Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Thirty-five Confession Buddhas Iconography

Confession Buddha Main Page

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Shakyamuni Central Figure
- Lokeshvara Central Figure
- Maitreya Central Figure
- Confession Buddhas Outline Page
- Three Systems of Depiction (below)
--- Gestures Only
--- Nagarjuna System
--- Tsongkapa System
- Individual Confession Buddhas (300 Deities)
- Individual Confession Buddhas (Lokesh Chandra)
- Confession Buddhas as Minor Figures
- Confusions
- Others...

In Himalayan and Tibetan art there are at least three different iconographic systems for depicting the individual Thirty-five Confession Buddhas. The principal authors of commentaries and ritual texts were Nagarjuna (not necessarily the famous Nagarjuna), Sakya Pandita and Je Tsongkapa along with a number of others. The TBRC website lists approximately sixty texts associated with the practice of the Confession Buddhas.

There are two basic types of iconographic depictions of the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas. The first type depicts each of the Buddhas with standard hand gestures and with out hand attributes. The second type depicts some or all of the Buddhas with hand attributes.

Three Systems of Depiction:
1. Gestures Only (Without Hand Attributes) - Sakya, Jonang and some other Traditions
2. Nagarjuna System (With Hand Attributes) - Nyingma, Kagyu & some Gelug Traditions
3. Tsongkapa System (With Some Hand Attributes) - Gelug and Karma Kagyu Tradition

In Sakya Pandita's text Pungpo'i Sumpa'i Do Dontab Shug, he describes the thirty-five Buddhas as divided into five groups of seven Buddhas each. The five groups of seven follow the appearance of the Five Symbolic or Tantric Buddhas: Vairochana, Amitabha, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava and Amoghasiddhi. This means that the first group of seven are white and each with the same gesture of Dharma Teaching. The second group of seven are red and with the gesture of meditation, and so on for the remaining three Tantric Buddhas and the remaining three groups of seven. There is a suggestion that any textual depictions of the Buddhas with hand objects is spurious. See a painting that follows the Sakya Pandita description. (sa skya bka' bum. phung po gsum pa'i mdo 'don thabs bzhugs. Volume 12[NA], pages 450-452 & 464).

The
Je Tsongkapa system for depicting the Thirty-five Buddhas is stated in his writings to be based on his own meditative vision and not on a textual source. This episode from the life-story is also well depicted in art. (gsung 'bum tsong kha pa, sku 'bum par ma. sangs rgyas so lnga'i mngon rtogs dang lha sku'i phyag tshad bzhugs so. Vol.11 [da] page 709).

Jonang Taranata discusses the various systems for depicting the thirty-five Buddhas and states that he has a doubt, that the systems of depicting the Buddhas with various hand objects (attributes such as a sword, vajra, tree branch, Mount Meru), that these originate in India or from Indian source texts - again suggesting, like Sakya Pandita, that any such text (or texts) may be spurious. (Taranatha gsung 'bum. ltung bshags kyi 'grel ba. Vol.17, page 945).

Database Search: Shakyamuni Buddha & the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas

Jeff Watt 7-2011 [updated 5-2015, 4-2017, 12-2019]

(The images below are only a selection of examples from the links above).