Images of Enlightenment

The following article is from the Spring, 1994 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

Tibetan Art in Practice

By Jonathan Landaw & Andy Weber Illustrations by Andy Weber

300 pages

32 color plates

27 line drawings & diagrams $24.95

Published by Snow Lion

Available Now

Images of Enlightenment: Tibetan Art in Practice answers the need for a clear and straightforward guide to the inner world of Tibetan Buddhist sacred art. Focusing on many of its most important and representative images, this richly illustrated book introduces the reader to the tradition of spiritual self-transformation embodied by these depictions of enlightened energy. It is a guide to the world of Tibetan deities for all who practice and are interested in the symbolic meaning of the deity images.

The following is an excerpt from the introduction:


Of particular interest to us here is the way the images of Vajrayana artspecifically those represented in Tibetan tangka paintingsplay a vital part in this process of enlightening transmission. To understand how these images are used in the Vajrayana to transmit spiritual insights, we must consider the centrally important meditational method known as visualization.

Visualization is the process of becoming intimately acquainted with positive and beneficial states of consciousness as they are envisioned in our mind's eye in the form of enlightened beings and other images. Each visualized image functions as an archetype, evoking responses at a very subtle level of our being and thereby aiding in the delicate work of inner transformation. For example, by generating an image of Avalokiteshvara, the meditational deity symbolizing enlightened compassion, and then focusing creatively upon it with unwavering single-pointed concentration, we stimulate the growth of our own compassion. We automatically create a peaceful inner environment into which the dissatisfied, self-centered thoughts of anger and resentment cannot easily intrude. The more we practice such visualizationsand the related disciplines that train our body, speech and mind in the appropriate mannerthe more profound their effect. Eventually our mind can take on the aspect of its object to such an extent that we transcend our ordinary limited sense of self-identification and actually become Avalokiteshvara: compassion itself, or whatever en-lightened quality we have been concentrating upon.

For the process of visualization to have its most profound effect-to assist the process of enlightened self-transformationit is clearly not enough to take an occasional glance at a particular image. Vajrayana paintings are not meant as decorative wall-hangings to be admired once in a while or looked at occasionally for fleeting inspiration. Instead, their images are to be internalized to the point that we identify with them intimately at the deepest level of our being. While we may begin by looking at the painting of a particular deity with our eyes, true visualization only takes place when we can hold this image clearly in our mind without forgetting it. Nor are we meant to be visualizing a flat, inert painting of limited dimensions but rather a living, radiant being of light who may appear infinitely large or small depending upon the specific meditation we are practicing. It is only by seeing the meditational deity as truly alive yet transparent, radiant and empty of concrete self-existence, that our mindwhich itself is boundless, clear and luminouscan be transformed in the desired manner.


One reason the Vajrayana practitioner can see the various meditational deities as alive is that these figures represent forces possessing a vital reality of their own. They are not mere arbitrary creations of a limited mind or the fanciful product of an artist's imagination. Each particular image owes its existence to the fully enlightened mind from which it originally sprang and conveys the timeless qualities of such a boundless consciousness. Furthermore, the serious practitioner does more than merely chance upon a particular image somewhere and casually decide to make it the central object of his or her meditation. Instead, the deity to be practiced is presented to the disciple within the context of an initiation, or ceremony of empowerment, presided over by a qualified tantric master in whom the disciple has already placed his or her confidence. This master has trained in the methods of the deity in question and can therefore transmit to the disciple all that is necessary for contacting its essence.

We have attempted to convey the vital inspirational quality of the images presented in this work by focusing on the part played by each deity in exemplifying the Vajrayana path as a whole. Explanations of the symbolic meanings of each image are interspersed with some of the legends, myths and anecdotes Vajrayana masters tell about the meditational deity. For the sake of those readers who wish to explore in greater detail the topics touched upon here, notes have been provided throughout the text to indicate where this additional information can be found, and a list of further readings is given separately.


The images and their explanations have been organized into the following seven chapters:

One: The Founder and His Teachings. By way of introduction, this chapter begins with an abbreviated account of the life and basic teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and includes a simple visualization practice. After this comes an explanation of the twelve links of dependent arisingthe mechanism by which, according to Shakyamuni, ordinary beings are imprisoned by their ignorance and delusions and condemned to lives of dissatisfaction. Freedom from self-imprisonment within the Wheel of Life, as it is called, is indicated by an illustration of a liberated being, an arhat, and the chapter concludes with a representation of a stupa, a symbol of the fully enlightened mind.

Two: The Bodhisatwa Path. In the first chapter the path to individual liberation from one's own suffering was outlined. In the second chapter we turn to those teachings that present the path of the bodhisatwa, the supremely compassionate being intent on winning not mere self-liberation but the full enlightenment of buddhahood for the sake of benefiting others. This Mahay ana, or Great Vehicle, path has its roots in those teachings of Shakyamuni known as the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, and the first image in this chapter is that of the Great Mother, Prajnaparamita, the embodiment of these profound teachings. This is followed by illustrations of the three bodhisattvasAvalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Vajrapaniwho symbolize the three major attributes of a buddha's complete enlightenment: unlimited compassion, unlimited wisdom and unlimited skillful means.

Three: The Five Buddha Families. The process of self-transformation culminating in full enlightenment is next illustrated by the five buddha families or lineages. These five represent the types of pristine awareness into which our accustomed delusions of ignorance and so forth are transmuted upon the attainment of complete spiritual awakening. In keeping with our stated interest in visual imagery, special mention is made here of the way in which color is used in Vajrayana art to effect and symbolize this transformation. Then the head of one of these five families, Amitabha Buddha, receives individual attention in an account of the pure land practices associated with this widely venerated figure.

Four: Enlightened Activity. Here the emphasis is on the ways in which an enlightenment-bound being puts compassion, wisdom and skillful means into service for others. The chapter begins with two forms of the female deity Tara, who embodies this enlightened activity, and then discusses Ushnisha Vijaya, Amitayus, Medicine Buddha and Vaishravanadeities whose practices confer long life, health and prosperity.

Five: The Path of Bliss and Emptiness. The Vajrayana methods of enlightened self-transformation are traditionally classified into four levels of increasing profundity and effectiveness, and most of what has been presented so far is from the viewpoint of the initial, most basic level of tantric practice. In this chapter the practices of the most profound levelhighest yoga tantraare introduced by focusing on some of the personal meditational deities, or yidams, associated with this level: Vajradhara, Vajrasattva, Guhyasamaja, Yamantaka and the protector Dharmaraja, Chakrasamvara, Vajrayogini, Vajradharma and the protector Mahakala.

Six: A Living Tradition. Throughout this work efforts have been made to show how all Vajrayana practices are dependent upon the vital link of the guru-disciple relationship. In this chapter we begin by giving a survey of the various traditionsthe Nying-ma, Kadam, Sakya and Kagyuthrough which the essential qualities of this relationship have been transmitted since Vajrayana Buddhism was first introduced into Tibet. This survey is presented in terms of brief biographies of five of the most important masters of these traditions, namely Guru Rinpoche, Atisha, Sakya Pandita, Marpa and Milarepa. Lastly, a more detailed, though still abbreviated, account of the most recent of the major traditionsthe Gelukis given in terms of the life of its founder, Je Tsong Khapa.

Seven: The Future Buddha. To emphasize the continuity of the living tradition, this work concludes with an image of Maitreya, the buddha destined to reveal the spiritual path in a future age the way Shakyamuni Buddha has done in ours.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 5, The Path of Bliss and Emptiness:


Vajrasattvathe diamond, or adamantine, beingis the main deity employed for purification by practitioners of all levels of tantra. Depending on which type of practice is being followed, he can be visualized either alone or with consort.

Vajrasattva is white in color signifying his immaculate purity. Like Vajradhara, of whom he is an emanation, he holds a vajra symbolizing method in his right hand and the bell of wisdom in his left. Although the solo Vajrasattva is sometimes depicted as sitting with his leg partially outstretched, here he is in the unshakeable full vajra posture. As has been the case with many of the deities presented in this series so far, Vajrasattva wears the beautiful silken garments and jeweled ornaments of ancient Indian royalty.

The techniques of tantric transformation will not be able to produce their profound results as long as our present body, speech and mind remain contaminated by the impurities accumulated from our past unwholesome physical, verbal and mental actions. For our practices to succeed we must not only avoid such unskillful and destructive activities now and in the future, but we must cleanse ourselves of those negative imprints still with us from the past. Vajrasattva meditation is the chief method recommended by the various traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism to accomplish this cleansing, or purification. Furthermore, it is extremely effective for rectifying transgressions of the sacred pledges made by the disciple to the tantric master at the time of empowerment and for restoring whatever tantric commitments we may have broken.

Although a full explanation of the Vajrasattva practice is beyond the scope of this work, a brief indication of what it involves can be given as follows. Above the crown of our head we visualize our root guru in the form of Vajrasattva, having a transparent body of light. At the crown of his head is Akshobhya, the head of the buddha family to which Vajrasattva belongs. At Vajrasattva's heart we visualize the letters of his hundred-syllable mantra standing upright around the edge of a moon disc, in the center of which is the seed-syllable HUM.

Having stabilized this visualization, and entreating our root guru from the depths of our heart to purify all our negative karmic imprints, we recite Vajrasattva's mantra with undistracted concentration. As we do so we visualize cleansing rays of light descending from the HUM and mantra at Vajrasattva's heart, entering us through the crown of our head, purifying us of all defilements and transforming our body into light. At the conclusion of our meditation session we generate the strong feeling that all stains and obscurations have been completely removed. Vajrasattva then dissolves into light and descends into us, becoming indistinguishable from our own body, speech and mind, and we remain for a time in a state of clear awareness without conceptualization.

For this practice to be effective, it is not enough to generate a clear image of the deity and follow the succeeding stages of the visualization practice in their proper order. Without employing what are known as the four powerful opponents, even the clearest visualization will be of little use. First we must generate an honest sense of regret for our past unwholesome actions and transgressions of our sacred word of honor, recognizing their destructive potential. Then we must vw to turn away from committing all such negativities in the future. Thirdly, we invoke the power of reliance by bringing to mind both our refuge in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and our altruistic bodhichitta motivation. Finally we engage in those remedial actionsin this case the recitation of Vajrasattva's mantra and so forththat counterbalance, uproot and purify our accumulated obscurations. Only if these four powers of regret, vow, reliance and remedy are strong is it definite that purification will take place.

There are various signs that indicate we have been successful in purifying negativities. A number of these occur while we are dreaming, such as fighting and overcoming a person dressed in black, vomiting noxious substances, drinking milk, meeting gurus, receiving visions of meditational deities and the like. If we have such dreams repeatedly, not just once or twice, this is an indication that our practices have been fruitful. But there are more definite signs of success that occur while we are awake. Our physical body may come to feel light and buoyant, we shall find that our need for sleep has decreased, our thinking will be clearer than before and, most importandy, we shall gain insight into areas of the spiritual path that had previously been obscure. In connection with this last point a contemporary Tibetan master has stated that if we had only an hour in which to study the profound teachings on the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and were to spend the first forty-five minutes engaged in such collecting and cleansing techniques as Vajrasattva meditation, we would not be wasting our time in the slightest. Instead, we would be ensuring that whatever study we did in the remainder of the hour would be of maximum benefit.

Although there is a great purpose in performing such preparatory practices as Vajrasattva visualization as part of a daily spiritual routine, Tibetan lamas highly recommend that the serious practitioner engage in prolonged meditational retreats during which the deep experience of these practices can be cultivated. Certain lamas will not give disciples the empowerment of highest yoga tantra deities until they have completed an extensive retreat on all the preliminary practices. In addition to Vajrasattva these include taking refuge and generating bodhichitta, making mandala offerings, cultivating guru-yoga, performing prostrations, and so forth. In one such retreat the disciple may recite the hundred-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva more than one hundred thousand times, and this may be repeated many times during his or her training.

The stipulation that the advanced teachings of highest yoga tantra will not be given unless and until the disciple completes these extensive preliminary practices serves several purposes; it not only weeds out all those whose interest in pursuing tantra is superficial and those who are easily discouraged by hardships, but it also provides those who have the perseverance and dedication to complete these preliminaries with the necessary foundation for their future spiritual growth. It has even been said that for a disciple with the proper qualifications, the goal of enlightenment can be achieved through the practice of these preliminaries alone.

Those who have completed an extensive retreat of Vajrasattva purification testify from their own experience that their perception of the phenomenal world undergoes a profound change. It is not that the worid itself has been transformed but that the meditator's view of it has been purified. It is as if the doors of perception have been opened wider and subdy obscuring curtains have been drawn back from the windows of the mind. Beings and phenomena take on a pure appearancea reflection of the practitioner's own newly-revealed purityand the gravitational field keeping us anchored in ordinary mundane reality is relaxed. Although this exhilarating vision of a brave new world filled with infinite possibilities may fade, it provides a great incentive for pursuing the higher practices and a conviction that full enlightenment, though still a distant goal, is actually attainable.

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