Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Avalokiteshvara (Bodhisattva & Buddhist Deity) - (11 faces, 8 hands)

སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས། 观音菩萨
(item no. 612)
Origin Location Central Tibet
Date Range 1600 - 1699
Lineages Uncertain
Size 68.58x44.45cm (27x17.50in)
Material Fine Gold Line, Red Background on Cotton
Collection Rubin Museum of Art
Catalogue # acc.# F1998.3.8
Notes about the Central Figure

Alternate Names: Lokeshvara Avalokita Lokanata Lokanatha Mahakarunika

Classification: Deity

Appearance: Peaceful

Gender: Male

Interpretation / Description

Avalokiteshvara, Ekadasamukha (Tibetan: chen re zi, shal chu jig. English: the Eleven Faced Lord Gazing on the World); the bodhisattva of compassion. Surrounding the central figure are the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas according to the system of Tsongkapa.

Peaceful in appearance, with eleven faces rising upward in groups of three, the 10th is wrathful and the face at the top is that of the buddha Amitabha. Each face has two eyes and a dot between the eyebrows; long black hair flows across the shoulders. With 8 hands the first pair at the heart hold a precious jewel. The three right hands extended to the side are in the mudra of generosity, holding a Dharma wheel and a crystal prayer bead mala. The three on the left hold a water flask, a bow and arrow and a lotus blossom. Each face is adorned with a gold crown, ribbons and earrings. Necklaces, bracelets and precious jewels adorn the body and a scarf is wrapped about the neck. A deerskin is worn across the left shoulder and the lower body is covered in various silk fabrics. With the two legs together he stands atop a lotus flower surrounded by radiant light forming a large gold nimbus and smaller areolas about the heads.

Completely surrounding the central figure are the 35 Buddhas of Confession from the sutra of the same name. Each performs a unique mudra (gesture) or holds a special object. At the top center is the leader of the group, buddha Shakyamuni, with the right hand extended in the mudra of earth witness and the left placed in the lap in the mudra of meditation. Seated in vajra posture on a lotus cushion he is encircled by rings of light.

The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is the patron deity of Tibet and appears in a variety of forms both peaceful, wrathful and in large mandalas surrounded by numerous deities. As a universal symbol he embodies the compassion of all buddhas of the ten directions and three times. In the standing form with 11 faces he is closely associated with the famous bhikshuni (nun) of Kashmir, Lakshmi (Tib.: Ani Palmo), who popularized a meditation practice incorporating a 2 day purification and fasting ritual. Lord Atisha, Rinchen Zangpo and others popularized this practice throughout Tibet.

History: At one time the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara made a promise that should he give rise to thoughts of self benefit may the head break into 10 pieces and the body into 1000. After continuously witnessing the misery of beings in various states of existence, discouraged, he gave rise to thoughts of seeking only his own happiness. At that very instant the head and body shattered. Calling out to Amitabha, the buddha came forth and spoke words of encouragement. Gathering up the 10 pieces of the head Amitabha constructed 10 faces - representing the 10 perfections. Gathering the 1000 pieces of the body he constructed another with 1000 hands each with an eye on the palm - representing the 1000 buddhas of the Golden Aeon. Finally he placed a duplicate of his own head at the crown - illuminating the entire threefold universe. This story is found in the apocryphal Tibetan text called the Mani Kabum. In that text it also describes how Tara appears from a tear drop coming from Avalokiteshvara's right eye and the goddess Brikuti appears from a tear drop of the left eye. Both Tara and Brikuti are manifesting, like the other enlightened figures, to assist Avalokiteshvara on the path of benefitting all beings and reaching enlightenemnet. Some modern tellings of the story state that the two goddesses were Green Tara and White Tara.

The painting is executed in the manner of 'tsal thang.' On a red ground produced from vermilion paint the outline of figures are drawn and later filled with gold dust paint or coloured pigments depending on the artist or wishes of the patron.

Jeff Watt 9-99

Secondary Images
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Thematic Sets
Subject: Confession Buddhas (Tsongkapa System)
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