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Images of Enlightenment: Tibetan Art in Practice

Images of Enlightenment: Tibetan Art in Practice

by Jonathan Landaw, Andy Weber, Andy Weber
A richly illustrated guidebook to the deities of Tibetan Buddhism.


A richly illustrated guidebook to the deities of Tibetan Buddhism.

Product Details

Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st ed
Product dimensions:
6.26(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.86(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Founder and His Teachings

To understand the significance of images presented in this work itis necessary to know something about the teachings of Buddhismand the founder of these teachings, Shakyamuni Buddha (Plate 1).According to one traditional interpretation, Shakyamuni achievedbuddhahood eons in the past, long before his descent to this earthlyplane 2500 years ago as the historical Buddha. The abbreviated accountof his life story given below follows an alternative tradition accordingto which he gained his enlightenment during the currenthistorical age.

    Shakyamuni was born in the sixth century B.C.E. as a prince andheir of the north Indian Shakya clan at Lumbini, in what is nowsouthern Nepal, and was given the personal name Siddhartha. Hisfather, King Shuddodana, was extremely desirous that his only sonsucceed him to the throne. Worried that Siddhartha's sensitive naturemight lead him to choose a wandering religious life instead, hekept the prince a virtual prisoner in specially constructed pleasurepalaces, cut off from the harsh realities of the outside world.

    Eventually, after his marriage to Princess Yasodhara, the twenty-nine-year-oldSiddhartha was allowed to tour the capital city ofKapilavastu—all unpleasant and potentially disturbing sights havingpreviously been removed by order of the king. These precautionsproved in vain, however, for during his first excursions outsidethe protective walls of his palaces the prince encountered totally unexpectedvisions of old age, sickness and death. These so shockedand disillusionedSiddhartha that, when he subsequently met withthe vision of a homeless seeker of truth, he was immediately inspiredto renounce the royal life completely and search for a cure to thesufferings of which he had so suddenly and painfully become aware.

    After escaping from his father's kingdom, Siddhartha studied techniquesof deep meditative absorption under two leading spiritualteachers of the day, hoping that they would provide him with an effectiveantidote to the world's misery. He soon mastered these techniquesso thoroughly that his teachers were prepared to appoint himtheir spiritual heir. But Siddhartha felt that the skills he had mastered,though useful, were insufficient to uproot the deep causes of dissatisfactionfrom his mind and decided that only through a courseof strict asceticism could he gain the serf-control needed to overcomesuffering completely. And so he departed for the kingdom ofMagadha in which was located a forest that ascetics had long usedas the site for their austerities.

    Siddhartha's practice of self-denial was so determined and inspiringthat five other ascetic practitioners attached themselves to himin the hope of benefiting from his eventual success. But after six yearsof austerities so severe that his body was reduced to little more thana skeleton, Siddhartha concluded that this path of self-denial wasfruitless and, in fact, counter-productive, since his weakened physicalcondition was seriously undermining the clear working of hismind. He realized that if he was ever to achieve his desired goal hewould have to travel a middle path, avoiding the extremes of self-indulgenceon the one hand and self-deprivation on the other. Then,in order to regain his health, he accepted an offering of milk rice fromSujata, wife of a local herder, much to the disgust of his five companions.Thinking that he had thereby abandoned the religious life,they departed for the Deer Park at Sarnath near the ancient city ofBenares, determined to continue their practices without him.

    In this way Siddhartha, nourished by the milk rice, was left to continuealone. Making a cushion out of bundles of cut grass, he tookhis seat under what later came to be known as the Bodhi Tree, orTree of Enlightenment, and resolved to remain there until he haddiscovered the path leading to the end of all suffering. It was the nightof the full moon, and as he sat there in meditation beneath the treehe came under attack by the legions of Mara, the disturbing forcesthat interfere with those intent on purifying themselves of the causesof misery. In an all-out attempt to break Siddhartha's concentration,these demonic forces of delusion churned up fierce storms, filled theair with blood-curdling screams and tried to frighten him with nightmarishapparitions. But throughout this onslaught the meditator remainedundisturbed, his radiant aura of love rendering the powersof hatred harmless and ineffectual.

    Having failed in this way to disturb Siddhartha's concentration,Mara then embarked on another tack: he would divert the meditator'sattention by conjuring up images of extreme sensuality. SuddenlySiddhartha was surrounded by visions of the most sexuallyalluring women, but these also proved powerless to distract his mindor weaken his adamantine resolve.

    The only hope Mara now had of preventing Siddhartha from gainingthe victory that would mean defeat for the delusions was to sowthe seeds of doubt in his mind. Dismissing his legions, he appeareddirectly before the meditator and began to mock him. How couldsomeone who had squandered his life first in self-indulgence andthen in fruitless self-denial ever hope to achieve the goal that hadeluded so many far more qualified seekers? Who was the witness whocould testify that Siddhartha was worthy to succeed where othershad failed? Without breaking the train of his concentration, Siddhartharesponded to these taunts by stretching out his right handand touching the earth beneath his seat (see Plate 1). In this way hesilently and confidently called upon the earth itself as his witness.Immediately the earth-goddess Vasundhara appeared and testifiedthat over countless lifetimes in the past the meditator had practicedthe perfections of generosity, discipline, patience, effort, concentrationand wisdom, thereby preparing himself for the victory he wouldwin that night. Mara was defeated and disappeared, leaving Siddharthato continue his inward quest undisturbed.

    During the course of that night the meditator entered deeper anddeeper states of concentrated absorption. He viewed the interrelatedrise and fall of all phenomena, and directly perceived that nowherein this entire universe was there even one atom that had the slightestindependent self existence. He also saw that every instance ofsuffering has its root in the ignorance that fails to understand the interdependentway in which all things exist. As his wisdom becamemore and more penetrating, he achieved more expansive states ofinsight and awareness, and thereby removed subtler and subtlerlayers of obscuration veiling the pure, clear light nature of his mind.Finally at dawn the following morning, having removed the last obscurationpreventing omniscience, he arose as a fully awakened one,a complete and perfect buddha.

    Now in his thirty-fifth year, Siddhartha had transformed himselfinto Shakyamuni Buddha, the Fully Awakened Sage (Able One) ofthe Shakya Clan. For the next seven weeks he remained in the vicinityof the Bodhi Tree, enjoying the unlimited, blissful consciousnessonly a fully enlightened being experiences. During this timehe refrained from teaching others, expressing the doubt that few ifany would have the strength and determination required to travelthe path to enlightenment as he had done. Eventually, however, inresponse to a request made by the worldly gods Indra and Brahmaon behalf of all suffering beings, he gave full rein to the compassionateintention that had motivated him from the beginning and began toreveal what he had experienced to others. Realizing that the fiveascetics who had shared the six years of austerities with him werethe most qualified to benefit from what he could teach, he traveledto the Deer Park in Sarnath where he delivered his first discourse,or sutra. This sutra marked Shakyamuni's first turning of the wheelof dharma, the spiritual truths he had discovered. In it he set forththe four noble truths of suffering, the origin of suffering, its cessation,and the path leading to this cessation. These four were to occupy acentral place in all his subsequent teachings.

    Throughout the remaining forty-five years of his life, the sole purposeof Buddha's spontaneously compassionate activity was to helpalleviate the ignorantly created and self-imposed suffering of others.Yet as he himself said, a buddha does not remove suffering in thesame way that one might pluck a thorn from the flesh of another.Thus despite the fact that Shakyamuni was an immensely inspiringand charismatic figure who had a profound, healing effect on thosewho met him, his main method of benefiting others was not throughexercising his miraculous powers. Instead, his major activity was toreveal the teachings known as the buddhadharma, and one of themost outstanding qualities of these teachings was, and still is, theirappropriateness to each individual's capacity and situation in life.To the highly educated, for instance, he might expound subtle linesof philosophical reasoning capable of cutting through the most deeplyentrenched misconceptions about reality and the nature of existence.At other times he might relate fables to the simple and unschooled,skillfully illustrating some moral truth in an easily understood fashion.But no matter what approach he adopted, his purpose was alwaysthe same: to show others how, through their own efforts, theycould free themselves from destructive and limiting patterns ofthought and behavior and achieve lasting happiness through the fulfillmentof their highest potential.

    While it was Shakyamuni's purpose to reveal the path leading tofull enlightenment, the decision whether or not to follow this pathhas always been left to the individual. Furthermore, Buddha emphasizedthat spiritual development is not a matter of passively acceptingwhat he said as true; rather, it entails an active investigationof the dharma teachings to see if they are valid, applicable to one'sown situation and helpful to one's growth. If upon examination theteachings are indeed seen to be reliable and beneficial, then one canconfidently enter the path and begin one's spiritual training in earnest.The gateway into the buddhist path is the formal decision toentrust oneself to the Three Jewels of Refuge. These are the Buddha,the fully enlightened teacher; the Dharma, the teachings that leadone to full enlightenment; and the Sangha, the spiritual communityintent on putting these teachings into practice.

    Because of his compassion and skill in alleviating the suffering ofothers, Shakyamuni is often referred to as the Great Physician. Histreatment, like a physician's, starts with a detailed diagnosis of theills afflicting all sentient beings. One of his fundamental insights isthat all experiences of suffering and happiness without exception arerooted in the individual's own mind. As is written in the Dhammapada,one of the most widely quoted collections of Shakyamuni'ssayings:

We are what we think....
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart....
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakeable.

    If we sincerely wish to overcome dissatisfaction, experience happinessand fulfill our highest potential, it is therefore not enough tochange the outer circumstances of our life. Instead, it is necessaryto turn inward and cleanse ourselves of the impurities currently contaminatingthe essentially pure nature of our mind. Only by uprootingour greed, hatred, jealousy and other delusions can we experiencetrue, lasting happiness and fulfill the enlightened potential, orbuddha-nature, existing within each of us. Because these contaminatingdelusions are responsible for all our suffering, we must gain asaccurate an understanding as possible of their nature, how they arise,and how they compel us to move involuntarily from one unsatisfactorysituation to another. Only then shall we be in a position to knowhow best to counteract and eventually uproot these inner enemiescompletely.

    A detailed description of the way in which deluded states of mindkeep us imprisoned within recurring patterns of suffering anddissatisfaction—i.e. within cyclic existence (Skt. samsara)—is given inBuddha's various teachings on the subject of dependent arising (Skt.pratityasamutpada). These profound teachings are vividly depictedin the widely reproduced diagram known as the Wheel of Life (Plate2). Although at first glance it may appear confusing and alien to ourexperience, the Wheel of Life is an exact reflection of both our externaland internal condition within cyclic existence, and it is as relevantto our present-day situation as it was when it was first revealedover two millennia ago. As long as beings remain unenlightened—aslong as their essentially pure buddha-potential is shrouded inignorance—they will continue to imprison themselves in exactly thesame way they have always done. Furthermore, as long as they exertsincere effort to understand the nature of the mind and apply effectivemethods for uprooting the ignorantly produced delusions afflictingit, they will continue to gain liberation from their self-createdprisons and free themselves from this cycle of suffering completely.

    Buddha presented three interrelated trainings by means of whichtotal liberation from suffering and dissatisfaction can be won. Thesethree—the trainings in moral discipline, concentration andwisdom—are often explained through the analogy of a woodsmanfelling a tree. For the woodsman's axe to be able to cut through thetrunk of a tree, not only must the axe be sharp, but the woodsmanmust have a sufficiently steady aim to hit the same spot again andagain, as well as sufficient strength to strike a penetrating blow. Ina similar fashion, anyone intent on cutting through ignorance—theroot of the delusions and source of all suffering—must develop a sharpand penetrating wisdom. But this will be of no use without thesteadying effect of deep mental concentration, and there will be noway of developing either concentration or wisdom without thestrength that comes from moral self-discipline. It is therefore onlyon the basis of cultivating all three trainings properly and thoroughlythat ignorance can be overcome, the delusions defeated and true liberation(Skt. nirvana) achieved. Any man or woman who gains suchan outstanding victory over the mental and emotional afflictions isknown as a foe-destroyer (Skt. arhat). Among Shakyamuni's circleof disciples there were many who through their own spiritual maturityand perseverance, coupled with the inspiration of Buddha andhis teachings, were able to achieve nirvana swiftly. Such is the caseof the Arhat Lam-chung (Figure 4).

    In his eightieth year, after a lifetime of guiding others by meansof his discourses and personal example, Shakyamuni decided it wastime to demonstrate to others how to die with the same tranquilityand clear awareness that he urged them to cultivate throughout theirlife. While traveling back towards the place of his birth he pausedat Kushinagar. There, after giving his final instructions to hisfollowers—

Now monks, I declare to you: all conditioned things are of a nature to decay; strive on untiringly.

he lay down on his right side, entered increasingly profound statesof meditative absorption, and passed away into the state known asparinirvana or final liberation.

    As he had instructed, his body was cremated and the remains enshrinedin reliquary monuments (Skt. stupa) erected in the variouskingdoms of North India. Over the ensuing centuries monumentssuch as the Stupa of Enlightenment (Plate 3) and related structures—suchas the Ceylonese dagoba, the Burmese pagoda and the Tibetanchorten—have proliferated throughout Asia. Each one embodiesin its design the essential elements of the path to complete liberationand enlightenment revealed by Shakyamuni. Stupas are nowbeing constructed in the lands to which the teachings of Buddha havespread, serving to impress upon millions an image of enlightenmentdemonstrated by Shakyamuni under the Bodhi Tree 2500 years agoand still attainable today.


Shakyamuni Buddha—fourth of the one thousand FoundingBuddhas predicted to appear during the current eon—is shown seatedon a jeweled platform upon which is a variously colored lotus supportingcushions of the sun (of which only the gold-colored edge isvisible) as well as the moon. Eight snow lions (two in each corner)symbolizing fearlessness support this specially prepared throne, indicatingthat whoever sits here possesses the fearlessness of a fullyenlightened being. The lotus, sun and moon represent the three principalaspects of the path leading to a buddha's enlightenment: namely,renunciation of the causes of suffering, penetrative wisdom into thenature of reality, and the compassionate, altruistic motivation to benefitothers. Since these three symbols appear repeatedly in buddhist art,it is helpful to examine them more closely now.

    The lotus grows in muddy pools and swamps, but when it opensits beautifully colored petals above the surface of the water they areinvariably stainless and immaculate. The ability of the lotus to growand flower in such muddy conditions without becoming contaminatedmakes it a potent symbol of the way a spiritually evolved beingarises from the world without being stained by any of the pollutantsof worldly existence. Here the lotus symbolizes thedevelopment of pure renunciation: the bold determination to cut attachmentto everything keeping us imprisoned in cyclic existence sothat we may experience true liberation. The Buddha is shown seatedon a lotus to indicate that, having completely overcome the causesof suffering, he is unstained by ordinary concerns for gain and loss,praise and blame, and so forth. To represent the Buddha in this fashionalso serves to encourage the viewer to cultivate a mind similarlydirected towards complete liberation from worldly bondage.


Excerpted from IMAGES OF ENLIGHTENMENT by Jonathan Landaw and Andy Weber. Copyright © 1993 by Jonathan Landaw and Andy Weber. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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