Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Teacher (Lama) - Tsongkapa

བླ་མ། 喇嘛
(item no. 69918)
Origin Location Tibet
Date Range 1500 - 1599
Lineages Gelug and Buddhist
Material Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton
Collection Private
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Person

Appearance: Monastic

Gender: Male

TBRC: bdr:P64

Interpretation / Description

Lama Tsongkapa, Lobzang Dragpa, also known as Je Rinpoche (1357-1419): founder of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism. Tsongkapa established the Ganden Monastery in central Tibet which became the principal seat of the Gelug School. Beginning with Tsongkapa, each of the successive Throne Holders of Ganden Monastery are considered the heads of the Gelug Tradition. In this early composition Tsongkapa is portrayed as the principal figure along with the two most important disciples standing at the right and left, accompanied by the two most important groups of lineage teachers from India known as the Yogachara and Madhyamaka philosophical lineage traditions.

Tsongkapa Biographical Details

In the appearance of a monastic scholar with a yellow pandita hat, tall and pointed, and the orange and yellow patchwork robes of a fully ordained monk (bhikshu), he performs with both hands the gesture of Dharma teaching at the heart while holding the stems of two flowers blossoming at the level of both ears supporting on his right a wisdom sword and on the left a Prajnaparamita book. With the two legs folded in vajra posture he sits upon a moon disc and multi-coloured lotus seat above an ornate throne supported by two lions. Standing at the right and left are the two close disciples of Je Rinpoche, Gyaltsap Dharma Rinchen (1364-1432) and Kedrub Geleg Pal Zangpo (1385-1438). Both wear monastic robes and each hold an object upraised in the two hands, a bowl on the right and a book on the left.

At the front of the throne, centrally placed, is an unidentified Tibetan teacher in monastic garb accompanied by two attendant monks. At the viewer's left side of the throne is a small figure of White Tara - a deity particularly practiced for the increase of lifespan - longevity. At the right side is the deity Green Tara specializing in the acquiring of all things conducive for Buddhist practice and the overcoming of all obstacles.

At the top center is Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha of India 2500 years ago, with the two principal disciples, Shariputra (white) and Maudgalyayana (blue). On the register below slightly to the right and left are the two Buddhas, Dipamkara (white) and Maitreya (green) - the Buddhas of the past and of the future. Together with Shakyamuni they are collectively known as the Buddhas of the Three Times. To the side of Maitreya is the meditational deity (ishtadevata) Akshobhyavajra Guhyasamaja, peaceful in appearance, blue in colour with three faces and six arms, embracing a consort, both seated. To the side of Maitreya is the fearsome meditational deity Vajrabhairava, blue, buffalo-headed, with nine faces and thirty-four hands, standing.

Again looking at the top center with Shakyamuni Buddha and two students, on the viewer's left is the bodhisattva Maitreya depicted as a Buddha followed by the Indian teacher and father of the Yogachara Mahayana philosophical system Asanga. Following the individual figures left and then downward are all of the lineage teachers of the Yogachara descending down to Atisha and the Tibetan depicted in the garb of a layman - Dromton - founder of the Reting Monastery and the Kadam Tradition of Tibet. Again from the top and right of Shakyamuni is the bodhisattva Manjushri depicted as a Buddha followed by Nagarjuna the father of the Madhyamaka philosophical system. The figures descending on the right are the lineage teachers of the Madyamaka again descending down to Atisha and Dromton. There are no apparent Tibetan name inscriptions to identify each figure in the lineage, however this information can be obtained from the various Gelug historical sources along with biographies for each.

In the bottom register are eight seated Indian monastic figures wearing yellow pandita hats - four on the right and four on the left. At the center of the row are two of the three principal protectors of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism. On the viewer's left is the Great Black One with Six Hands, Shadbhuja Mahakala, an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, blue-black in colour, wrathful. The third pair of hands hold outstretched the white hide of an elephant. On the viewer's right stand the protector deity Yama Dharmaraja, blue-black in colour, with the head of a buffalo, holding a bone stick and lasso, standing atop a buffalo.

The subject of the composition of the painting is not unique although rare. At least six other paintings are known from the 15th and 16th century time period that depict this same subject of Tsongkapa accompanied by the Yogachara and Madhyamaka lineages. This painting is a particularly good example. Compared with paintings from this same time period but commissioned by other Tibetan religious traditions, the subject and composition with its unique hierarchy indicates very clearly the focus and agenda of the early Gelug school. The Yogachara and Madhyamaka philosophical traditions are the highest and most advanced teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, recognized by all Tibetan Buddhist schools, and paintings such as this reenforce the importance the Gelug Tradition placed on such teachings as opposed to the Tantric teachings emphasized by the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Jonang traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

The style of composition in this and other similar paintings was discontinued after the late 17th century with the development of the compositional style known as the Gelug 'Field of Accumulation' created by the 1st Panchen Lama, Lobzang Chokyi Gyaltsen (1570-1662). The new Field of Accumulation composition (sometimes known as a Refuge Field) included both important Yogachara and Madhyamaka lineages along with the principal lineage of the Gelug school known as the Stages of the Path. A further elaboration in the new composition was the addition of three groups of religious figures and objects representing the all important Buddha, Dharma (represented by books depicted in a Tibetan style) and Sangha (represented by the Sixteen Arhats and the Eight Great Bodhisattvas). Further additions were the most important Tantric deities of the Gelug school along with all of the main protector deities.

With further research it might be possible to date the painting earlier than the 16th century. For a similar composition see the Zimmerman painting (not currently on the HAR website) in the publication: Himalayas An Aesthetic Adventure. Pratapaditya Pal (Author), Amy Heller (Contributor). Paperback, 308 pages. ISBN: 9780520239005. May 2003.

Jeff Watt 5-2011

See similar compositions of Tsongkapa with the Yogachara and Madhyamaka Lineages on the HAR website:

Secondary Images
Related Items
Thematic Sets
Teacher: Tsongkapa (Yogachara & Madhyamaka Lineages)
Teacher: Tsongkapa (Early Paintings, 15/16th Century)
Collection: Private 5
Teacher: Tsongkhapa Main Page
Subject: Lineage (Single Composition)
Subject: Lineage Paintings - Dual