Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Shakyamuni Buddha - Shakyamuni

ཤཱཀྱ་ཐུབ་པ། 释迦牟尼佛
(item no. 7761)
Origin Location Tibet
Date Range 1400 - 1499
Lineages Gelug and Buddhist
Size 114.30x88.90cm (45x35in)
Material Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton
Collection Private
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Person

Appearance: Buddha

Gender: Male

Interpretation / Description

Shakyamuni Buddha (Tibetan: sha kya tu pa, sang gye. English: the Enlightened One, Sage of the Shakya Clan), founder of Buddhism. In Theravadin, or Foundational Buddhism, Shakyamuni is the only Buddha. In Mahayana Buddhism there are many Buddhas mentioned. Some are described in detail with complex narratives and literature while others are only referenced by name.

Sanskrit: Buddha Shakyamuni Tibetan: Sang gye sha kya tu pa

Formal in appearance, Shakyamuni Buddha with partially closed eyes and the blue-black hair with a single gold ornament adorning the crown. Adorning the neck are three curved horizontal lines. The earlobes are long and pierced. With the right arm bare the right hand is extended across the knee in the earth touching gesture (mudra). The left performs the gesture (mudra) of meditation - palm upward in the lap. The upper and lower body are attired in saffron and gold coloured patchwork robes. A similar lower garment is tied at the waist with a cloth belt. The legs are folded in vajra posture.

"Born in the Shakya race through skillful means and compassion;
destroying the army of Mara who was unable to be destroyed by others;
with a body radiant like a mountain of gold.
Homage to you, King of Shakya." (Tibetan liturgical verse).

To the viewer's left side of of the Buddha's face is the meditational deity Akshobhyavajra Guhyasamaja. To the right side is Vajrabhairava. Both are blue in colour and embrace a consort.

Filling the upper right and left sides of the composition are the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas according to the system of Nagarjuna.

Descending at the lower right and left sides are the Sixteen Great Elders with Dharmatala at the lower right corner. At the bottom center are a group of donor figures, and to the left side, three peaceful deities and two guardian kings. On the right side is Yellow Jambhala and two guardian kings, along with the Dharma protectors Shadbhuja Mahakala and Yama Dharmaraja.

Jeff Watt 1-2020


Buddha Shakyamuni and the Thirty-five Buddhas of Confession

Western Tibet, Ngari Prefecture, Guge Kingdom, 15th century

by Laura A. Weinstein

The historical buddha Shakyamuni presides over this large assembly of buddhas, tantric deities and lamas. Shakyamuni is depicted holding a begging bowl and with his proper right hand in the earth-touching gesture, in recognition of his defeat of Mara and his achievement of enlightenment. His closest disciples, Maudgalayayana and Shariputra, flank him. Four buddhas performing the teaching gesture appear in red nimbuses within the negative space between Shakyamuni and the torana, or gateway-like throne back, around which the remainder of the retinue is depicted. Guhyasamaja Akshobhyavajra and Vajrabhairava, each with consort, are depicted atop floating lotuses between the buddhas on either side of Shakyamuni’s head. Within the foliate-filled mandorla that surrounds the buddha’s body are two teachers in pandit hats. The blue-shirted figure is Atisha (982-1054), progenitor of the early Kadampa (Tib. bka’ gdams pa) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, and the other may be Suvarnadvipa.

The remainder of the floating figures in the top half of the composition are the Thirty-Five Buddhas of Confession, which are described in The Sutra of Three Heaps within the twenty-fourth chapter of The Jewel Mound Sutra titled ‘The Definitive Vinaya.’ According to the sutra, the mere names of these buddhas have the power to purify defilements, particularly failures to adhere to the bodhisattva vow. The sutra describes the proper process of confession and prostration. Here, the confessional buddhas take on the appearances described in Nagarjuna’s commentary, The Bodhisattva’s Confession of Ethical Downfalls (note that there is more than one Nagarjuna in Buddhist histories and they are sometimes conflated). An idealized donor scene with Jambhala at the right represents those who would be carrying out this practice. Above the donors sit five Gelukpa lamas. To the donors’ left appear Virudhaka, Dhritarashtra, and three peaceful tantric deities; to their right appear Vaishravana, Virupaksha, Shadbhuja Mahakala and Yama Dharmaraja. The sixteen arhats with attendant Dharmatala appear below the buddhas in the right and left margins of the composition; the uppermost arhats sit just below and beside the feet of either makara within the torana.

These iconographic details point to the fifteenth-century origin of this painting, just as stylistic details do. The way each buddha is depicted with a round halo intersecting a mandorla just above the figure’s shoulder’s is typical of this period. Many other stylistic features of buddhas painted in this time and place are reflected in the central image of Shakyamuni: his very-spherical ushnisha, pronounced widows peak, faint urna, thin arched brows, wide eyes, narrow mouth, pendulous earlobes, and three distinct neck folds. The well-known fifteenth-century Shakyamuni in the Bhadrakalpa Guiseppe Tucci collected on one of his trips to Guge in 1933 or 1935 (see Himalayan Art Resources item no. 19003) is part of the same milieu, as is a painting of the present subject in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (see Himalayan Art Resources, item no. 31303). Each of these bears a close resemblance to buddhas within the fifteenth-century murals of the White Temple at Tholing Monastery, which were referred to at the time of creation as Kache Luk (kha che lugs) or the style of Kashmir. The Tucci painting is, in fact, inscribed with this description beneath the silk frame (see Klimburg-Salter, Discovering Tibet: The Tucci Expeditions and Tibetan Paintings, Milan, 2015, Cat no. 2, pp. 88-92). The stylistic descriptor refers to the influence of Kashmiri artists working in the region since the late tenth century, when the kingdom of Guge-Purang was founded.

The present form of Kache Luk certainly represents the Tibetan evolution of a style originally associated with Kashmir, the foundation of which can be seen most vividly in the well-intact murals of Alchi painted in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The famous translator and lama, Rinchen Zangpo (958–1055), is credited with beginning the tradition of commissioning Kashmiri artists for the Western Tibetan monasteries he founded--which included Tholing. Elements of the earlier Kache Luk can therefore be seen in the much-earlier parts of the Tholing complex: the Red Temple and the Golden Temple. The White Temple is devoid of elements that can be more directly associated with the Sassanian Persian influence that pervades the murals of Alchi as well as these parts of the Tholing monastic complex.

In the present work, pointed petals on the crowns of Akshobhyavajra Guhyasamaja and the tantric buddhas atop Shakyamuni’s throne, may intentionally refer to the earlier Kache-Luk murals and the three-dimensional mandala figures that surround them at Alchi, Tabo, Nako and Poo (the latter three also located along Sultej River at the heart of the western Tibetan kingdom). The billowing sleeves of the kings of the cardinal directions also mirror those earlier styles. Exaggerated proportions, high-contrast shading of physical features, and large billowing ribbons have, however, been exchanged in the present work for a more naturalistic, while flatter, approach. Other stylistic features pointing to the present painting’s fifteenth-century origin include several Indo-Nepalese techniques introduced to Tibet through Newar artists active in the more central regions during the second dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet (10th-12th centuries). The predominantly red palette, pa-tra or scrollwork motif within Shakyamuni’s mandorla, and representation of naga are the most apparent.

A fifteenth-century origin for the present painting is also logical given the small number of Gelukpa lamas depicted herein. Tibetan histories state that in the early fifteenth-century the Gelukpa tradition was brought to Western Tibet by lama Ngawang Drakpa (specific life dates unknown) and that the tradition was adopted at Tholing and Tsaparang immediately after. It is this somewhat enigmatic figure, who is credited with the construction of the White Temple; he became the abbot of Tholing as well as the surrounding monasteries of Guge. Knowing Ngawang Drakpa came from central Tibet, we can surmise that he sought to introduce contemporary styles from that region too. It follows that the small clouds scattered between buddhas, throughout the upper part of the composition, resemble those within the famous murals at Gyantse (in south-central Tibet, completed within the first quarter of the fifteenth-century) to which the greatest Nepalese artists are known to have contributed.

Secondary Images
Related Items
Thematic Sets
Tradition: Gelug Protectors (Composition Examples)
Collection of Kapoor Galleries: God/Goddess Catalogue
Subject: Confession Buddhas (Nagarjuna System)
Collection: Kapoor Galleries
Shakyamuni Buddha: Main Page
Painting Style: Guge Kingdom (Western Tibet)
Shakyamuni Buddha, 释迦牟尼佛:, ཤཱཀྱ་ཐུབ་པ། Painting (Masterworks)
Collection: Kapoor Galleries (Masterworks)