The Meditational Deity Chakrasamvara
Chakrasamvara (Tibetan: 'khor lo bde mchog. English: the Wheel of Bliss). Chakrasamvara is the principal Tantra text of the Anuttarayoga Wisdom (mother) classification of the Vajrayana Buddhist Tradition. Chakrasamvara is also one of the most popular deities in Tantric Buddhism, the Himalayan regions, and Tibet after the 11th century. His purpose and function in the Buddhist Vajrayana system is as a model for meditation practice employed by Tantric practitioners. There is a vast corpus of literature on the subject of Chakrasamvara. The original source material is written in the Indian Sanskrit language with hundreds of later commentaries, ritual texts, dance performance instructions, and meditation manuals created in the Tibetan language.
Chakrasamvara is a complex meditational form with many different appearances depending on the original Sanskrit root Tantra of which there are many. There are at least two dozen different forms of the deity and at least fifty lineages of practice which still exist today within Tibetan Buddhism.
The different forms of the deity that appear commonly in art are also based on the more popular of the original Indian source literature such as the Samvarodaya Tantra, Abhidhana Tantra and the Vajradaka Tantra. Chakrasamvara can appear in many different forms, from simple to complex and peaceful to wrathful. This complexity makes it necessary to rely heavily on the descriptive literature in the Sanskrit and Tibetan languages to identify the various forms of the deity. Each of the different forms described in the literature are meant to emphasize different types of meditation practice that are suited to specific emotional and psychological characteristics of the tantric practitioners who take on these complicated meditation practices.
The lineage of teachers for the Tantric system of Chakrasamvara are believed to have first originated with the primordial Buddha Vajradhara, then taught to Vajrapani, followed by the line of Indian teacher beginning with Saraha, then Acharya Nagarjuna, Shavaripa, Luipa, Darikapa, Vajra Ghantapa, Kumarapada, Jalandharapa, Krishnacharya, Guhyapa, Vijaya, Acharya Barmai Lobpon, Tilopa, Naropa, the two Pamting brothers of Kathmandu Valley, etc. Descending from these Indian and Nepalese teachers the lineage continued into Tibet and was especially maintained by the traditions of the Sakya, Kagyu, Jonang, and later the Gelug.
This particular composition of Chakrasamvara depicts five different forms of the deity. The central and larger figure of Chakrasamvara is dark blue in colour with four faces, twelve arms and two legs. The faces are blue, red, white and yellow. The first two hands hold a vajra and bell and embrace the mother consort. The last two hold an elephant skin out-stretched. The remaining hands hold a damaru drum, an axe, trident, and curved knife. The remaining left hands hold a katvanga staff marked with a vajra, a vajra noose, blood filled skullcup, and the sixth carries the four-faced severed head of Brahma. The right leg is bent and presses on head of Black Yama. The left leg is straight and presses on the breast of Red Kalaratri. Each head has a crown of five dry human skulls, a necklace of fifty fresh heads and bone ornaments. He also wears a long green snake as a necklace.
Pressed close to the body of Chakrasamvara is the Mother Vajrayogini, with a body red in colour, one face, two hands and three eyes. The left hand holds a blood filled skullcup and embraces the Father, and the right, in a threatening gesture, holds a curved knife. The right and left legs are extended in the same posture as Chakrasamvara. Both Figures, as a couple, stand in the middle of a red fire of pristine awareness and stand atop a multi-coloured lotus and sun disc. Under the lotus seat is an inscription written in Tibetan language reading 'Chakrasamvara of the Tong Drel Tradition' (bde mchog stong 'drel lugs).
At the upper left side is a different form of Chakrasamvara than the central figure. This depiction derives from the Abhidhana Tantra. The most noticeable characteristic is the dancing posture, with one leg raised, and the red Vajrayogini consort with the legs wrapped around the torso of Chakrasamvara. (a bhi dha na las gsungs pa'i bde mchog).
At the upper right side is Chakrasamvara of the Samvarodaya Tantra. This form of the deity has three face and six arms. He stands on both legs and the consort wraps her legs around his torso. Both figures stand in a posture leaning to their proper left. (sdom 'byung bde mchog).
At the bottom right is Vajrasattva Chakrasamvara with multiple faces and sixteen arms. The consort is white and has six arms. Both figures lean to their proper left. (khro wo rdo rje sems dpa').
At the bottom left is Vajradaka Chakrasamvara with four faces and six arms. The consort is red in colour and stands on the left leg and wraps the right leg around the torso of Chakrasamvara. (be mchog rdo rje mkha 'gro).
Each of the five deities have an inscription located below the lotus seat of the figure, written in Tibetan script, either identifying the form of each by name or by associated Tantra text or tradition.
The painting belongs to a larger set of compositions depicting a selected representation of various Anuttarayoga Tantra deities that are considered the principal meditational forms of the Karma Kagyu (Kamtsang) Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. All of these deities belong to the second period of Buddhist propagation in Tibet.
The general style of the artwork is typical of Palpung Monastery located in the Kham region of East Tibet. The specific art style is a combination of Khyenri style figures and an open uncluttered minimalist landscape derived from borrowing elements of Chinese landscape art. In general the style of painting can more accurately be described to as a Kham Style. In Tibetan popular culture this type of painting is referred to erroneously as Karma Gardri after the painting style of Tsurphu Monastery and the famous traveling tent encampments of the Karmapa Lamas of Tibet.
There are a number of other painted compositions in private and museum collections around the world that have been identified as belonging to this same iconographic subject set from Palpung Monastery. However, no other paintings from this specific painting set have yet been identified.
(Written for the publication and exhibition catalogue: Exhibition of Quintessence of Returning Tibetan Cultural Relics from Oversea. Beijing, China, July 2012).
Jeff Watt, June 22nd, 2012