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Paintings > Thangka > The Principal Events in the Life of the Buddha
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The Principal Events in the Life of the Buddha

The Principal Events in the Life of the Buddha

The Principal Events in the Life of the Buddha

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Tibetan Thangka Painting

Size of Painted Surface 13.0" X 17.5"
Size with Brocade 24.5" X 32.9"
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The Principal Events in the Life of the Buddha

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Viewed 10006 times since 2nd Oct, 2008
The Buddha Shakyamuni is seated on vajraparyankasana on the six-ornament throne of enlightenment in the center of painting. His two chief disciples, Sariputra and Maudgalyayana are standing on each side of his throne as attendants. The background of this thangka is red which has special meaning in Buddhist Tantra and ritual.

The Buddha is surrounded with the scenes of his life. The thangka is packed full of detail and very much crowded. It has practically no empty space, so it has proved impossible to follow a consecutive order. However, the upper left corner depicts the scene of Mahamaya's dream. She is shown here sleeping in her palace and a white elephant is approaching her in her dream. The elephant is shown in a cloud. Below this is the scene of the birth of Siddhartha. It is said that when the future mother felt her time was approaching, she left her parent's home to have the baby there with her mother, an ancient custom that still practiced. When she reaching the park of Lumbini, her son was born from her right side as she held the branch of the Shala tree. The newborn child walked seven paces towards each point of the compass, exclaiming: "this is my last incarnation." The Hindu gods Brahma and Indra were present at the birth. The child was brought to the palace. Queen Mahamaya died seven days after giving birth. His aunt foster-mother Prajapati Gautami brought him up.

The next important event is raising the young prince (Siddhartha). The sage Asita prophesied to his father that the little Siddhartha was destined to be either a universal monarch or a Buddha. Fearing this, king Shuddhodana brought him up isolated in the luxuries of the palace. But the Prince had little interest in glamour, splendor, or entertainment. The scene is shown below the scene of nativity. Here Siddhartha is shown seated in a palace. The Prince Siddhartha had always pity and compassion for every creature of the universe. One example is illustrated here. Siddhartha is shown nursing a wounded swan, which was injured by his stepbrother Devadatta. The scene is depicted near the palace.

The king tried his best to distract the mind of Siddhartha but in vein. His councilors then advised him to distract the mind of Siddhartha, provide lessons in reading and writing, boxing, archery, and horseback etc. But nothing helped. The scene is depicted above the torana of the central image of Buddha's seat. The next suggestion, for the distraction of his mind was his marriage. Princess Yasodhara was the selected candidate and Siddhartha married Yasodhara. After several years is born son Rahula.

The four encounters – It is said that an inner struggle in the mind of Siddhartha synthesizes in four episodes. During his walk or rides through the Prince sees a wretched old man on the point of death, a corpse, a sick man and a mendicant ascetic. He decides to withdraw into solitude and meditate, away from the precincts of a world of tears and pain, of decay and death. Siddhartha then secretly left his palace and mounted his horse, Kanthaka. The scene is depicted at the bottom, slightly to the left center. Sitting in front of a stupa, Siddhartha cut off his hair long hair, removed his jewelry and expensive clothing, and wrapped himself in a simple monk's robe. The scene is depicted to the right just below the center beside a stupa.

The event of asceticism – Siddhartha studied under various teachers, among them Alara Kalama and Uddaka, son of Rama are well known. After various experiences with wise teachers, Siddhartha had the feeling he was not getting anywhere. Along with five companies, he subjected himself to strict asceticism. He limited his food intake. After six years, although he was emaciated, he was not a step closer to the hoped for understanding. Convinced that this extreme method did not result in ultimate understanding, he decided on another approach. The scene is shown in the right side, slightly to center.

Mara Vijaya or defeat of Mara – Siddhartha started eating again and went on by himself, under reproach from his fellow ascetics and a quite place where he hoped to meditate in silence. He stopped in Bodhgaya and sat down on grass seat to think under a large papal tree. During his seven weeks of pondering and meditation, Mara, tried to prevent Siddhartha from coming to the ultimate understanding. Mara sent armies of monsters, but their weapons and fired arrows transformed into flowers. Mara then said that nobody would believe that he had not succumbed to his tricks and techniques. At this, the solitary Siddhartha called the earth goddess to be his witness, by earth-touching gesture. The earth opened and the goddess confirmed that he had remained steadfast. Mara backed down and slunk away. The scene is depicted in lower right.

The event of enlightenment – After 46 days of thinking and meditating Siddhartha received insight into both his former and present lives. He came to the conclusion that two extremes in life lead to nothing that life is suffering, and that suffering must be eliminated. When he reached this insight, he attained enlightenment of bodhi, and he himself, became a Buddha or enlightenment one. The center image of the Buddha represents this event. Here his two chief disciples as mentioned above, flank Him.

The proclaiming of teachings – As we know that Shakyamuni or Siddhartha after attaining enlightenment walked from Bodhgaya to Sarnath, where in the deer park he set the wheel of teachings into motion. He delivered his first sermon to his five former fellow ascetics – Kaundinya, Vashpa, Bhadrika, Mahanama and Ashvajit. Though this particular event is not specifically illustrated here, however below the throne of central image a dharma wheel is depicted which symbolizes first preaching of the Buddha. In this way the central image of the Buddha symbolizes both his enlightenment and first teaching.

Mahaparinirvana – At the age of 80, Gautama Buddha died in Kushinagar, which is known as Mahaparinirvana. The scene is depicted at the bottom center, where the Buddha is lying on his right side on a seat.

All the figures are brilliantly drawn and painted. It is very much suitable for sadhana and ritual practices.

Select Bibliography

Ben Meulenbeld, Buddhist Symbolism in Tibetan Thangka, Holland, 2001

P. Pal, Art of the Himalayas: Treasures from Nepal and Tibet, New York, 1991

P.V. Bapat, 25,00 Years of Buddhism, Delhi,1956

H. Kern, Manual of Indian Buddhism, Delhi, 1968

Marylin M. Rhie & Robert A.F. Thurman, Worlds of Transformation: Tibetan Art of Wisdom and Compassion, New York, 1999

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.)".

Click Here to View the Thangka Painting along with its Brocade

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