Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Teacher (Lama)

བླ་མ། 喇嘛
(item no. 81429)
Origin Location Tibet
Date Range 1700 - 1799
Lineages Kagyu, Drukpa (Kagyu) and Buddhist
Material Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton
Collection Private
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Person

Interpretation / Description

Kunpang Sherab Gyatso (1478-1542) Life Story composition from a much larger set of Drugpa Kagyu Lineage paintings.[TBRC P919].

Kunpang Sherab Gyatso (1478-1542) was a teacher and lineage holder of the Drugpa Kagyu Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. He is also known by the names Jetsun Tsunmochen and Awadhutipa Tsunmochen. The term 'awadhutipa' is Sanskrit and refers to a Buddhist practitioner that has completely renounced the worldly life style.

The Drugpa Kagyu was, and still remains today, a sub-school of the Dagpo Kagyu. The Drugpa was founded by Tsangpa Gyare and descends from the teachers Pagmodrubpa, Gampopa, Milarepa and Marpa Chokyi Lodro. The name of the school 'drug' means dragon and originates from an experience when the founder and a group of students are said to have seen several dragons rise from the earth and into the sky. This event was taken as an auspicious occurrence, and henceforth the school was known as the Drugpa Kagyu.

There are many lineages and traditions of the Drugpa school and they are traditionally categorized in several different ways. An early system to distinguish the various lineages and schools divides them into Upper, Middle and Lower Drugpa. Another system divides them into just two categories: Northern Drugpa (primarily in Tibet), and the Southern Drugpa of Bhutan. From all of the many lineages and schools of the Dagpo Kagyu descending from Milarepa's student Gampopa, the Drugpa is by far the largest of the many schools with major centers in Tibet, throughout the Himalayas, the Northern mountain ranges of Nepal, Ladakh and other regions of North India, and finally the country of Bhutan.

The painting depicts as the central subject of the composition the teacher Sherab Gyatso, facing slightly to his left side, also, appearing as he would have looked later in life. Wearing the orange and red robes of a Buddhist monk, he is shown with an older visage, a balding head and a white beard, the beard unusually long for a Tibetan monastic. The right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing and the left holds a white skull cup at the level of the heart. Placed high on the forehead, out of the way and not in use, he wears a black Tibetan eye-covering used to protect the eyes from the glare and brightness of the snow, or the strong sunlight common at high altitudes in the Tibetan regions. This eye-covering which is used for protection from the elements is completely utilitarian and has no religious function.

Surrounding Sherab Gyatso is a translucent halo. He is seated atop a deer skin, symbolic of the famous story of the krishnasara deer. Perched above a rocky outcropping with turbulent water below, he is framed with a tree at the back. Attended upon by two goddess-like figures, youthful, adorned with heavenly attire and ornaments, the seated goddess on the left holds upraised in the hand a white skull cup, while the standing figure on the right holds a large golden vessel filled with a heavenly libation.

Sherab Gyatso was a student of the 3rd Gyalwang Drugchen, Jamyang Chokyi Dragpa (1478-1523), and a teacher for the even more famous 4th Drugchen, Padma Karpo (1527-1574). It is said in the tradition that the Indian Dakini Sukhasiddhi foretold that in the future there would be someone named Kunpang who would be born as an emanation of Mitra Yogin. Born in the village of Nyal Yangpa, he was given the name Dorje Tagtsan. His father was a village headman. As a youth he studied diligently all of the important subjects of the time. At 14 years of age he took over the traditional responsibilities of his forefathers. He later married and had a son and daughter, but by the age of 24 he was weary of ordinary life and abandoned his home, family and property. Making his way to Central Tibet, he symbolically cut his hair and, again in the tradition, it is said that he was praised by the Gods as an awadhutipa.

Seeking knowledgeable teachers such as Drugpa Rinpoche Ngawang Chogyal, Gelong Rinchen Namgyal, Chokyab Palzang, Trulku Namkha Gyaltsen and others, he received formal teachings and practical instructions, along with taking on the vows of a monk. At this time he received the new monastic name of Sherab Gyatso.

Following the instruction of his principal teacher he conducted a strict three year retreat at Tashi Tongmon where he had a vision of Padmasambhava and the two consorts appearing in the sky in front. He also had a vision of Machig Labdron and many other signs of accomplishment in his practice. Passing away at 65, his principal student was Padma Karpo.

Surrounding the central figure of Sherab Gyatso there are thirteen small narrative vignettes which highlight the special moments in his life as a meditator and teacher. Each event is accompanied by a Tibetan inscription, written below or to the side, briefly describing the depicted scene.

Explained very generally, there are three meditational deities pictured in the surroundings. Vajrayogini and Amitayus, both red in colour, are at the top left of the composition and Vajrapani, blue and wrathfull in appearance, at the lower center of the composition. The Indian teacher Padmasambhava appears at the upper right. A single Indian mahasiddha appears at the top center. This mahasiddha is Maitripa, brown in colour, holding a black deer horn. At the bottom left, Sherab Gyatso is visited by four protector deities: Shri Devi, Rahula, Simhamukha and Pehar Gyalpo - the last appearing as a monk.

At the middle right is a very rare depiction of a Buddhist teacher engaging in Karma Yoga (Tantric sexual practices) with a goddess-like figure, having descended from the higher realms on a ribbon of rainbow light. At the middle left are three architectural structures with several figures performing various rituals and the elaborate empowerment of Chakrasamvara. Slightly to the right, the teacher is portrayed walking in a cemetery and holding a human bone horn, framed by licks of orange flames from a fire rising from the ground behind, wild animals and spirits devour a human corpse in front. At the upper right Sherab Gyatso has a vision of Machig Labdron appearing inside a rainbow sphere, framed by clouds, accompanied by her son and principal student. From the Machig in the vision, Sherab Gyatso received instruction on the practices of 'Severing' and 'Transference'.

The painting of Sherab Gyatso is part of a much larger set of compositions depicting the complete line of lineage teachers of the Drugpa Kagyu Tradition of Tibet. On the back of this painting, located on the top, stitched as a patch, is a location indicator and the name of Sherab Gyatso. The inscription reads 'right 16, Kunpang Sherab Gyatso'. This means that there must also be at least sixteen compositions to the left side of the central painting. In total, and taking into consideration the date when the paintings were likely created, there must be between forty and fifty paintings which comprise the complete set of compositions, and possibly more. Three other compositions from this same set are currently known to exist. The style of painting is specific to the Khampa Gar Monastery of the Lhatog region of Kham, Tibet. The original style derives from the work of the great Drugpa Kagyu teacher and artist Cho Tashi who lived in the late 17th and early 18th century.

A love for beauty, art and painting can be found early on in Tibetan history with famous religious teachers such as Sakya Pandita and others, who were themselves artists. Several of the Karmapa Lamas were famous for their artistic talents. However, the Drugpa Kagyu tradition is somewhat unique from amongst all of the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism both for the number of great artists it has produced and for the emphasis on training in religious instruction and artistic skills.

(Written for the publication and exhibition catalogue: Exhibition of Quintessence of Returning Tibetan Cultural Relics from Oversea. Beijing, China, July 2012).

Jeff Watt, June 29th, 2012

Secondary Images
Related Items
Publication: Quintessence of Returning Tibetan Cultural Relics From Oversea (Painting)

Thematic Sets
Collection: Private 10 (Masterworks)
Subject: Eye Art
Subject: Karma Yoga
Painting Tradition: Lhatog, Khampa Gar
Subject: Eye Coverings
Collection: Private 10
Painting Set: Drugpa Kagyu Lineage (Set 2)