Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Refuge Field Religious Context

Refuge Field Main Page

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The Refuge Field is the basis for a visualization and meditation practice common to Tantric Buddhism. The function of a Refuge Field is to be a visual composition reminding the devotee of all of the most sacred objects contained in the tradition, namely the (1) Teacher, (2) Buddha, (3) Dharma - religious texts, (4) Sangha, (5) Ishtadevata - meditational deities, and (6) Dharmapala - the Religious Protectors, including wealth deities. It is this hierarchical grouping of teachers, books and deities that are the Field of Accumulation - the basis upon which merit (in a Buddhist sense) can be accrued.

There are three main types of Refuge Field Paintings based on textual description and appearance in paintings: (1) Throne & Lotus, (2) Palace and (3) Tree. A variation on the first type, Throne & Lotus, is instead of a throne there is just a lotus. Examples of this can be seen in the Cho Refuge Field paintings. The 3rd type, the Tree appearance also has two main types. The first type depicts [1] the field of accumulation in a configuration on the peak of the tree. The second type describes the [2] field of accumulation as arranged on a five branched tree (four branches and the trunk). The first of these configurations is described by the 1st Panchen Lama, of the Gelug Tradition, in his Lama Chopa text (17th century) and the second type of tree configuration is described by the 9th Karmapa (16th century) and Jamgon Kongtrul of the Karma Kagyu in the Ngedon Dronme text (19th century).

In the Gelug Tradition there are four very clear composition types distinguished both by central figure and also by support. The first three are depicted at the peak of a wish-fulfilling tree and the fourth is placed on a lotus blossom. The two kinds of central figures generally represented for all four types are Shakyamuni Buddha and Je Tsongkapa depending on whether it is a Lama Chopa (Shakyamuni) Refuge Field or a Lamrim Lineage (Tsongkapa) Refuge Field. The four types are: (1) Shakyamuni (2) Tsongkapa (3) Pabongka Design (4) Lotus Support (5) Block Print Image and (6) Thousand Buddhas.

This type of composition, based on the visual examples in the HAR database, appears to be a very late phenomenon in Tibetan and Himalayan art quite possibly only becoming popular in the 18th century. The earliest examples appear to be the Gelug paintings of the late 18th century based on the liturgical text of the 'Lama Chopa' written by the 1st Panchen Lama in the 17th century.

Nyingma Tradition Refuge Field paintings first appear in the 19th century as a visual representation of the Field of Accumulation for the Longchen Nyingtig uncommon preliminary practices as taught by Jigme Lingpa and later explained in detail by Patrul Rinpoche in the famous text, The Words of My Perfect Teacher. These are the only early Nyingma paintings identified so far. Recent painting commissions depicting the 'terma' revelations of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche reveal several Refuge Field compositions.

As for the Kagyu Tradition, the Drigung appear to be the earliest to adopt this visual model with a number of examples followed by the Drugpa Kagyu with few examples on the HAR website. The Karma Kagyu are one of the last to adopt the visual form with few examples represented on HAR. The earliest Karma Kagyu Refuge Field is dated to between 1900 and 1922 based on inscriptions and the figure of the 15th Karmapa, Kakyab Dorje.

The earliest Sakya Tradition artifact is a block print image of a White Tara Field of Accumulation from the Dege Parkang (Printing House) in East Tibet. Other than that there is only one Refuge Field painting that can tentatively be dated to pre 1959.

Examples of Bon Refuge Field paintings only appear in the late 19th and 20th century. From the two types of subjects at the center of Refuge Field compositions, Nyamme Sherab Gyaltsen and Shenlha Okar, the Shenlha Okar Tsog Zhing was designed late in life by a Bon Lama from Eastern Tibet, Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen (1859-1933), based on personal visionary experience. A more recent example of a Bon Refuge Field painting was created in the 1960s by Lobpon Tendzin Namdag. The overall appearance of the composition is very asymmetrical compared with earlier depictions Bon or Buddhist.

Two unusual Field of Accumulation paintings, unusual for their specificity, on the HAR website are a White Tara Chintachakra Refuge Field with the teachers of the four traditions of Atisha, Bari, Le Ngagne and Marpa, and then another Refuge Field depicting White Manjushri along with Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Arhats and Pratyekabuddhas.

Database Search: All Images

Jeff Watt [updated 1-2020]

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