrine which implies a focus on remembrance for sacred and spiritual subjects. The term shrine is preferable with reference to Buddhism.

Arya, Aryan: a Sanskrit word meaning noble. A term referring to the Indo-European peoples of Northern India. The word 'arya' is commonly used as a title for the Eight Great Bodhisattvas of Buddhist Mahayana literature such as Arya Manjushri, Arya Avalokiteshvara and even the female bodhisattva Arya Tara. The term is also used in Tibet as a title of respect for important teachers of the past and present such as Chogyal Pagpa (Arya Dharma King) preceptor to the Mongolian leader Kublai Khan and in more modern times the principal Gelugpa teacher of Chamdo, Pagpa Lha (Arya Deva).

Avatar: a term coming out of Sanskrit Indian religious literature primarily referring to the different manifestations or forms of the God Vishnu. The term is not used in Tantric Buddhism when referring to different manifestations of Bodhisattvas or Meditational Deities.

Bodhisattva: (Tibetan: jang chub sem pa. English: heroic aspirant to enlightenment): idealized beings in the appearance of youthful heavenly gods, generally male and richly attired in silks and jewels. They represent the principal students of the Buddha according to the Mahayana Sutras of Northern Buddhism. Many Western scholars of the past have erroneously believed that bodhisattvas renounce the attainment of buddhahood to remain in worldly existence and continue to help sentient beings. This belief is based on improperly understanding the readings from the Sutras on the the three similes of mental attitude that bodhisattvas follow. At no time do bodhisattvas actually renounce buddhahood, nor do they have the power to prevent buddhahood. Full definition of the term Bodhisattva as understood in art and the Mahayana Sutras.

Bronze: a word sometimes used by art historians to describe all metal sculptures.

Bronze sculpture: see above. Most bronze sculpture is not bronze.

Chitipati: or more correctly called Shri Shmashana Adhipati - the Glorious Lords of the Charnal Ground - arise from the Secret Essence Wheel Tantra and are associated with the collection/cycle of Chakrasamvara Tantras (Anuttarayoga). Primarily employed as a wealth practice, with emphasis on protecting from thieves, they also serve as the special protector for the Vajrayogini 'Naro Khechari' practice. Shri Shmashana Adhipati is now common, to a greater or lesser degree, in all the New (Sarma) Schools of Himalayan and Tibetan influenced Buddhism.

The deities Shmashana Adhipati are unrelated to Yama the Lord of Death, inhabiting the Hell Realm in Buddhist Wheel of Life paintings. They are also unrelated to the dancing skeletons found in the Tibetan 'Cham' dances. The skeletons in the dance performances are merely representations of spirits inhabiting cemeteries, sometimes acting as jester figures in the performances.

Chopper: (Sanskrit: kartari) a knife with a curved blade commonly depicted in the hands of wrathful and semi-wrathful deities of Tantric Indian religions. It more accurately should be called a curved knife, hooked knife or a flaying knife. In Tibetan literature the curved blade is described for use in skinning human and animal skins/hides and the hook is for picking up chunks of flesh. The term 'chopper' first used by early Western scholars of Anthropology is quite inaccurate in the present study of Himalayan Art Style as no actual chopping is described or depicted. Thankfully this term is now rarely used by modern scholars.

Consecration & De-consecration: Paintings created as portable scrolls 'tangka' and murals in temples are usually consecrated or blessed upon completion. These two words 'consecrated' and 'blessed' are generally used interchangeably. Other words can also be found which describe this process such as - sanctification, anoint, and enshrine. There is no such thing as de-consecrating or removing the blessing from paintings, ritual objects, sacred space, temples, etc., once the blessing has been performed.

Dates and Dating Works of Art: art objects in most museums or private collections are uncertain and tentative unless there is definitive proof of a specific date established by an artist or donors name, or by an date inscription on the work itself. Most dating is established through comparing with comparable works or through an analysis of style. The dating of an artwork, through appraisal or expert opinion in writing, influences the monetary and insurance value of an artwork.

Dhyani Buddha, Five: a Sanskrit term, dhyani - meaning meditation, incorrectly applied by Western writers with reference to the Buddhas, or Conquerors, of the Five Families (gyalwa rig nga). These five buddhas only exist within the context of Tantric literature and the directional structure of a mandala. The Five Buddhas are also referred to in early Tibetan literature as the Five Symbolic Buddhas. Within the Kriya classification of Tantra there are only three Buddhas, Vairochana, Akshobhya and Amitabha.

Diamond Vehicle, Diamond Path: an English translation of the Sanskrit word Vajrayana, meaning Vajra path. The English word 'diamond' and also the word 'adamantine' were both used by some Western scholars to translate the word 'vajra' giving rise to such Western-isms as Diamond Path and Adamantine Path. Fortunately neither of these are in common use today. (See vajra).

Dragpa Sengge: a Bon worldly protector believed to be the subjugated spirit of the 10th Shamar, Chodrub Gyatso (1741/42-1792), incarnate lama of the Karma Kagyu (Kamtsangpa) School of Tibetan Buddhism. Although a Bon Religious belief and part of the living tradition with active liturgies and offering services, this belief is not however shared with the current Karma Kagyu Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism or the current Shamar incarnation.

Eighty-Five Mahasiddha System: there is no system of Eighty-five Mahasiddha. There are three principal systems of enumerating the eighty-four; the Vajrasana, Abhayadattashri and Palde. Each is named after the compiler/editor of the list, or the principal student of the editor. The Vajrasana system, for reasons currently unknown, in a number of modern publications names a total of eighty-five siddha, however the title page and colophon for the Vajrasana system clearly state that it is the Praise of the Eighty-four Mahasiddha. (For more on this subject see the Mahasiddha

English Romanization Used On the HAR Web Site: see RMA Standard Tibetan Romanization

Enlightenment: an English term that has many meanings with reference to eastern religions. In the Buddhism there are graduated levels, or degrees, of spiritual progress marking the spiritual path and culminating in what is known as 'complete enlightenment.' In total there are thirteen levels, known as the thirteen grounds. The first ten levels are called the Ten Bodhisattva Grounds. The thirteenth level, called vajradhara bhumi in Sanskrit, is synonymous with 'complete buddhahood.' These levels are clearly defined and
described in the Mahayana Sutras. In the various Hindu religious traditions the term 'enlightenment' can have many different meanings.

Epigone: a word that can imply an imitator or follower that is inferior to the original, sometimes used with reference to artists or philosophers. The term has occasionally been used to characterize Himalayan and Tibetan yogis and siddhas, such as Milarepa, Tsang Nyon Heruka, Tangtong Gyalpo and others.

Esoteric: meaning secret, or concealed.

Exoteric: meaning open and available to all, not secret.

Five Schools of Tibet: referring to the religious schools of Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, Gelug and the Bon religion. This formulation is sometimes said to have been created at the time of the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century to organize the various religious traditions. This idea of the 'Five Schools' as they are known in English gained popularity with the Tibetan Government in Exile in Dharamsala, India, since 1959. In the 17th century the reference was to the Four Schools or Traditions - meaning the principal Buddhist traditions and then the Bon religion, without a number reference. It was these four Buddhist traditions with the addition of the Bon religion that gave rise to the 20th century idea of Five Schools of Tibet.

The Bonpo maintain that there are two religious traditions in Tibet, first Yungdrung Bon, the oldest and indigenous religious system, and secondly the Buddhist, an imported religion from India.

Fresco: a word incorrectly used to describe the murals of the Himalayan regions and Tibet. Fresco painting is a specific technique of applying water mixed pigment (no glue or binder) to a damp 'unset' plaster surface, wall or ceiling. The paint then fuses with the wet plaster and they dry together. This technique is common to the southern regions of Europe, especially Italy. The fresco technique is not typically found in the Himalayas or Tibet.

Ganapati and Ganesha: Ganesh/Ganesha is the name most commonly used by modern Shaiva and Vaishnava Hindu religious followers for the elephant headed god. The name Ganapati is also used. Ganesha is the more proper Sanskrit pronunciation and Ganesh follows the modern Hindi pronunciation. Vinayaka is another name commonly used for the elephant headed god.

For Himalayan, Tibetan, Mongolian and Tantric Buddhists, Ganapati is the Sanskrit name commonly used and the word found in Tibetan literature. The two words Ganesha and Ganapati have the same basic meaning in English: lord of hosts (meaning the hosts of Shiva). For Hindus the names are interchangeable. For Buddhists the names are partially, or generally interchangeable, but the specific Sanskrit word Ganesh/Ganesha is not typically found in Tibetan literature, or in the Tantric Buddhist mantras and praises.

Himalayan art: the art of the Himalayas and surrounding regions; North India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Buryiat and South-Eastern Russia (Siberia). (See Himalayan Art Definition).

Himalayan Buddhism: the name for the type of Buddhism practiced in Bhutan.

Hinayana: a term used by Buddhists of the Mahayana, greater tradition or vehicle; Hinayana means lesser or inferior tradition, or vehicle. In modern times the Theravada are the only surviving Hinayana Tradition. It is considered by some to be a derogatory term.

Hungry Ghost: a common phrase to describe the ghost, or spirit, realm as depicted on Buddhist Wheel of Life (Samsara Chakra) paintings. The correct term from the Indian Buddhist side is Ghost Realm and the occupants are ghosts. It is in the Tibetan and Chinese languages that the word 'hungry' has been added.

Hvashang: the Chinese patron, or patriarch, to the Sixteen Great Arhats. Although appearing under the iconographic category of 'Arhats' Hvashang is not an Arhat put rather the patron messenger dispatched by the Emperor of China.

Jina (T. gyalwa): Jina is a Sanskrit term meaning victor, victorious, victory. The word jina is also the most common title used for the enlightened ones of the Jain Religion. The word is occasionally used as an epithet for a buddha in Buddhist texts.

Karmapa, 17th: currently a disputed incarnation. The two second highest teachers (lamas) of the Karma Kagyu School, the Shamar and Situ, have each recognized their own Karmapa.

Kubera: is NOT a name for Vaishravana or for Jambhala. Kubera refers to a semi-divine Yaksha leader in classical Indian literature - incorrectly used in modern Tibetan and Himalayan studies as a generic name for such Buddhist figures as Vaishravana and Jambhala commonly represented in the sculpture and painting of the Himalayas and Tibet.

Lama (E. teacher): a Tibetan term for any Buddhist or Bon religious teacher, also used colloquially in Tibetan and English to refer to any Buddhist or Bon monks.

Lamaism: an English and European term based on the Chinese term "lama jiao" used to describe the Buddhism of Tibet and surrounding regions, also known as Tibetan Buddhism. Bon is also considered Lamaism. The term was popular during the Victorian period of the 19th century and fell out of favour in the 20th century. In the 21st century the term is regaining some popularity in isolated academic circles.

Lotus Posture: referring to a seated position where the feet are placed sole up on the thigh of the opposite leg. This posture is commonly associated with depictions of gods, deity figures, holy saints and mendicants in Asia. In Buddhism this seated position is known as the Vajra Posture and NOT the Lotus Posture as used among Hindu groups. The names for hand gestures and seated postures are often different between Buddhism, Bon and the various Hindu traditions. (See the term Vajra for a more detailed explanation of Vajrasana, Vajra Posture and Vajra Samadhi).

Mahakala: often described incorrectly as a form of Avalokiteshvara. Only one form of Mahakala, Shadbhuja, with one face and six hands is associated with Avalokiteshvara. This form of Mahakala is Avalokiteshvara manifesting, or emanating, as Mahakala.

Mandala Painting: in the West it is often incorrectly described as a meditational aid. Mandala paintings are used in ritual initiations and subsequent ritual services - not as meditational aids or objects of focus during meditation. (See Introduction to Mandalas).

Mongolian Buddhism: the name of the form of Buddhism practiced in Mongolia.

Monk (Buddhist): a monk, or a nun, is a celibate religious practitioner, by definition, in all cases. Monks and nuns belong to the order known in Sanskrit as Sangha. In Buddhism the three most important objects of reverence are the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, also referred to as the Three Jewels; the teacher-founder (Buddha), the teachings (Dharma) and the monastic following (Sangha), i.e. monks and nuns. Outside of Asia it has become very popular to describe lay communities, or any followers of Buddhism, as Sangha.

Pabongkapa, Jampa Tendzin Trinle Gyatso (1878-1941): the name of one of the most important Tibetan Gelugpa teachers in the early 20th century. He was associated with Sera Monastery where he acquired his Geshe degree. He was also the Tibetan teacher that popularized the controversial protector deity, and or spirit, Dorje Shugden in the early to mid 20th century. Since the 1980s this protector has been banned by the 14th Dalai Lama.

Panchen Lama, 8th: currently there are two individuals designated as the Panchen Lama, both in China. One was designated by the 14th Dalai Lama and the other designated by the Chinese Government. The Dalai Lama's choice has disappeared in China and not been heard from in several years.

Pata: The Indian word for a painting on cloth. Indian, Nepalese, Chinese and Mongolian paintings each have their own word for paintings on cloth. The Tibetan word Tangka is not the correct term.

Paubha: the Nepalese word for a scroll painting on cloth.

Prajna (Sanskrit): a term occasionally used in English to describe the female consort of a male Buddhist deity. It is a Sanskrit Buddhist equivalent to the Hindu Sanskrit term shakti. The term prajna (T. sherab) is rarely used in Tibetan Buddhist literature.

Protector Deities: a specific category of personalities (deities) found in Tantric Buddhist literature and art that have a very defined function. Protector deities are quite often wrathful in appearance but not always. In the past many Western scholars erroneously believed that wrathful appearance was synonymous with the function of protection. For example many Anuttarayoga ishtadevata (meditational deities) are wrathful in appearance. Examples of these are Hevajra, Mahachakra Vajrapani, Hayagriva, Vajrabhairava, the Eight Pronouncemnet Heruka of the early Nyingma, etc. There is also confusion amongst some individuals concerning deities that have neither a peaceful nor wrathful appearance. (See the Protector Deity Glossary).

Refuge Field: often mistakenly translated from Tibetan to English as Refuge Tree because of confusion with the Tibetan word shing meaning tree and zhing meaning field, region or realm. The correct translation is Field of Accumulation, or Refuge Field. A Refuge Field is a particular type of Buddhist, and in recent times Bon, painting composition that arranges all of the teachers and deities of a particular tradition in one painted composition as described in textual literature and formulated by individual religious traditions. Its function is to be a visual composition reminding the devotee of all of the most sacred objects contained in the tradition. The paintings are also an accompaniment to a meditation and visualization practice described in the same ritual literature used for the accurate creation of the paintings.

Refuge Tree: (see Refuge Field above).

Renaissance: a term used by some Western scholars to describe the rise of Gelugpa hegemony in Tibet in the 16th and 17th centuries. This term is not common among Western scholars.

Romanization: see RMA Standard Tibetan Romanization

Sanskrit Spelling: please see the RMA Standard Tibetan Romanization, which includes information on Sanskrit spellings.

Scroll: a document or artwork that can be rolled and easily stored or transported.

Scroll Painting: used to describe a rolled artwork such as a Tibetan tangka, a Nepalese paubha, or an Indian pata. Note: a Tibetan tangka can be either a painting or a textile - applique or embroidery.

Shakti (S.): a female consort of a male Hindu deity found in Tantric literature and art. This term is not common in Buddhist Tantric literature or with reference to female figures in Buddhist art.

Shaman: a Siberian word, the name for a ritualist and healer in tribal or family clan belief systems. The word is a corruption of the Sanskrit/Pali word shramana meaning a Buddhist monk, or wandering mendicant.

Shambhala: (S.) a heaven-like realm, a Buddhist pureland believed to exist to the north of the Himalayas and Tibet, associated with and originating in the Kalachakra system of Buddhist Tantra.

Shangri-La: an invented Western word referring to a hidden land in the Himalayas and Tibet, from the publication Lost Horizons.

Shrine: a Buddhist or Bon space in a home or temple where sacred objects are displayed and offerings arranged.

Shugden, Dorje Shugden (T.): the name of an indigenous Tibetan Buddhist deity. This is a highly emotional and volatile subject. The propitiation of this deity has been outlawed/banned by the 14th Dalai Lama since the 1980s.

Singing bowls, Tibetan: Tibetan singing bowls are a modern invention, and unknown to Tibetans.

Spelling for Tibetan and Sanskrit Words: please see the RMA Standard Tibetan Romanization, which also includes information on Sanskrit spellings. In 1999 Ben Brinkley and I consulted with a host of scholars in the field of Tibetan Studies both in North America and Europe and came up with a consensus on how to standardize the Romanization of Tibetan into English for North American museum audiences. The HAR website also uses this standard Romanization.

Svastika, swastika (S.): meaning 'auspicious' in the Sanskrit language and 'everlasting' (T. yungdrung) in the Zhangzhung language of Western Tibet. When turning to the left the svastika is the principal religious symbol for both the Bon and Jain religions. For the Bon a right turning svastika has no meaning. For the Buddhists a right or left turning svastika is a decorative element occasionally having a more specific meaning within a localized symbolic or Tantric context.

Tangka (T.): the Tibetan word used to describe a variety of painted or textile (applique, embroidered, etc.) artworks done in cloth. There is no generally accepted standard way to Romanize the Tibetan word tangka (tanka, tonka, tangka, thanka, thonka, thangka). The HAR website uses RMA Standard Tibetan Romanization.

Tantra (S.): referring to a genre of technical and philosophical literature where the individual texts are known as a tantra, meaning a technical manual. Tantra is also a specific type of spiritual practice found in Buddhism, Hinduism and other sacred traditions including Islamic Sufism and Bon.

Tantric (S., E.): pertaining to tantra, or a Tantric practitioner, Buddhist or Hindu.

Theravada (Pali): the Buddhist tradition of the Thera, the Elders, found in South Asia. Theravada is the correct and politically correct way of referring to the Hinayana (Southern Buddhism). (See Hinayana).

Theravadin (Pali): pertaining to the Thera Tradition. (See Hinayana).

Tibet: the former independent country of Tibet now reduced in size due to the expropriation of lands ceded to bordering Chinese provinces and the resulting smaller area of Tibet renamed as the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China.

Tibetan art: sometimes used to describe the art of not only Tibet but also the Himalayas, and regions of Central Asia, Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, China, North India, East India. (See Himalayan art).

Tibetan Buddhism: a term commonly used in the past along with Lamaism to refer to all forms of Tantric Buddhism of the Himalayas, Central Asia, Mongolia, Siberia, etc. (See Himalayan Buddhism, Mongolian Buddhism).

Tsakli (S.): small painted cards executed on paper or sized cloth, used for ritual purposes by both Buddhists and Bon followers.

Vajra (Sanskrit: vajra. Tibetan Wylie: rdo rje. The two Tibetan conjunct words used to translate vajra into Tibetan are do and je (prounounced dorje). The word do means stone or rock and je means best or highest - the best stone: [1] from the Indian Vedic literature, the scepter of the Hindu god Indra namely a lightning bolt or lightning bolt scepter, [2] from the Indian Puranic literature, a weapon made from the bones of a sage (rishi), and [3] a word, also represented by a physical symbolic scepter that has come to represent Tantric Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana. As a Buddhist scepter it is a small object made of metal generally having five or nine prongs at each end that bend inward to form a rounded enclosure. As a ritual object it is almost always accompanied by a bell with a half vajra handle (Sanskrit: ghanta). (See diamond).

Vajra Posture: a Buddhist term referring to a seated position where the feet are placed sole up on the thigh of the opposite leg; right over left. In the West this posture is almost universally referred to as the lotus posture because that is the name used by the major Hindu traditions and in Hatha Yoga, subjects which are generally more familiar to Western audiences. The location of the Buddha's enlightenment in India, now called Bodhgaya, is called Vajrasana in Buddhist literature. The posture the Buddha sat in while reaching enlightenment is the vajra posture, and the highest meditation (samadhi) that is accomplished on reaching Buddhahood, in this vajra location and seated in vajra posture, is vajra samadhi.

Vajrabhairava: is a wrathful form of the deity Manjushri and functions as a meditational deity of the Anuttarayoga Classification in Tantric Buddhism. As a principal meditational deity Vajrabhairava, belongs to the Vajrabhairava and Yamari class of tantras and specifically arises from the Vajrabhairava Root Tantra (Tib.: jig je tsa gyu). The Vajrabhairava and Yamari Tantras belong to the method (father) classification of Anuttaryoga Tantra. The practice is common to the three main Sarma Schools of Tibetan Buddhism: Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug. Vajrabhairava is often mistakenly referred to as a protector deity, or a deity that functions as a protector. This mistake seems to first occur in the western publication of Demons and Oracles of Tibet. The words Yama, Yamari, Yamantaka, Bhairava and Vajrabhairava appear frequently in all classes of tantric texts and they can refer to an attendant deity, a protector, or as a worldly god beneath the feet of a Buddhist meditational deity (Skt. ishtadevata) such as Vajrayogini, or Chakrasamvara. In those instances Bhairava represents the various negative emotions to be conquered through meditation. Keeping in mind the similarities in name and form it is important not to confuse the various names, identities, deities and especially the Buddhist Tantric models and systems that each belongs and to properly understand each in its own place. (For more on this subject see the publication Demonic Divine by Rob Linrothe and Jeff Watt, Rubin Museum of Art, New York, 2004).

Yama, 'Death, Lord of the Hell Realm': Yama is understood to be a living being, actually the King of the Preta (ghost) realm, who functions as the judge of beings entering hell. The reason why he is categorized as a ghost is because no being can actually exist in hell unless they have been born there due to bad actions committed in previous lives (karma). In various versions of Hinduism Yama is categorized as a god and in Indian Puranic literature Yama and Yami, a brother and sister, are associated with hell. The Wheel of Life and the depictions of Yama in the Hell Realm are based on Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism and the Buddhist understanding of the person/individual of Yama is based on the Abhidharmakosha writings of Vasubhandu.

Yama Dharmaraja: an emanation of Manjushri and a Tantric Buddhist protector deity arising from the Vajrabhairava Tantra. Yama Dharmaraja is the special protector for the practitioners of the Vajrabhairava cycle of practice. In the past Yama Dharmaraja was constantly being confused with Yama the King of the Law that judges beings destined for the Hell Realm. (See Yama, Lord of Hell)

Yamantaka (S.): the name of any number of related and unrelated deities associated with all four classes of Buddhist Tantra Primarily Yamantaka belongs to a group of Ten Wrathful Ones that function as the Inner Protection Chakra of Anuttarayoga Mandalas. The ten deities can have different appearances depending on which tantra they are associated with. For instance in the Hevajra Tantra system Yamantaka has one face and two arms, without a consort. In the Guhyasamaja and Vajrabhairava Tantra systems Yamantaka can have three faces and six arms, with a consort. In the West the name Yamantaka has become mistakenly associated exclusively with the deity Vajrabhairava. (Please see Yama Dharmaraja for further clarification on the names Yama, Yamari, Yamantaka and Vajrabhairava). The two Hindu deities associated with the Hell realms, Yama and Yami, are found in Puranic literature but not in Buddhist Tantric literature.

Yamari: 'the Killer of Death' a Tantric Buddhist deity of the Anuttarayoga classification. Yamari has many different forms with the Black (Krishna) and Red (Rakta) Yamari being the two most common. These two deities along with Vajrabhairava are the most wrathful emanation forms of Manjushri. These deities, like Yama Dharmaraja, are constantly confused with the Lord of Death, Judge of the Hell Realms.

Author: Jeff Watt, Spring 2003
Updated: February 21st 2010