by Tulku Thondup

Enlightened Journey: Buddhist Practice as Daily Life. By Tulku Thondup, edited by Harold
Talbot. Shambhala: Boston London, 2001.

Avalokiteshvara - Chaturbhuja


I would like to say a few words about the significance of Buddhist art in Tibet. As you might know, in Tibetan art most of the artifacts are representations of Buddhist teachings. Tibetans regard them as objects of homage and sources of inspiration and for making merit, but not as materials to decorate their homes. For Tibetans, the sacredness of the religious objects is so profound that when I was in my teens, my teacher used to tell us, “When you are examining or looking at an image, you are not supposed to think or say, ‘this is a good image or this is a bad image,’ but you are supposed to think or say, ‘the artist was skilled or not skilled,’ otherwise you are grading a sacred object as if it were an ordinary object.” Their respect for and devotion to religious representations are not just a cultural or intellectual response, but a deep-rooted feeling and a spontaneous expression from the heart.

As Buddhism is the heart of Tibetan Life, most Tibetan artifacts are representations of Buddhist teachings. That is why religious objects have an unique role and place in Tibetan society. So I would like to talk about how the Buddhist devotees in Tibet use religious objects as tools of their spiritual training and what is the philosophical view behind them.

First, philosophically, the most important point to understand is that Tibetan Buddhists are not idol-worshippers. We do not worship religious artifacts expecting that we will receive them as tool or support to create an inspiration toward Dharma and to generate virtuous experiences, such as devotion, peace, compassion, contemplation, and wisdom. If the religious object becomes a tool to generate virtuous thoughts in our hearts, then that artifact turns out to be a very powerful and beneficial spiritual support for our lives. However, it is not because of the object, but because of our own positive perceptions and devotional feelings, inspired by seeing and being with the religious object. So we are using the object as a key, but the main source of blessing lies within our own minds.

Second, as far as how to use the objects as a spiritual support is concerned, we do not see a religious artifact, such as an image of the Buddha, as just a piece of art. We see or practice seeing it as a living Buddha, in order to generate inspiration, devotion, and pure perception in ourselves. We pay respect to it in order to generate humility. We make offerings to it to develop generosity. We contemplate on it to bring peace and tranquility. And we receive blessings from it, as if from a living Buddha, to make our spiritual experiences progress. Thereby, through the support of the blessed objects, we perfect the two accumulations: the accumulation of merit and the accumulation of wisdom.

We see the image of the Buddha as the true Buddha endowed with all the Buddha qualities, such as compassion for all sentient beings, like that of a mother for her only child, the wisdom of knowing all the happenings and needs of beings simultaneously, as well as the ultimate truth, and the power of pacifying the sufferings of the world and fulfilling all our wishes.

Also, every detail of the artifact has its own unique significance. Each symbolizes various aspects of Buddha qualities and teaches the meaning of the Dharma. Consider, as an example, a thangka of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion, and I will explain the significance of the details.

His crystal-white complexion signifies that he is pure, unstained by emotional and intellectual defilements. His sitting firmly in the lotus posture signifies that he dwells in the ultimate nature without changes. His youthful appearance signifies that he has gone beyond the suffering of aging and decaying. His loving and unblinking doelike eyes signify that he is watching all the time, without ever ceasing, for all sentient beings to fulfill their needs. His ever-smiling and peaceful face signifies that he is enjoying the ultimate peace and joy in which suffering is un-known. His five silken vestments and eight jewel ornaments of the Sambhogakaya signify that he is in the form of the Sambhogakaya, the subtle form of the two form bodies of the Buddha. The folding of his two palms at his heart signifies that he has united or perfected samsara and nirvana as one in the ultimate nature.

The wish-fulfilling jewel in his first two hands signifies his skillful means, which fulfills the wishes of all sentient beings. The white lotus in his second left hand signifies his wisdom, which is unstained by any intellectual and emotional defilements, even if his manifestations appear in various realms, just as a lotus is clean even though it grows in the mud. It also symbolizes that he belongs to the lotus family from among the five Buddha families. The crystal rosary in his right hand signifies his Buddha activities, which serve sentient beings endlessly, as the rosary rotates with no end.

If you are trained in seeing and concentrating on the virtuous significance of spiritual objects, you will go through different stages of spiritual appreciation. First, your spiritual experiences, whatever you have had or are having, will be rekindled just by seeing or being in the presence of spiritual objects. Then, there will come a time when there is no more need of religious representations to rely on, and every appearance of the universe will become a source of spiritual teaching, inspiration, strength, and experience.

In Tibet the richest religious artifacts are preserved in the temples of the monasteries, with elaborate offerings and constant prayers and ceremonies. Also, in almost every village you will find a temple filled with images and scriptures, which serve as the object of devotion and prayers for the local population. Then, in every home, if they have the means, people reserve a room as a shrine, filled with religious representations. And even in the homes of the poorest families, their utmost efforts and dreams will be to have a little shrine table with some religious representations and to arrange at least some water bowls and a butter lamp as an offering before the altar, as their spiritual exercise in generosity, devotion, and meditation.

Through the support of spiritual objects, if the spiritual experience of peace and enlightenment is born in us, then wherever we live, our surroundings become a temple of spiritual beauty and joy.

(A talk given for the Tibetan Art Evening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on March 1, 1990.)

Tibetan Buddhist Thangkas and their Religious Significance

back to top



Essay © Tulku Thondup
Copyright © Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation