Himalayan Art Resources

Painting Set: Seven Buddhas (Qianlong)

Seven Buddhas (Qianlong) | Black Ground (Qianlong Period)

The story of the creation of the original Seven Buddhas painting set and the subsequent copies involves three main characters:
the 3rd Panchen Lama, Lobzang Palden Yeshe (1738-1780), the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) and Changkya Rolpai Dorje (1717-1786).

Painting Sets:
- Panchen Lama Gift (full colour, original composition)
- Imperial Palace, Beijing (full colour, copy of original gift)
- Imperial Palace, Beijing (black ground, stone rubbing)
- Potala Palace, Tibet (partial color, black ground, stone rubbing)
- Private Collection (black ground, stone rubbing)
- Others...

Jeff Watt 7-2014

[The paragraphs below are extracted from Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China by Patricia Ann Berger (pages 186-187)].

"One elaborate gift the Panchen Lama sent the Qing court in 1777 - two years before the official invitation to come to the imperial birthday celebrations was issued but still part of the delicate dance that resulted in his acceptance - caused a great flurry in the Buddhist world of the palace. This was a set of thangkas of the seven buddhas of the past, an iconographic group hitherto unknown at the court, which Rolpay Dorje was called in to explain. The crux of the matter was that these thangkas showed each of the seven, as we might expect, with two attendants and two disciples, and also with his mother and father kneeling reverently in the lower corners. These thangkas played in a very original way to a core dilemma of the Buddhist monastic life: its requirement that the attachments between an aspiring monk and his family be broken. Was this new iconography a subtle gesture of sympathy from the Panchen Lama to the emperor, whose beloved mother had just died?"

"Whatever the motivation for the gift, it hit the mark. Submitted to Rolpay Dorje for exegesis, copies of the images then were carved into an octagonal stone pillar, the Qifota (Seven Buddha Pagoda), originally located north of the Five Dragon Pavilion at Beihai. Each of the seven buddhas appears enthroned on a jeweled seat with his attendants, disciples, and parents while inscriptions in four languages record his name above. Small inscriptions written below in Tibetan identify the other figures. In the dragon-laced frame, four cartouches, placed in the vertical borders near each of the four corners, record the work in Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian, and Tibetan as an imperial production dating to Qianlong dingchou (1777). The eighth face of the pillar is inscribed with a text in Tibetan and Chinese explaining that the seven buddhas were all "doubles" (ou); the seventh was Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. The inscription also broaches the question of the meaning of the decline of the dharma in the face of a lineage of seven identical buddhas: "Intrinsic dharma is dharmaless; dharmaless dharma is also dharma; now comes a dharmaless age; how then could past dharma be dharmaful dharma?"

"But for the four-language inscriptions at the top of each face, these stone engravings resemble a traditional Tibetan thangka, down to the double border that mimics the fabric mount, here filled with dragons chasing pearls. Qianlong was so struck with the aptness of this gift that he not only had it immortalized in stone but also had his court painters make copies, not of the originals sent by the Panchen Lama, but of rubbings of the stone engravings (Figure 64). These were done in gold ink on a black ground, turning them into perfect handmade replicas of a rubbing of the stone surface of the pagoda. He then apparently sent a set to the Dalai Lama; it still survives in the Potala. Another set was prepared for storage in the palace, where it also survives. Yet another set went to the palace at the ancestral capital of Shengjing."

Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China by Patricia Ann Berger. Pages 186-187. University of Hawai'i Press, 2003.

(Each of the images below represents a set of seven paintings, rubbings or textiles).