A spiritually advanced follower of the Buddha—one who has destroyed the causes of future rebirth and will enter nirvana after death. The Buddha asked a group of sixteen of his original disciples not to enter nirvana but to remain in the world to protect the Buddha's teachings (dharma) until Maitreya, the Future Buddha, reintroduces them to our world. As the Buddha's most advanced followers, arhats are depicted as model monks, wearing monastic robes and serene countenances. Sometimes, their extreme old age is highlighted with gnarled and wrinkled features.
A being who strives to perfect himself or herself over millions of lifetimes in order to attain buddhahood. Motivated by a desire to help all beings on the Buddhist path, bodhisattvas seek the powers of full enlightenment to best assist others. Countless bodhisattvas exist, but some are especially famous, compassionately intervening in the lives of fellow Buddhists. Bodhisattvas’ rich adornments reflect not only their inner virtues and good karma, but also that they are active in our world. Multiple arms and heads express their expansive power.
(In Sanskrit, "awakened one") a being who has attained profound insight into the true nature of reality through meditative practice. Achieving buddhahood liberates one from the miserable cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) in which all beings are trapped. A buddha then seeks to help others attain buddhahood and end their own suffering. There are countless buddhas, but certain ones are particularly exalted. While they are differentiated by their gestures, attributes, and color, all buddhas share certain physical features that reflect their inner perfection: for example, a golden complexion, a crown protuberance (ushnisha), and a mark between the eyebrows (urna).
Honorific title given to those born into an important incarnation lineage in Tibet. In the sixteenth century, the Mongol leader Altan Khan first granted this title to Sonam Gyatso, his Buddhist teacher (lama). The teacher’s second name, Gyatso, meaning "ocean," was translated into Mongolian, becoming dalai. Because Sonam Gyatso was recognized as the reincarnation of a previous teacher, he identified himself as the third Dalai Lama. In 1642, the fifth Dalai Lama was the first to combine religious and political power, becoming the head of state—a position held by the lineage until 1959.
four schools of Tibetan Buddhism
Nyingma, Kagyu, Geluk, and Sakya are the main sects of Tibetan Buddhism that arose in Tibet and continue today. Nyingma, or the "ancient" sect, traces its origins to the first dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet during the seventh and eighth centuries, thanks to the enigmatic Indian guru Padmasambhava. The eleventh century saw a second transmission of Buddhism to Tibet as monks who had traveled to India to study with great Buddhist masters brought back new translations and teachings. The three “new” schools of Tibetan Buddhism—Kagyu, Geluk, and Sakya—emerged from this later period of religious development.
Tibetan amulet boxes used as portable shrines and protective talisman. Gau safeguard those journeying far from home for business or pilgrimage. Carried or worn, gau derive their power from the variety of sacred materials they can contain: small texts, blessing cords, consecrated medicines, holy relics, and miniature images of buddhas, bodhisattvas, or other deities. Though they come in a range of shapes, these boxes typically are made of hammered metal or carved wood. Their surfaces are richly ornamented with auspicious symbols and decorative motifs.
Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit word “guru,” meaning "teacher." Within Tibetan Buddhism, any teacher may be called a lama. However, the term is most commonly applied to members of incarnation (tulku) lineages. After a lama dies, his successor is identified as a child and venerated as the teacher reborn. There are dozens of tulku lineages in Tibet based on this system of succession. The most famous are the Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama, and Karmapa.
(In Sanskrit, “great adept”) an Indian Buddhist master who has attained superhuman abilities through tantric practices. Many schools of Tibetan Buddhism trace the origins of their teachings to the eighty-four mahasiddhas. Unlike conventional Buddhist monks, these masters did not vow to avoid sex or intoxicants. Instead, they employed such taboos as tools to achieve advanced spiritual states, magical powers, and especially buddhahood. They are portrayed as practitioners of ritual manuals called tantras. These texts were taught to Tibetan disciples, who carried home these innovative teachings and used them to establish new traditions. Mahasiddhas are often portrayed wearing the minimal garb of an ascetic while engaging in their unconventional practices.
(In Sanskrit, "circle") most fundamentally, an object composed of concentric circles. Mandalas have many possible forms and functions. Stacked as rings, the circles of a mandala represent the universe. A mandala in this form is given as a symbolic offering to buddhas and bodhisattvas. Drawn or painted, the circles are combined with squares to form a blueprint-like representation of a three-dimensional palace. The deity residing at the palace’s center, the structure’s apex, is the mandala’s most important figure. In initiation rituals, mandalas are essential tools that introduce a student to the deities and visualizations of a given practice. Once initiated, practitioners build the mandala in their minds.
A legendary Indian master of tantric Buddhism. He employed his remarkable spiritual attainments and magical powers to facilitate Buddhism’s spread and contribute to its development in Tibet. During his visit to Tibet in the eighth century, Padmasambhava is said to have transmitted to Tibetan disciples new teachings centered on tantric practices, which form the foundation of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Padmasambhava also used his rare and potent skills to subjugate local deities across Tibet and the Himalayas, converting them from enemies to protectors of Buddhism. Though he has eight distinct forms, Padmasambhava is most frequently identified by his moustache and distinctive feather-topped hat.
(In Sanskrit, "Sage of the Shakya Clan") the Historical Buddha, one of many buddhas who have spread the Buddhist teachings (dharma) throughout the universe. Born a prince named Siddhartha Gautama in a kingdom on the border of Nepal and India during the fifth century BCE, he eventually became curious about the world beyond the palace. When he journeyed outside, he witnessed suffering for the first time. Seeking a solution, Prince Siddhartha abandoned his royal life to become an ascetic. While meditating underneath a tree, he became a buddha, awakened to the causes of suffering and how to eliminate them. Shakyamuni shared these teachings throughout northeastern India until he died at the age of eighty. Here, his distinctive “earth-touching” gesture marks a key moment prior to his enlightenment.
a reliquary containing relics of Shakyamuni or another teacher. The Buddha informed his followers that after he died, his relics should be enshrined in a stupa and honored with offerings. Originally a large hemispherical structure atop a platform, the stupa’s architectural forms and symbolic meanings expanded as Buddhism evolved and spread. While unique, the Tibetan-style stupa, with its bell-shaped body and square base, evokes the Indian model. Although many still hold relics, stupas can be sanctified by any number of sacred materials, which explains their proliferation in many sizes and locations.
A Tibetan-style hanging painting or textile. Four parts comprise a complete thangka: the painted, embroidered, or appliqued image; a textile frame, including a "door" at the bottom through which the viewer symbolically enters the image; a fabric overlay; and at the base, a dowel used to roll up the whole thing. The scroll-like construction allows thangkas to be easily transported and stored, as not all images are meant to be continuously displayed. The textile cover not only protects the artwork, but also conceals powerful, secret images from the eyes of the uninitiated.
the Tibetan Buddhist world
The Tibetan plateau, a vast expanse of high-altitude territory, is the heart of the Tibetan Buddhist world. While culturally and linguistically diverse, the communities that inhabit the plateau and the areas along its periphery are connected by centuries of trans-Himalayan trade and political ties. These networks facilitated the expansion of Tibetan Buddhist lineages, which reciprocally strengthened the links between places and people. These connections persist today.
Significant Tibetan Buddhist traditions developed in Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, and southern China, as well as the Himalayan regions of Ladakh and Sikkim in modern-day India. Over time, the sphere of Tibetan Buddhist influence has expanded beyond the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayan ranges, reaching America and Europe, where many new communities have taken root in the last fifty years.
(1357–1419) a Tibetan scholar and teacher who is venerated as the founder of the Geluk or Yellow Hat school of Tibetan Buddhism. Famous for his emphasis on monasticism and for his interpretations of Buddhist doctrine, Tsongkhapa founded Ganden Monastery, which became the center of his new system of religious practice. Because his profound wisdom is akin to that of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom who is said to have appeared to Tsongkhapa in visions, the teacher is depicted with that bodhisattva's attributes: the flaming sword and a Buddhist text each appear atop a lotus flower beside him. He also often wears the distinctive yellow hat of his order.
(In Sanskrit, "thunderbolt") an important symbol and ritual implement in tantric Buddhism, or Vajrayana. As a symbol, a vajra represents the immutability and indestructibility of buddhahood, which can be obtained more quickly by performing tantric practices. As a ritual implement, a vajra is a scepter commonly employed by tantric practitioners, most often with a bell. The scepter and bell denote, respectively, compassion and wisdom, the two elements necessary for attaining buddhahood. In Vajrayana art, deities and other important figures are often depicted holding a vajra and its companion bell.
(In Sanskrit, "Thunderbolt Vehicle") another name for tantric Buddhism. Originating in India and predominantly practiced in Tibet and the Himalayas, this school employs methods described in ritual manuals called tantras. Rather than seeking to merely destroy desire and anger, tantric practices transform these spiritual obstacles into instruments of enlightenment. So potent are these methods that they require initiation by a guru and, when performed correctly, bestow buddhahood in this lifetime. The thunderbolt (vajra) represents the potent indestructibility of Vajrayana teachings. Central to tantric ritual, Vajrayana art often features the sexual and fearsome imagery employed in meditative practices.
Local protectors, awakened beings, and various buddhas who appear frightening and threatening in order to aid Tibetan Buddhist practitioners with worldly and spiritual endeavors. This group includes gods and goddesses indigenous to Tibet who were converted from enemies to protectors of Buddhism (and Buddhists) by powerful practitioners, such as Padmasambhava. These deities are not enlightened, but practitioners appeal to them for protection from threats to health and wealth. Buddhists also worship and visualize the fierce forms of buddhas and other enlightened deities in order to destroy obstacles to spiritual progress. Prepared for battle, all wrathful deities have strong bodies, deadly weaponry, and terrifying expressions.
(In Tibetan, "father-mother") a male and female deity in sexual union, embracing face-to-face. Such divine couples represent the indivisibility of compassion (male) and wisdom (female) in the state of buddhahood. Appearing frequently in tantric art, yab-yum deities are important to meditational practices, during which a practitioner visualizes himself or herself as the couple. In Vajrayana, or tantric Buddhism, sexual imagery is employed in art and practice to confront sexual desire and convert it into a spiritual tool. Although yab-yum deities are often interpreted symbolically, many tantric texts require actual sexual union to be performed.
An advanced and accomplished female practitioner of tantric Buddhism. Female buddhas are often called yoginis as well. In other traditions, buddhas are always depicted as male. In Vajrayana, however, buddhahood is embodied in both male and female forms. While their inner realization is identical, female buddhas appear distinctly different from their male counterparts. Rather than wearing monastic robes, female buddhas are often naked except for bone ornaments. While male buddhas sit peacefully in meditation, enlightened yoginis dance or lunge energetically, their faces fearsome. Famous women who have achieved buddhahood are frequently depicted in this same way, rather than as ordinary women or as male buddhas.