There are many legends about the life of Shakyamuni Buddha recorded in different traditions. Tibetans believe in twelve events of the life of Shakyamuni Buddha uspicious: (1) Descending from Tushita Heaven, (2) Entering into His mother’s womb in the shape of a white elephant, (3) Taking birth at Lumbini Garden, (4) Studying eighteen sciences, (5) Marriage with Yasodhara, (6) Renouncing the world and becoming a bhikshu (monk), (7) Living in the forest as an ascetic, (8) He finds supreme illumination under Bodhi tree, germinating within, (9) Overcoming from the temptation of Mara, (10) Attaining enlightenment and becoming the Buddha, (11) Teaching – the Buddha decides to impart his teachings to the five ascetics whom finds in deer park at Sarnath. It is the first sermon or Turning the Wheel of Dharma, (12) The final sequence is Mahaparinirvana of the Buddha.
This thangka is packed with full of detail and very much crowded. It has practically no empty space. The central figure of this thangka is obviously Shakyamuni Buddha, who is surrounded with the scenes from his of life, which are not depicted in sequence, so it is not possible to describe the events in consecutive order. Following events from the life of the Buddha are depicted here:
1. Descending from Tushita Heaven: The future Shakyamuni was a Bodhisattva in Tushita heaven before born into this world and his name was Svetaketu. He decided to abandon his celestial abode to incarnate on the earth to refute heretics and spread the Dharma. He transmits his lineage to Maitreya in Tushita heaven. Svetketu is depicted here making vow in the presence of the Buddhas and Bodhisattva and gods and goddesses of Tushita Heaven. This scene is depicted in upper center, just below the primordial Buddha in yab yum.
2. Scene of Mahamaya’s Dream: She is shown here sleeping in her palace and a white elephant is approaching in her dream. The elephant is shown in clouds and the queen conceives him and felt inexpressible joy and bliss. This is scene is depicted in upper left corner.
3. Taking birth at Lumbini Garden: It is said that there were several numerous miracles in Lumbini garden when the birth of Shakyamuni was due. All the trees and plants burst into flower and there were heavenly lights and music. When the future mother felt her time was approaching she left for her parent’s home, Devadaha to have the baby their with her mother, an ancient custom that is still practiced. When she reached the park of Lumbini, her son was born from her left side, as she held the branch of the sala tree. Brahma and Indra were present at the birth. The new born child walked seven steps (lotuses spring forth beneath his feet) and exclaimed that this is his last incarnation and would attempt to eliminate suffering from the world. The newborn child was given the name of Siddhartha, “the one who fulfills his wishes.” Queen Mahamaya died seven days after giving birth. His aunt foster-mother Prajapati Gautami brought him up. Sage Asita prophesied to his father that the little Siddhartha was destined to be either universal monarch or a Buddha. Fearing the latter alternative, king Suddhodana brought him up isolated in the luxuries of the palace. This scene is depicted in the left of the middle ground.
4. Raising the young Prince: Prince Siddhartha went to school with boys from his kingdom and excelled at his studies. He confounds his teachers by exceptional knowledge for his age. The king brought him up in the luxuries of the palace, but the Prince had little interest in entertainment, glamour or splendor. This scene is depicted below scene of nativity. Thereafter there is a scene in which Siddhartha is shown in the court and consulting his experienced father in the skilful conduct of material affairs. Siddhartha’s pity towards animals is depicted below this scene. Then Siddhartha is shown holding the royal court.
5. Marriage with Yasodhara: when Suddhodana observed that his son has little interest in worldly and luxurious life he became disappointed. Then he decided to marry his son with princess Yasodhara in the hope that marriage life may divert his mind. It was a customary at that time that girls to decided for themselves whom they would marry. So Yasodhara organized a tournament and made it known that she would chose the one who would be the winner of the tournament, Siddhartha went to the Competition in the company of his cousin Devadatta and half-brother Nanda and others. An elephant was placed inside the city gate to test, who is the strongest. Devadatta killed the elephant with one hand and Nanda pulled it to the side. Afterwards Siddhartha showed up. He saw the mindless killing, picked up the animal lightly and tossed it over the city wall, where it came to life again. At the tournament, the crown prince excelled in everything. He defeats his companions at wrestling and athletics and his companions flee away from sports contests. Siddhartha was chosen as groom. This scene is depicted in the upper side of the left of foreground. Here Siddhartha is also shown nursing a wounded swan, which was injured by Devadatta.
6. Renouncing the world and becoming a bhikshu (monk): It is said that king Suddhodana had built a luxurious palace for the young couple and surrounded it with gardens and wall through which there were four gates. Actually king did not want Siddhartha to leave the palace grounds and thereby be exposed to other influences. Though after several years Yasodhara had a son whom they named Rahula, but marriage life did not attract Siddhartha. He had actually little interest in worldly life. After a time Siddartha had a strong desire to see other places of the kingdom and asked his charioteer to drive him outside the palace. An inner struggle in the mind of Siddhartha synthesizes in four episodes. On three trips through the gates he encountered suffering for the first time in form of an old man, a sick man and a corpse. On his fourth trip he saw a man dressed in orange clothes and holding a bowl, looking very calm peaceful. The charioteer told him that this was a person who renounced the world with all its luxuries and pleasures and was looking for truth and peace, that this person had no desire or anger, and that he lived by begging for his food. Siddhartha wished to be like this “renounce one”. Back at the palace, Siddhartha realized that at home, he would never find the solution to put an end of all suffering. He decides to withdraw into solitude and meditate, away from the precincts of a world of tears and pain, of decay and death. He secretly left his palace. It is said that to muffle the sound, the hoofs of his horse were held by the gods. At dawn the prince hands to his charioteer Channa his perfumed clothing and ornament. He cuts off his hair and enters the forest as a mendicant. The renunciation is complete – Siddhartha exists no more; now he the ascetic of the Shakya/Shakyamuni. This scene is depicted on the right side of middle ground. Here three stupas are shown which symbolizing the places where the past Buddhas had been ordained into the monkhood with a hair-cutting ceremony.
7. Living in the forest as an ascetic: After entering into forest Siddhartha sat under a tree and meditated as a hermit for six years. He had five mendicant companions in the forest. He seeks truth by asceticism. He seeks one teacher after another, but in vain. Rudraka Ramaputra and Adara Kalam were famous among his teachers. With mendicant companions he mortifies his body with severest privations. Mara had sent his wrathful armies to prevent him from his goal who attacked him with weapons and temptations, but they could not sway him or hurt him. This scene is depicted in the right side middle ground.
8. Siddhartha Finds Supreme Illumination under Bodhi Tree, Germinating within: Siddhartha realized that the path he is following is not the right one to attain enlightenment. Though he had mortified his body through various yogic practices, but was away from his goal so he started eating again. Sujata, a village chieftain daughter offered him milkrice. His mendicant companions forsake him. Yet he persists in his meditation. He stopped in Bodhgaya and sat down to think under a large papal-tree. He finds supreme illumination germinating within. This scene is also depicted in the middle ground of the right side.
9. Overcoming from the Temptation of Mara: During his seven weeks of pondering and meditation, Mara, tried to prevent Siddhartha for the last time from coming to the ultimate understanding. Siddhartha is serene and motionless in this final assault of Mara to tempt him to vanish into nirvana. This thangka shows the hosts of Mara threatening Siddhartha, depicted in the bottom center.
10. Attaining enlightenment and becoming the Buddha: When the army of Mara failed to tempt Siddhartha, Mara himself appeared before him in the guise of a hunter, challenged his perfect realization, demanding to know if he had a witness. Siddhartha pressed down on the earth with the middle fingers of his right hand, declared, “ This earth bears witnessed to all beings. She is impartial to animate and inanimate alike”, and mendicant, goddess of earth, appeared in person and confirmed that he had remained steadfast. Then Mara backed down. After forty-six days of meditation, Siddhartha achieved insight into both his former and present lives. He came to the conclusion that extremes in life lead to nothing, that life is suffering and that suffering must be eliminated. When he reached this insight, he attained enlightenment or Bodhi. This scene is depicted in the center of this painting where he is shown seated on six-ornament throne of enlightenment which symbolized that he has perfected the six-paramita. These six-paramita are represented by sis animals – the Garuda at the top is the first paramita of charity (dana), the young nagas stand for moral eccellence (shila-paramita). The two makra are symbols forbearance (kshanti-paramita). The two dwarfs represent endurance (virya-paramita). The elephant stand for meditation (dhyana-paramita). The two lions on elephants are the highest perfection of wisdome (prajna-paramita). Here Buddha is shown flanked by his two chief disciples, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana.
11. Teaching: The Buddha decides to impart his teachings to the five ascetic companions whom he finds in the deer park of Sarnath. It is the first sermon or Turning the Wheel of Dharma. Then the Buddha was on constant move for forty-five years to preach his teachings, increasing his band of disciples and worshippers. It was a continuous apostolate. The Buddha is shown in many places surrounded with his disciples and followers in this paintings, which symbolizes his teachings.
12. Mahaparinirvana: The final sequence is mahaprinirvana of the Buddha lying on a couch under the shala tree surrounded by disciples in Kushinagar. Here white stupas symbolize his cremation in self –created fire. The relics of the Buddha were divided into eight parts on which stupas were created. The scene of Mahaparinirvan is depicted below the central figure.
Here one famous scene from the life of the Buddha is also shown – The Buddha’s Descent from the Tushita Heaven – It said that the Buddha after his enlightenment has visited Tushita Heaven of Indra to preach the Abhidharma to his worldly mother Mahamaya. After a three month period there, he descended to earth. There was a celebrity reception by Brahma, Indra, kings and his disciples etc. This scene is depicted in upper right corner.
Though this thangka is very much crowded, but all the scenes are neatly drawn and painted and is very much suitable for the sadhana and practice.
This description is by Dr. Shailendra K. Verma, whose Doctorate thesis is on "Emergence and Evolution of the Buddha Image (From its inception to 8th century A.D.)".