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Symbols of Tibetan Buddhist Art

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 59: Symbols of Tibetan Buddhist Art

Mr Chairman and Friends, As you have just heard, we come this evening to the fifth lecture in our series, `An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism'; and we are having this series, we are having this course on Tibetan Buddhism specifically, because of the very definite interest which does exist, amongst some people, in this particular subject, this particular branch as we may say, of the total Buddhist tradition. As you've just heard, we've completed already four lectures in this series, which means that we are half way through the total course. So this might be a good point at which, not only to recapitulate a little, but also to take stock of our position generally, especially as the whole course, the whole series of lectures falls quite naturally into two halves. The first four lectures, as already just mentioned, were first of all on `How Buddhism Came to Tibet'. Then on `The Schools of Tibetan Buddhism'. Thirdly on `The Dalai Lama; his reincarnations', and fourthly, and lastly, the subject we had last week, `Monks and Laymen in Buddhist Tibet'.

Now these four talks which we've had so far form, as it were, a single group. They're all inter- related, they're all interconnected on a single plane, a single level, as it were, because they're all in character mainly historical and, as it were, institutional. If I may say so, all in a sense a trifle exoteric.

Now the remaining four lectures of the series, these will be on first, `The Symbols of Tibetan Buddhist Art'. Secondly, on `The Four Foundation Yogas of the Tibetan Tantra'. Thirdly on `Tibetan Buddhist Meditation', and then finally we consider the subject of `The Future of Tibetan Buddhism'.

And just as the first four lectures formed a, more or less, self-contained group, mainly dealing with the historical and institutional aspect of Tibetan Buddhism, in the same way the second four lectures also form a sort of natural group, but this time the emphasis, the interest if you like, is more specifically religious and practical; even in a sense a trifle more - in the case of one or two lectures at least - esoteric; and it may therefore well be that the second series of four is of greater interest to some people at least, than the first series of four in the total course.

Now today we are concerned with the subject of the Symbols of Tibetan Buddhist Art. Many of you, if not most of you, I'm sure, have seen examples of Tibetan Buddhist art, either Tibetan painted scrolls - rather colourful objects which the Tibetans call Thangkas - ritual implements like dorjes and bells and so on; and it may be that you've been able to appreciate them as art, appreciate and admire their beautiful colours, shapes and so on, but you may not have been able to understand the underlying symbolism of these particular works of art, and for this reason, on account of its lack of acquaintance with the symbolism, perhaps you've been unable to appreciate the religious significance of these works of Tibetan Buddhist art. And therefore it is hoped that this lecture may help to throw just a little light into what is perhaps, from the Western point of view, one of the darkest corners of Tibetan Buddhism.

Now before we start, just a few words in general about Tibetan Buddhist art generally speaking.

Tibetan Buddhism itself as we saw at the very beginning of this series, is a direct continuation of Indian Buddhism. It's almost as though Indian Buddhism when it died in India itself was reborn, took a new birth, a new incarnation if you like, on the soil of Tibet. And just as Tibetan Buddhism is a continuation of the Indian Buddhism, in the same way Tibetan Buddhist art is a direct continuation mainly of Indian Buddhist artistic traditions. Speaking more specifically, we may say that Tibetan Buddhist art, Tibetan Buddhist religious art, because as we shall see there is no other practically, continues the Indian Buddhist artistic traditions of the Pala dynasty. The Pala dynasty representing the last phase of Indian Buddhism, the most highly developed phase of Indian Buddhism in eastern India right down to about twelve or thirteen hundred AD. And especially, we may say, Tibetan Buddhism continued that Indian Buddhist Pala dynasty artistic tradition in matters of iconography, the way in which images, the way in which Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and dakinis, and so on, and Dharmapalas, are depicted. Apart from the Indian influence, there is admittedly some Nepalese Buddhist influence on the art of Buddhist Tibeta, but then Nepalese Buddhist art itself was very deeply influenced by the Pala dynasty Indian art traditions.

As for Chinese influence that, we may say, is very secondary. The chinese influence on Tibetan Buddhist art shows itself mainly in matters of detail and in the applied arts. For instance, if we look at the thangkas, the painted scrolls, then we shall see that the iconography of the main figure or figures - the colour in which they are represented, whether red or blue or green, the implements which they bear, the type of expression, the various gestures, the ritual implements, the insignia, the emblems - these are all strictly determined by the Indian Buddhist iconographical traditions. But the details; when it comes to little things like the way in which you paint mountains or clouds or streams or waterfalls or fruits or flowers, these things reflect very definitely Chinese artistic tradition. So that one finds in the thangka for instance, which is one of the main expressions of Tibetan Buddhist art, one finds in the thangka a very charming sort of contrast. One finds the Indian tradition reflected in the iconography, the main figure or figures - even their features, even their expressions, and one finds side by side with this Chinese influence reflected in the natural objects like the flowers and the fruit and the streams and the mountains and especially perhaps the clouds. Chinese influence, as one might have expected is much more pronounced in those thangkas and others specimens of religious art produced in eastern Tibet in the areas adjacent to China itself. So far as decorative art is concerned one finds that many Chinese art motifs have been incorporated into the Tibetan tradition. For instance one finds almost everywhere in Tibetan Buddhist applied art the well known Chinese symbols of the phoenix and the dragon. The phoenix of course represents the yin principle, the dragon represents the yang principle. The yin principle, that is to say the cold, dark, negative feminine principle, and the dragon representing the yang, the bright, the hot, the positive, the masculine principle. And these two - the phoenix and the dragon - symbolising the yin and the yang forces in the universe - there are represented in Tibetan art exactly as in Chinese art itself. There's no difference at all. Whether they appear woven into carpets or carved into the woodwork of shrines, the Tibetan phoenix and the Tibetan dragon exactly reproduce their original Chinese prototypes.

So that we may say if we want to generalise about Tibetan Buddhist art that it is a sort of blending, a sort of fusion of Indian and Chinese elements. If you want to go a bit farther than this we may say that the specifically religious component of the art is Indian, whereas the secular component tends to be Chinese. In many examples, in many specimens of Tibetan Buddhist art, these two components, the religious and the secular, the Indian and the Chinese, these exist side by side, but sometimes in the best examples, in the supreme examples of Tibetan Buddhist art, one gets a perfect fusion, a perfect blending, a mutual assimilation as it were, of these Indian and these chinese elements. And then one may say one gets Tibetan art at its best, at its most perfect, and then it is neither Indian nor Chinese, nor both together, but specifically and uniquely and distinctively and characteristically Tibetan. One may say at the same time though that the original Tibetan contribution is rather meagre. Tibetan Buddhist art draws its religious inspiration from India; its secular, more specifically aesthetic inspiration from China; it fuses them into something unique, something perhaps incomparable, but it derives very little, it draws very little from purely indigenous sources.

One may say perhaps that the original Tibetan contribution to Tibetan Buddhist art is represented principally by two things: One, is Tibetan religious architecture. For instance there is the very well known, the most wonderful example of the Potala, the palace or the monastery or temple - it's all three combined - of the Dalai Lama at Lhasa. This was originally of course a secular building. It was originally a sort of castle of the kings of Tibet, but it was transformed by the great fifth Dalai Lama and his Prime Minister into something much more characteristically, much more definitely, Tibetan. The sort of thing which we all know, which we are all familiar with from photographs and pictures. The style of architecture which one finds in Tibet was, of course, determined to a great extent by climatic conditions. Tibet is a very very cold place. It's a place of terrific winds and so on, so one needs protection from these things. And at the same time the nature of the Tibetan religious architecture was determined or is determined by the nature of the materials available. It's probably not generally realised that in Tibet, whereas one has plenty of stone and plenty of rock for building purposes, one has very very little wood indeed. The greater part of Tibet is completely non-forested. One just has a few bushes, a few shrubs but very very few trees. So wood is not used generally for building purposes. It's not used for fuel. For fuel they usually burn cakes made of yak's dung. So this factor also plays its part; the fact that stone is available ...

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