Images of Enlightenment: Tibetan Art in Practice

The following article is from the Spring, 1994 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only.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.

Images of Enlightenment Tibetan Art in Practice By Jonathan Landaw and Andy WeberBy Jonathan Landaw & Andy Weber Illustrations by Andy Weber

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:

VISUALIZATION OF VAJRAYANA IMAGES

Of particular interest to us here is the way the images of Vajrayana art specifically those represented in Tibetan tangka paintings play 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 visualizations and the related disciplines that train our body, speech and mind in the appropriate manner the 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.

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OUTLINE OF THE TEXT

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

One: The Founder and His Teachings.

Buddha ShakyamuniBy 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 arising the 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 Bodhisattva 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 bodhisattva, the supremely compassionate being intent on winning not mere self-liberation but the full enlightenment of buddhahood for the sake of benefiting others. This Mahāyanā, 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 bodhisattvas - Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani - who 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 level highest yoga tantra are 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 traditions the Nyingma, Kadam, Sakya and Kagyu through 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 traditions the Geluk is 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.

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