Thangka Iconography

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Thangka Iconography

Postby Vidyaraja » Tue Aug 20, 2013 2:51 am

Hello, I had some questions regarding the iconography of various thangkas that I was hoping someone could assist me with. Whether or not the answer to these questions are secret or require initiation in order to know is unknown to me, but I will ask anyway:

1. The common imagery in thangkas of a deity standing on top of some figure, be it a human or some other deity--what does this symbolize?

2. Related to the above question, imagery of wrathful deities tearing out the entrails of the figure lying prostrate or in the case of Vajrakalikya, piercing the chest or back of a figure lying prostrate--what does this symbolize?

3. What are the colored orbs or balls that are often at the bottom of a thangka, often with top center-most one in flames?

4. This may not be strictly in thangkas, but images of Buddhas have a piece of skin protruding from his topknot and the Buddha is holding some sphere or bowl--what are these and what do they symbolize?

5. What is the significance, if any, of black thangkas? Merely a stylistic approach or do the black thangkas have some greater meaning to them?

Thanks!
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Re: Thangka Iconography

Postby michaelb » Tue Aug 20, 2013 12:27 pm

Vidyaraja wrote:1. The common imagery in thangkas of a deity standing on top of some figure, be it a human or some other deity--what does this symbolize?
The subjugation of negative mental states.

2. Related to the above question, imagery of wrathful deities tearing out the entrails of the figure lying prostrate or in the case of Vajrakalikya, piercing the chest or back of a figure lying prostrate--what does this symbolize?
More graphic representation of the subjugation of negative mental states.
3. What are the colored orbs or balls that are often at the bottom of a thangka, often with top center-most one in flames?
Jewels, wish-fulfilling jewels and flaming jewels.

4. This may not be strictly in thangkas, but images of Buddhas have a piece of skin protruding from his topknot and the Buddha is holding some sphere or bowl--what are these and what do they symbolize?
The Buddha's ushnisha, one of the 84 signs and marks of a great being. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ushnisha
5. What is the significance, if any, of black thangkas? Merely a stylistic approach or do the black thangkas have some greater meaning to them?
Merely stylistic approach but often used to emphasise a deity's wrathful nature. You also get red thangkas especially for deities of the lotus family with magnetising powers etc.
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Re: Thangka Iconography

Postby michaelb » Tue Aug 20, 2013 2:44 pm

michaelb wrote:The Buddha's ushnisha, one of the 84 signs and marks of a great being.
Not sure where I got the number 84 from, I meant 32.
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Re: Thangka Iconography

Postby Vidyaraja » Tue Aug 20, 2013 6:14 pm

Thank you, that about clears it up! Though what exactly are the jewels for or represent?

I also wonder what the relationship if any between the iconography in certain Tibetan thangkas and Hindu tantric iconography is. For example, in Hindu tantric imagery often has yab-yum representations of Shiva and Shakti (often as Kali.) There is also of course the imagery of Kali standing on Shiva. Usually in these Shiva represents the masculine principle, which is the unmoving, pure, luminous awareness and Shakti represents the feminine principle, which is the dynamic principle of power (maya-shakti, the phenomenal world) and their union represents the unity of those two principles. These seem quite similar to the Tibetan images and seeing as though the siddha tradition also had its Hindu counterpart (Kashmir Shaivism, Nath Sampradaya) I have been curious as to their relationship. Looks like I have more digging to do!
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Re: Thangka Iconography

Postby michaelb » Tue Aug 20, 2013 8:23 pm

In Buddhist tantra, the father and mother or yab and yum are skillful means and wisdom respectively. In the way, the male is more active compassion and the female more 'passive' insight. Kind of opposite the Hindu tantra idea but you can't really compare the two along simplistic lines.
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Re: Thangka Iconography

Postby ciccio » Sun Aug 25, 2013 4:27 pm

Regarding the meaning of the black color in thangka iconography.
I was in Nepal and I went with a friend to visit a beautiful village in the Kathmandu valley.
We went to visit a thanka painting school and I start asking the guru, that was working on a big mandala, many question because I was very fascinated by the scene. He told me about the meaning of the different colors as well and if I remember correctly he told me that dark colors as black or dark blue symbolizes anger or mystical knowledge.
The school owner and the students were very interested on the teaching of the guru as I was. I really felt in love with thangka paintings and when I went back home I decided to dig about this amazing art.
I found a good resource of information regarding this topic on this website:
http://www.himalayanart.org/

Little offtopic note. Sadly people buys mandala and thangka paintings from dealers instead that from schools like the one I visited. So if you like to buy a thangka contact the school directly so you know the artists will be paid fairly. The school I visited has a website as well: http://www.traditionalartofnepal.com
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Re: Thangka Iconography

Postby Zen Dude » Sat Aug 31, 2013 11:07 am

michaelb wrote:
Vidyaraja wrote:1. The common imagery in thangkas of a deity standing on top of some figure, be it a human or some other deity--what does this symbolize?
The subjugation of negative mental states.


Within the context of India at that time, it would also mean the subjugation of Hindu deities, and the supremacy of Vajrayana. Placing the bottom of your foot on something is highly insulting in Indianized cultures( they sometimes censor the bottom of people's feet here in Thailand )
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Re: Thangka Iconography

Postby michaelb » Sun Sep 01, 2013 11:34 am

There are higher and lower activities. The higher deal with attaining enlightenment through overcoming afflictions that prevent liberation. The lower deal with overcoming outer obstacles that limit our ability to practice the higher activities.
In this way, the worldly beings trampled on by enlightened beings could either be external obstacle makers or represent inner afflictions, but ultimately the only obstacles that we have to overcome are inner afflictions.
Of course, depictions of deities are taken from sadhanas where the deities are practiced and artists aren't always faithful to the description in the sadhana.
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Re: Thangka Iconography

Postby Vasana » Fri Nov 01, 2013 6:47 pm

If anyone has any good online resources that deal with thangka iconography and explain in depth each element and being let us know.

This site lists some good books on the topic ;

http://www.tibetanlanguage.org/bookstor ... Tibet.html
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Re: Thangka Iconography

Postby ClearblueSky » Sat Nov 02, 2013 9:39 am

As far as that list, the Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols by Robert Beer goes super in depth, so if you're looking to have specific elements explained I'd recommend that one.
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Re: Thangka Iconography

Postby montana » Sun Nov 03, 2013 8:38 pm

michaelb wrote:
michaelb wrote:The Buddha's ushnisha, one of the 84 signs and marks of a great being.
Not sure where I got the number 84 from, I meant 32.


You were probably thinking of the minor signs.
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Re: Thangka Iconography

Postby Karma Jinpa » Wed Dec 04, 2013 4:21 am

Vasana wrote:If anyone has any good online resources that deal with thangka iconography and explain in depth each element and being let us know.

Other than the Handbook of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs by Robert Beer which has already been mentioned, the best resource I've found online by far is the Facebook page for the Munsel Thangka School of Art.

The school's founder and main instructor, Kim Chong, posts teachings about the various elements of iconography pretty regularly in an effort to educate the masses on the deeper meaning of thangkas. She is a devoted student of several Karma Kagyu lamas, including Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, and specializes in the Karma Gadri style, but is non-sectarian in her wish to help spread the Dharma. Thus far she has covered many subjects, including but not limited to:

Rainbow body
Five Buddha families
Guru Rinpoche
Peaceful & Wrathful torma
Five sense objects
Eight auspicious symbols
Animals (steeds, trampled & background)
Flora (lotus, utpala, wish-fulfilling trees)
Jewels (wish-fulfilling & otherwise)
Peaceful deity implements (malas, etc.)
Weapons of the Peaceful & Wrathful deities

http://www.facebook.com/munselart

Here's a sample of what you can come to expect from Kim-la. The following is her most recent post, with some slight editing to clarify the English. She is ethnically Chinese and not a native English speaker, so sometimes her English is a tad broken, but it is well worth the effort to read her illuminating explanations. For those who can read Chinese characters, all of her posts include both languages...

Image

The symbolism of the arrow is revealed in legends of the Mahasiddha Saraha [...] and his dakini consort, who was a master [arrow-smith]. Saraha is usually depicted as sighting along an arrow’s shaft. Here the arrow-shaft represents the central channel; the smoothness of the bamboo joints symbolizes the untying of the psychic knots that constrict the flow of wind into the central channel. The four sections of the bamboo shaft [...] symbolize the four concentrations, [four] mindfulness[es], [four] immeasurable states, the karmas, [the] four joys, four moments and the four levels of tantra. The sharp vajra-point of the arrowhead symbolizes the concentration of wisdom as penetrating awareness or single-pointedness of mind. The thread represents the binding of the tantric commitments. The five-colored threads [feathers?] glued at the flight-end of the shaft represent the binding of the five Buddha wisdoms, the five perfections of method (generosity, discipline, patience, effort and concentration), with the bow representing the six[th] perfection (wisdom). The two sides of the arrow’s releasing-notch represent the union of relative and absolute truth, and the union of conventional and ultimate bodhicitta. (For further information read the previous weapon teaching posts).
"The Sutras, Tantras, and Philosophical Scriptures are great in number. However life is short, and intelligence is limited, so it's hard to cover them completely. You may know a lot, but if you don't put it into practice, it's like dying of thirst on the shore of a great lake. Likewise, it happens that a common corpse is found in the bed of a great scholar." ~ Karma Chagme

དྲིན་ཆེན་རྗེ་བཙུན་བླ་མ་རཱ་ག་ཨ་སྱ་མཁྱེན་ནོ།
ཀརྨ་པ་མཁྱེན་ནོ།


:namaste:
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