Thangka, A Sacred Tibetan Art

What is a Thangka?

Thangka is the depiction of sacred subjects and images in form of painting. The source of Tibetan thangka painting is the Buddhist doctrine. To acknowledge the depth of the artistic tradition of Tibet, we need to understand the philosophical foundation of Vajrayana Buddhism.Thangka painting

Importance of Thangka in Tibetan Buddhism

In Buddhist practice, the art of painting thangka is regarded as one of the important constituents of the five great subjects of learning. According to Acharya Asanga (ca. 350 A.D.), every practitioner of the Bodhisattva path should learn five subjects: Philosophy, Art, Grammar, Logic and Medicine. Furthermore, the discipline of Art has many branches, namely painting, sculpture, carving, engraving and so forth. Painting is, said by Nagnajit to be the best of these arts:
"Just as Sumeru is foremost among the mountains, Just as the Ganga is foremost among the rivers, Just as the Sun is foremost among the celestial bodies, Just as the Garuda is the king of birds, Just as Indra is the foremost among gods.
So is Painting the foremost among the skills"
The portrayal of Buddha, Tara, Daka, Dakini in the thangka are in fact the profound examples of what we can achieve and as reminders to tap our spiritual potentialFor practitioners, the thangka is a powerful meditational tool.
When one considers that creative visualization is an absolutely critical skill in Vajrayana Buddhism, one can then begin to appreciate the usefulness of, and the valuable function that thangka paintings have. As Dietrich Seckel points out;
 They take something that is in its essence beyond form, but reveals itself in visionary forms, adapted to our earthly ability for visualization and conceptualization.”
In the practice of  Buddhist art, the proper creation of supreme images is the accumulation of merit and the accompanying attitude and motivation is the accumulation of wisdom. Because of the sanctity of the origin of the deities measurements and proportions, any adjustments or alterations to the tradition is allowed to only someone with higher realizations and knowledge of the profound meanings.
The Buddhist aspiration is to attain Enlightenment, and supreme art is needed in order to reach the Bodhisattva levels. The core purpose of the thangka painting is help the sentient beings to attain Enlightenment. The depiction of Buddha's body in the thangka helps to attain the thirty-two major and eight miner marks of Buddha.

Origin of the Thangka Painting

Since Tibetan Art and thangka contain core religious aspects, the evolution and growth of the artistic styles is inextricably tied to the emergence and growth of Buddhism in Tibet
The practice of depicting Buddha is said to date back to the time of the Buddha himself. Tibetan legends refer to two such works created during the Buddha's time. the first one is "Thupa Chu Lenma," a Tibetan term that means "image of sage taken from a reflection in the water." It is believed that the artist has painted the image of the Buddha from a reflection in the water as the Buddha's face was too resplendent to behold.
The second one is "Hoed Zerma" meaning "radiation light." At that time, when the princess of Singala requested a portrait of Buddha, he emitted light rays from his body onto a cloth enabling the artist to draw his form.  

 So what makes the Thangka, A Sacred Art?

"Sacred art is not just a representation of symbols and ideas. It is a direct experience of inner peace, free from attachment to the illusory solidity of the ego and the phenomenal world."
The Tibetan thangka meaning goes deeper than just art that is sacred and conveys reverence. An art form is truly sacred when it awakens in the mind a direct experience deeper than our ordinary selves and the material world.

Iconography in Thangka 

Iconography as defined in the sutras and tantras is necessary when depicting the forms of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other many deities, either in thangka or statues or any work of supreme arts. It is very crucial to depict the sacred images with a correct proportion as well as visually pleasing manner. There must be the appealing shape and natural, flowing posture of the deity. 
For the peaceful deities, they should be portrayed in calm and smiling and for the wrathful, the portrayal must be angry and terrifying
As Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa said, "An artist should not draw the supreme enlightened forms entirely from their own creative inspiration. They must follow the proper conventions of proportion according to the sacred text."

Depiction of Buddha in Thangka 

Proportional measurement of Buddha's Head in Thangka
The upper part of the Usnisa, also called the "Jewel-Tip" (nor.tog), is two small units in height. Narrow at the tip and wide at the base like a jewel. Below this, the main part of the Usnisa is four small units high and four wide. It is in the shape of an inverted alms bowl or a pile of grain.
The Forehead: 
The hair of the head is four and one-half small units from crown to hairline and shaped like an inverted pan. The forehead is nine small units wide; from the center of the hairline, it curves gradually to both sides like a bow.
At a point four small units below the hairline, in the center of the forehead, is the Urna or mid-brow point (mdzod, spu). Formed by thirty-two fine white hairs coiled to the right. It is drawn as a round dot with a diameter of one small unit. 
The Eyes:  
The eyebrows begin with three basic units (or three-quarters of a small unit) to the right and left of the urna. They are four small units long, one basic unit thick in their centers. And curved in shape like crescent moons. One small unit below the Urna is the lower lines of the eyes. The eyes are drawn as the "gaze of the fourth level of Dhyana (meditative stability)." And are one small unit to either side of the central vertical line. The eyes are four small units long and one basic unit wide, shaped like bows. The upper lines are tapered thinner, the lower lines thicker, and curved upwards.The inner and outer corners of the eyes are red for one-half of a small unit's width. The central white of the eyeball is three small units wide. In the center is the Iris (also, ‘kalita'), round and one small unit (diameter). In the center of that is the Pupil ('sutali'), round with a diameter of one-fifth of a small unit. Surrounding the pupils is a band one-fifth of a small unit wide, called the 'Rim' (mu.khyud).
Surrounding the pupils is a band one-fifth of a small unit wide, called the 'Rim' (mu.khyud).
This band is traditionally yellow for peaceful divinities. And red and blue for the wrathful ones. The pupil is black, the eyeball veined with red. The eyes are clearly detailed, wide, and lovely. With the outer corners pointing towards the orifices of the ears.
The Nose:
From the mid-brow point (Urna) to the tip of the nose is a distance of four small units. And the tip of the nose is two small units wide. The bridge of the nose between the two nostrils is one-half of a small unit wide. The nostrils are each one-half of a small unit wide. The fleshy outer rims are each one-half of a small unit in thickness. Although some artists draw the nostrils and bridge of the nose one small unit each in width, this is somewhat lacking in beauty.
The lips:
From the base of the nose to the upper lip is a distance of one small unit. The area above the upper lip has the shape of a lotus petal. The upper lip is one-half of a small unit thick, while the middle of the lower lip is a full small unit in thickness. The distance between the dimples is four small units. The lips are curved upwards for one small unit at the corners, in a gentle smile. There are some traditions where the upper and lower lips are drawn of equal thickness.
And the dimples of the smile curving up only six grains (three-quarters of a small unit). Beneath the lower lip, at a distance of two small units, is the Chin, four small units wide and rounded.
The Earlobes are two small units wide from the outer edge of the face, and four or four and one-half small units at the middle part. The lobes reach just below the level of the chin. Besides the jaw, in front of the orifices of the ears, are lobes of flesh shaped like flower petals. They are one-half a small unit wide and high. The orifices themselves are also one-half a small unit long and wide. The folds, termed (komo), are one small unit wide and high. It is encircled by the two-grain wide folds termed the 'shaku’. Outside these are the folds termed 'kani (, which are two small units lengthwise and one across. Outside these are the rims of the upper ears, called 'curves' (', one-half a small unit in width. They arched over the top of the upper ears to curve in to join the head. And circling down to meet the earlobes: these are also termed 'beka patterns'.
 Buddha iconography
 Source: Principles of Tibetan Art, by Gega Lama

1 comment

This post is so peaceful to look at and learn. Thanks for posting :)

Buddhists December 19, 2021

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