Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Akshobhya Buddha - Buddha

མི་འཁྲུགས་པ། 不动如来
(item no. 2431)
Origin Location Tibet
Date Range 1400 - 1499
Lineages Buddhist
Material Metal, Mercuric Gild, Painted Face/Hair, Precious Stone, Stone Inset: Turquoise
Collection Private
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Deity

Appearance: Buddha

Gender: Male

Interpretation / Description

Akshobhya Buddha (Tibetan: mi kyu pa, sang gye): a principal buddha within Vajrayana Buddhism residing in the eastern quarter of a mandala and a minor buddha within the sutra tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. The name of the artist is not known but the work belongs to the Sonam Gyaltsen sculpture atelier of Tsang Province, Tibet, circa 1430. The identification of Akshobhya is tentative and open to further research. Akshobhya holding a vajra in the right hand is very rare although there are several paintings of Akshobhya that have this iconographic characteristic.

Buddhas with Vajra Attributes

In art there are two main types of Akshobhya Buddha appearance, the first is where he appears in the guise of a classic Buddha wearing the monk’s attire and having the ushnisha on the crown of the head. The second type is where Akshobhya has the appearance of a peaceful deity and is adorned with a crown, jewelry and heavenly garments. In either form, it is unusual for Akshobhya to hold the vajra in the extended right hand. Typically for both the vajra is upright standing on the palm of the left hand in the lap. The monk’s begging bowl, as found with this sculpture, is also an unusual attribute for Akshobhya.

There are at least four Buddhas associated with the vajra scepter. Three of those Buddhas hold the vajra in the hands, either right or left, and are counted among one of the three principal systems for depicting the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas. If an argument can be made that the vajra in the right hand of this sculptural figure is a later addition, and not original to the sculpture, then a different identification can be proposed - such as Shakyamuni Buddha. Shakyamuni is also not known to ever be depicted with a vajra scepter in the right hand, extended forward or otherwise.

The identification of the style and sculptural atelier is based on the raised floral patterns of the robes, along with the turquoise stone insets, and the additional incising and scrollwork patterns on the robes. Comparable imagery can be found with other Sonam Gyaltsen atelier works and comparably at Gyantse Palkor Chode in the mural paintings.

There are many unique features with this 15th century sculptural style. The mercuric guilting can be described as a high gloss, very yellow, and fresh looking. The high polished gold is consistent with the many other atelier examples. The robes adorning the figure of Akshobhya, in a cast relief, unusually high, and decorated with flower motifs of four petals, are adorned with small cut insets of turquoise stone evenly arranged in the cross pattern sections of the robes. Surrounding the flowers and stones are incised patterns of vines and leaves filling all of the flat open areas of the upper and lower garments. This patterned incising is also a special feature of the Sonam Gyaltsen sculptural style. Typically the patterns would follow the edges of the robes and around the bottom of the lotus base as observed with many of the other examples. However, with the Akshobhya sculpture the patterns are carried generously throughout the upper and lower body making this figure an important example of many of the special stylistic features of the Sonam Gyaltsen and atelier sculptural style.

Occupying a central role in Vajrayana Buddhism, Akshobhya, meaning unshakeable, by some accounts, is Lord of the 2nd of the Five Buddha Families of tantra and found throughout all four tantra classifications most notably in the anuttarayoga class. Akshobhya is also mentioned in several Mahayana sutras, the Vimalakirti Nirdesa being the most famous. It was in Abhirati, the pureland of Akshobhya, attainable only by 8th level bodhisattvas, where the famous Tibetan yogi Milarepa and the scholar Sakya Pandita are said to have obtained complete buddhahood.

The context and reason for production of this sculpture is not known. It could have been part of a set or series of sculptural works. The size indicates that it would have been placed in a larger environment and not necessarily a home or personal shrine. The condition is very good with only minor blemishes and losses on the right arm and hand, and a few others scattered across the form such as on the knees and garment above the proper left hand. Blue lapis lazuli was applied to the hair and some losses have occurred. The sculpture is separated from the original lotus or throne base. However a lotus base has been provided for this image although it is not convincingly clear if it can be argued that is original to the sculpture. The lotus base provided has had some cosmetic work to repair dents and loss of gold gilding. All in all, the Akshobhya sculpture is an example of one of the finest buddha images produced by the Sonam Gyaltsen atelier.

"Arising in the eastern direction is Akshobhya on an elephant, lotus and moon throne; with a body blue in colour the right hand is placed in the mudra of pressing down." (Dragpa Gyaltsen, 1147-1216).

Jeff Watt 8-2017 [updated 6-2018, 12-2019]

Secondary Images
Related Items
Exhibition Appearances
Exhibition: RMA Masterworks, January 28th, 2021

HAR History

Thematic Sets
Subject: Terminology - Vajra Attribute
Artist: Sonam Gyaltsen & Atelier (Buddha)
Collection of Zhiguan Museum of Fine Art (RMA 2019)
Collection of Zhiguan (Sculpture)
Publication: Images of Faith, A Private Collection of Himalayan Art
Iconography: Buddhist Appearance (Figurative Forms)
Video: Three Minute Himalayan Art (YouTube)
Buddhist Deity: Akshobhya Buddha Main Page (阿閦佛)
Collection: Bonhams Hong Kong (Sculpture. October, 2017)
Subject: Buddhas with the Vajra Attribute
Buddhist Deity: Buddha Art History
Artist: Sonam Gyaltsen & Atelier (Buddha Select)
Buddhist Deity: Akshobhya Iconography
Subject: Patchwork Robes
Buddhist Deity: Akshobhya Buddha, 阿閦佛, མི་འཁྲུགས་པ། (Sculpture Masterworks)
Subject: Vajra Named Deities
Buddhist Deity: Akshobhya Buddha (Nirmanakaya)
Sculpture: Five Study Topics (Figurative)
Buddhist Deity: Akshobhya Buddha (Vajra on Right Side)
Artist: Sonam Gyaltsen & Atelier (Sculpture)
Collection of Zhiguan Museum of Fine Art
Subject: Masterworks (Buddha, 佛陀, སངས་རྒྱས།)
Sculpture: Sonam Gyaltsen & Atelier (Gilded Masterworks)