Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Thirty-five Confession Buddhas Main Page

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Database Search: Shakyamuni Buddha & the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas

The Sutra of the Three Heaps, in Sanskrit the Triskhandhadharmasutra, or briefly the Triskandha Sutra (phung po gsum pa'i mdo), is a Mahayana ritual text used primarily by monks and nuns for the purpose of confession of downfalls which means transgressions against the vinaya and bodhisattva vows. The central object of worship is the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas, including Shakyamuni Buddha. The name of the sutra follows from the three principal sections of the text: 1) homage, 2) confession, and 3) and dedication. There are other texts on confession found in the various Mahayana Sutras however none of those appear to have any representations in Himalayan and Tibetan art.

There are two traditions of Mahayana Buddhism that include the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas as a key element in ritual and visualization practice. The two are the Yogachara and Madhyamaka philosophical systems of Mahayana Buddhism. Two distinct ritual systems for bestowing the Bodhisattva Vows have developed from these two traditions and both incorporate the visualization of the Thirty-five Buddhas along with the recitation of the Confession Sutra.

In Himalayan and Tibetan art there are at least three different iconographic systems for depicting the individual Thirty-five Confession Buddhas. The principal authors of commentaries and ritual texts were Nagarjuna (not necessarily the famous Nagarjuna), Sakya Pandita and Je Tsongkapa along with a number of others. The TBRC website lists approximately sixty texts associated with the practice of the Confession Buddhas.

There are two basic types of iconographic depictions of the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas. The first type depicts each of the Buddhas with standard hand gestures and with out hand attributes. The second type depicts some or all of the Buddhas with hand attributes.

Three Systems of Depiction:
1. Gestures Only (Without Hand Attributes) - Sakya, Jonang and some other Traditions
2. Nagarjuna System (With Hand Attributes) - Nyingma, Kagyu & some Gelug Traditions
3. Tsongkapa System (With Some Hand Attributes) - Gelug and Karma Kagyu Tradition

In Sakya Pandita's text Pungpo'i Sumpa'i Do Dontab Shug, he describes the thirty-five Buddhas as divided into five groups of seven Buddhas each. The five groups of seven follow the appearance of the Five Symbolic or Tantric Buddhas: Vairochana, Amitabha, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava and Amoghasiddhi. This means that the first group of seven are white and each with the same gesture of Dharma Teaching. The second group of seven are red and with the gesture of meditation, and so on for the remaining three Tantric Buddhas and the remaining three groups of seven. There is a suggestion that any textual depictions of the Buddhas with hand objects is spurious. See a painting that follows the Sakya Pandita description. (sa skya bka' bum. phung po gsum pa'i mdo 'don thabs bzhugs. Volume 12[NA], pages 450-452 & 464).

Je Tsongkapa system for depicting the Thirty-five Buddhas is stated in his writings to be based on his own meditative vision and not on a textual source. This episode from the life-story is also well depicted in art. (gsung 'bum tsong kha pa, sku 'bum par ma. sangs rgyas so lnga'i mngon rtogs dang lha sku'i phyag tshad bzhugs so. Vol.11 [da] page 709).

Jonang Taranata discusses the various systems for depicting the thirty-five Buddhas and states that he has a doubt, that the systems of depicting the Buddhas with various hand objects (attributes such as a sword, vajra, tree branch, Mount Meru), that these originate in India or from Indian source texts - again suggesting, like Sakya Pandita, that any such text (or texts) may be spurious. (Taranatha gsung 'bum. ltung bshags kyi 'grel ba. Vol.17, page 945).

The most common central subject for the Thirty-five Confession Buddha composition is Shakyamuni Buddha, however, Nageshvara Raja, Amitabha, Maitreya or Avalokiteshvara can also be found at the center. The earliest painting of the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas on the HAR website is #89956. Aside from the Confession Buddhas appearing in a single composition as the main subject they are commonly depicted as minor figures in sets of paintings depicting Shakyamuni Buddha and the Sixteen Arhats: Set Example 1 | Set Example 2 | Set Example 3 | Set Example 4 | Set Example 5 | Set Example 6 | Set Example 7 | Set Example 8 | Set Example 9 | Set Example 10. Also see a Single Composition Example with other figures and iconographic sets includes.

Only two of the thirty-five Buddhas are depicted or worshiped separately from the larger group - they are Shakyamuni Buddha and Nageshvara Raja Buddha (as he appears in the Tsongkapa system). However, it is doubtful that there is any relationship between the Nageshvara Raja Buddha of the Confession Sutra and the meditational deity Nageshvara Raja popularized by Jowo Atisha. It is most probable that these two Buddhas became conflated over time because of the similarity in name. Regardless of that, it is commonly believed that these two Buddhas are the same single entity.

Paintings and sets of paintings depicting Shakyamuni Buddha and the Sixteen Arhats are a representation of the basic Hinayana Buddhist origins and tenets - specifically the Vinaya, moral code and such. The thirty-five Confession Buddhas are a representation of the purification of the Bodhisattva aspiration and moral code of Mahayana Buddhism. It is common to find these two subjects depicted together in Himalayan and Tibetan art.

Jeff Watt 7-2011 [updated 5-2015]