Saturday, February 24, 2018

Dreaming Giant Thangkas, Part One

Dreaming Giant Thangkas
On the History and Meanings of a Tibetan Religious Practice

I suppose everywhere in the world we may find people greatly impressed by things that are higher and taller.  We tend to entertain each other with trivia questions like ‘What is the highest mountain? The highest skyscraper? The tallest person?’  As we know there are also people suffering from monument phobia. Instead of being awe-struck, they feel oppressed and threatened when faced with the very same tallness. I will neither engage in ‘heightism’ nor try to avoid it. This is not, and I repeat not, among the points I want to make today. What is relevant here is not so much height as that more abstract and impressionistic concept of monumentality that might go along with it.

What is size after all? I apologize that I might be a bit confusing in terms of measurements, since I will be using some English, some metrical and some Tibetan indications of height and width. Tibet in the past did not always make use of standardized measurements, and certainly never to the level of exactitude we’ve gotten accustomed to in the 21st century. Other times, other places, other standards.*
(*Well, Tibetan history writers do credit two different Emperors with weight standardizations, one in around the mid-6th century, and the other in the early 9th, but that doesn’t mean that grain volume measurements, for example, didn’t vary from place to place well into the 20th century. As we will see, in Tibetan art, the body of the artist or sponsor may supply the units of measurement. For a collection of materials about Tibetan measurements, see this page at Tiblical.)

I will also not say all that much about art-historical or iconographic details. Instead, I want to consider matters of more general cultural and religious significance from a historical perspective. So forgive me if I don’t go into great depths about materials, artistic techniques, aesthetics and the like; things you may expect in a study that is after all about art.

So let’s delve a little into the history of Buddhist monumentality, identifying some of its main — Dare I use the word? — monuments. Giant Buddhas have been very much in the news not so long ago because of the destruction in 2001 of the Bamiyan Buddhas, one  38 and the other 55 [53?] meters high. The best studies seem to suggest they were made more-or-less in the middle of the sixth century. These two were probably the best known South Asian examples.

Todaiji's Giant Buddha
courtesy of Wiki Commons

Modern-day travelers in East Asia have surely seen some of the more famous monumental Buddhas. We might mention the Vairocana image known as Daibutsu, or ‘Giant Buddha’ in Todaiji Temple in Japan consecrated by the South Indian Bodhisena in 752 CE. 

By Ken Marshall from Absecon, New Jersey, USA 
Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

In China, carved out of the rock of cliffs and caves are quite a number of giant Buddhas from the fifth century onward. Among them is one that has been called the largest Buddha in the world — the rock image of Maitreya at Leshan. It took almost the whole of the eighth century to carve it out of the cliff and it still stands at 71 meters high. 

Less well known and less than half as tall is the no longer surviving wooden image of Maitreya at Darel in Central Asia. It was seen by Chinese travelers in around 400 CE and should have been between 80 and 100 feet high.  

The Maitreya of Mulbek Kartse
(see the comment of Rob Linrothe below)

There is a still surviving stone relief image of Maitreya, nine meters high, at Mulbek in Ladakh that has been dated to the 8th or 9th century.

And nowadays at the holy sites of Buddhism in India and Nepal, there seems to be a competition between the Buddhist nations of the world to build taller and taller Buddhas. We’ll leave this issue aside for now.

If we consider Buddha images made of every possible material, it is rather remarkable that, while we do find huge Buddhas all over the Buddhist world, until very recent times there seem to have been hardly any in the birthplace of Buddhism, in the central parts of India or indeed the whole of the area of modern India. This deserves a little closer attention. Of course today the situation is quite different, but what evidence is there from earlier times? Let’s have a look:

In one of the caves at Kānherī there are two images carved out of the stone, each measuring a little over seven meters in height. These are probably the tallest surviving Buddha images in all of India (Miyaji, “Idea”).

However, in 1975 at the Buddhist monastic university of Nālandā archaeologists excavating one of the many ruined temples discovered two giant stucco feet from a standing Buddha image. Judging from the fact that each foot is about one meter in length, the entire image must have stood at six or seven meters in height. In the same temple a stone inscription was found. To quote a sentence from this inscription,

“This huge image of the Buddha was sculpted by Pūrṇavarman, whose fame rested not only on the earth but was even written on the moon.”

The image was sponsored by a king of Mathurā named Prathamaśiva and the inscription itself was composed by that king's minister. On the basis of the inscription, Gouriswor Bhattacharya concludes that the inscription and the statue to which it ought to belong must date to around 587 CE. But bear in mind that the relationship between the stone inscription and the stucco feet is far from clear even though they were found in the same temple.

To add perplexity to the picture, we also have the following testimony of the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang who visited Nālandā in 637 CE. To give the old Samuel Beal translation: 
Next, to the eastward 200 paces or so, outside the walls, is a figure of Buddha standing upright and made of copper.  Its height is about 80 feet.  A pavilion of six stages is required to cover it.  It was formerly made by Pūrṇavarma-rāja.
Here Pūrṇavarman, the name of the sculptor in the stone inscription, might appear to be a king (rāja) who had the statue made. It is copper, not stucco (the inscription doesn’t mention any material), and it is much much higher than just seven meters. It is easy to imagine that it would have taken a building six stories tall to enclose an 80-foot statue, and it surely seems that Xuanzang must have known what he was talking about, since such a tall building and image would surely have captured his attention during his stay in Nālandā. It is not just hearsay. Perhaps we could be justified in taking Xuanzang's testimony in isolation, and say that there was an 80-foot copper standing statue of Buddha existing in Bihar in the early 7th century. Or, we could just say there is evidence, even if not all that clear or abundant evidence, that sixth-seventh century Nālanda had giant Buddhas made of stucco, stone and copper.

For our purposes the pertinent facts are:  Giant Buddhas are but little known in India proper in pre-modern times. Those that once existed have left few traces behind. They were constructed from the fifth century until today in other Buddhist countries. While a number of these icons are of Vairocana, many of them represent the future Buddha Maitreya. It has been suggested that Maitreya is represented as being very tall simply because in the future era in which he will be born all humans will be much taller. According to one source people in those days will be about ten feet tall, while Maitreya will be twice that height, or 20 feet tall.* As we proceed, I feel sure that Tibetan monumental Maitreyas, whether statues, paintings or giant fabric thangkas, will be seen to fit into a larger trend of the Buddhist world.
(*Miyaji, “Idea,” p. 288; Chandra, “Colossi,” p. 32)
So, with Maitreya in mind, we can engage our main topic.

Here is one of the most amazing pieces illustrated in Pratapaditya Pal, Art from the Himalayas and China (Asian Art at the Norton Simon Museum, Volume 2), Yale University Press in association with The Norton Simon Art Foundation (New Haven and London 2003).

This pieced-silk thangka has the overall measurements of 177 (or 14"8') by 268 inches (or 22"4'), or if you prefer 449.6 by 680.7 centimeters.[1] It has the future Buddha Maitreya as its central figure,[2] with images of Tsongkhapa in five different forms — based on visions beheld by his student Khedrubjé — arrayed in the upper parts, as you can see in the following detail.

Closeup of the upper portion, showing the five forms of Tsongkhapa

For comparison, another representation of Tsongkhapa’s five forms

To Maitreya’s right is the Eighth Dalai Lama Himself, and to His left, the Dalai Lama’s Tutor Yeshé Gyaltsen.[3] The protectors of the four directions appear at the bottom, two on each side of an inscription. As the inscription makes clear, and as the catalogue correctly states, this image was made in 1793-4 as one of several memorials for the Tutor, who died in 1793. The inscription is quite competently translated by Ratö Khyongla Rinpoche in an appendix (p. 263), but I would like to attempt a fresh one. 

The inscribed area of the thangka, I apologize for the unclear photo;
the Wylie and Tibetan-script transcriptions are followed by an English translation

om svasti /
dga' ldan lha brgya'i gtsug rgyan mi pham mgon //rgyal ba byams pa mgon po'i snang brgyan dang //'jam mgon bla ma blo bzang grags pa'i sku //gang de'i bzlos gar gzigs pa lnga dang ni //rje btsun bla ma ye shes rgyal mtshan zhabs //spyan ras gzigs mgon 'jam dpal rgya mtsho dang //chos skyong rgyal po chen po bzhi la sogs //mtshan dpe'i dpal 'bar rgyal ba'i snang brnyan mchog //bzang gos dbang po'i gzhu ltar rab bkra ba'i //bkod mdzes rgyal ba'i sku mchog bzhengs pa'i dges //rgyal bstan snying po 'jam mgon ring lugs mchog //nam mkha'i mtha' khyab srid mthar rgyas gyur cig //
khyad par bdag gi yongs 'dzin bla ma mchog //bka' drin sum ldan ye shes mtshan ldan gyi //dgongs pa rdzogs shing slar yang zhing mchog 'dir //rgyal bstan snying po'i mgon du myur bzhengs shog //
yangs pa'i rgyal khams spyi dang gangs ljongs 'dir //mi 'dod rgud pa'i ming yang mi grag cing //chos 'byor dge bcu'i khrims la rtag gnas sogs //bkra shis bde legs chen pos khyab gyur cig //

With the virtue from erecting this supreme icon of the Victor, finely arranged, multi-colored like the Bow of Indra [the rainbow],
of fine silk, with a superior reflected image of the Victor blazing with the glory of the “marks” [of Buddha’s body] —
including images of the head ornament of the hundred gods of Tuṣita,
the undefeatable lord [Ajitanātha] Victor Maitreyanātha, 

the Gentle Lord Guru [Tsongkhapa] Lozang Dragpa
in His dramatically posed forms of the Five Visions,[4]
the Reverend Guru Yeshe Gyaltsen,  

The Tutor Yeshe Gyaltsen

the Lord Avalokiteśvara Jampel Gyatso and
the Four Great Kings, Dharma protectors.

May the supreme tradition of the Gentle Lord [Tsongkhapa], the essence of the Victor’s teachings
increase to fill the horizons of the sky until the end of existence.
In particular may the intentions of my Tutor, the supreme guru
possessing three kindnesses[5] by the name of Full Knowledge (Ye-shes) be fulfilled
and may He quickly arise as lord of the essence of the victor's teachings in this supreme Buddhafield [of Tibet].

In all the kingdoms of the wide [earth] and, in particular,
here in this Snow Land may the word “want” not be heard;
may the wealth of Dharma, the ethics of the ten virtues, remain forever;
and may comfort, goodness and auspiciousness pervade all.

We’ll come back to the content of the inscription later on, but first let’s look at some other examples and try to make some general observations.

One of the giant thangkas of Gyantse depicting Maitreya

The display tower viewed from below in Gyantse.

These photos date to 1938. They were published in Life Magazine of June 12, 1939. They were taken by F. Bailey Vanderhoef who collected artworks now kept in Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Supposed to date to 1438, it shows a form of Maitreya with pitcher above His right shoulder. We’ll soon say more about the Gyantsé thangkas. (See also Henss, “Silken Images,” as well as Henss, “Liberation.”  On Vanderhoef, see this PDF of an essay by José Cabezón.)

In Tibet the unrolling of a giant silk thangka was, in a literal sense of the word, a spectacular event. A large number of people would be required to carry it in procession to the high place for its unrolling. This was ordinarily done only on an annual holiday, with colorful processions, loud but sombre sacred music, and prayers led by the monastic community. This performance bridged the divide between official and popular religion. While the most important hierarchs were involved in their construction, consecrations and unfurling ceremonies, thousands of laypeople could be present as spectators and participate in various more or less active ways. The mere sight of such a thangka was said to be enlightening, to at least provide a foretaste of what Complete Enlightenment might be. The most common term for this experience, a term often employed in the very name of such an icon, is liberation by sight, although other senses might be mentioned, too, especially hearing and touch. 

If we can use the contemporary language of media studies and Byzantinology, it engages the sensorium, and it does it with a Buddhist sense of purpose.[6]

To continue, click here...


[1] On monumental Buddha images, see particularly the survey by Huntington, “Great Buddhas.” See also Pal, “Monumental,” an article that mainly discusses how the thangka gradually made its way from Sikkim to its present location in the Norton Simon Museum, a subject not covered in the catalog entry.
[2] As is well known, the future Buddha Maitreya is very frequently depicted in a seated position with both feet resting down below (usually described in the literature as ‘the European seating posture’). This seated Maitreya is depicted in another thangka in our book, plate 138, where the accompanying description gives this posture its Sanskrit names. However, in the brocade thangka He is depicted with legs fully crossed in the Vajra Āsana. This way of visualizing Maitreya is similarly described in a guruyoga text by the Tutor of Tshe-mchog-gling, found under the general title Rje-btsun Byams-mgon-la Brten-pa'i Bla-ma'i Rnal-'byor sogs Bla-ma'i Rnal-'byor 'Ga'-zhig, contained in Tshe-mchog-gling, Works, vol. 17, pp. 341-389, with the relevant section on pp. 342-347. On p. 343, Maitreya is described as smiling, wearing monastic robes, the two hands at His heart forming the gesture of turning the wheel of Dharma, and the feet in the Vajra posture. As usual in guruyoga texts, the visualization process emphasizes the complete identity of the spiritual teacher with the divine focus of spiritual aspirations (the yi-dam). It surely would help to explain the significance of the thangka as a whole, if it could be shown that the Tutor’s own disciples were practicing this particular kind of guruyoga, fusing the identity of their teacher with Maitreya. The presence of the stūpa on top of Maitreya’s head is justified in a Tanjur text (*Nairitipa, Ajitanāthasādhana), and there is a brief study on this very subject in Bhattacharya, “Stūpa.” For general treatments of Maitreya and His iconography, see Sponberg and Hardacre, Maitreya, and Chandra, “Maitreya.”
[3] The best available English-language biographies are in Mullin, Fourteen, pp. 332-333, and Willis, Enlightened, pp. 125-130. He received the advanced monastic educational degree of Dka'-chen at Tashilhunpo Monastery, and this explains why his name is sometimes prefaced with this title. He became the Eighth Dalai Lama’s tutor in 1782. As examples of his writings in translation, see Guenther and Kawamura, Mind, Mullin, “Tse-Chok-Ling’s,” and Willis, Enlightened. He was not the most prolific writer in Tibetan history, but still it is worthy of note that his works have been republished in no less than twenty-five volumes.
[4] These are the five forms of Tsongkhapa as He appeared in visions, after His death, to His disciple Khedrupjé.  These are mentioned and described briefly in Thurman, Life and Teachings, pp. 32-33.  Sarat Chandra Das long ago wrote an article on this very subject; see Das, “Five Visions.” See also Tucci, Tibetan Painted Scrolls, pp. 399-400, along with the painting illustrated in plates 73 and 74. The most detailed study I know of, accompanied by five thangka reproductions, is found in Yon-tan-rgya-mtsho’s history, vol. 1, pp. 186-193, including the stories of the visions, and details of the iconography.  A thang-ka depicting only one of the five visions has been published in Rhie and Thurman, Worlds, p. 356 (color illustration no. 127). An entire set of five thangkas belonging to the Potala has been illustrated in Bod-kyi Thang-ka, illus. nos. 69-73.  A thangka with the tiger-riding Mahāsiddha form of Tsongkhapa in the center, with the other four forms of Tsongkhapa in smaller size, and the 84 Mahāsiddhas in still smaller size surrounding it has been illustrated in Se-ra Theg-chen-gling, p. 77. This last-mentioned thangka is evidently based on a woodblock print (par).
I located in Khag-cig Mtshan-byang, p. 287:  Phur-lcog Blo-bzang-tshul-khrims-byams-pa'i (=Byams-pa-rgya-mtsho, 1825-1901) Gsung-'bum, the following [cycle] title:  Rje Rin-po-che dang Rje Gzigs-pa Lnga-ldan-la Brten-pa'i Bla-ma'i Rnal-'byor-gyi Skor.
Klong-rdol Bla-ma lists a title said to be located at the end of volume KHA of Mkhas-grub-rje’s works:  Mkhas-grub-rje's own biography ('autobiography'?), Five Visions, composed by his disciple Gtsang-mda'-ba Chos-ldan-rab-'byor (Mkhas-grub-pa rang-gi rnam-thar Gzigs-pa Lnga-ldan | | Mkhas-grub-pa'i slob-ma Gtsang-mda'-ba Chos-ldan-rab-'byor-gyis mdzad-pa).  This would seem to be the original text on the Five Visions, but so far I have not been able to learn of its present existence, unless it is the same as the available Secret Biography (Gsang-ba'i Rnam-thar).
[5] This term three kindnesses may have both sūtra and tantra applications, but here it would seem that both were intended. In sūtra contexts, the three kindnesses are:  1. Teaching the Dharma.  2. Empowering the mind and perceptions with blessings.  3. Providing for the material welfare of the audience.   In tantra contexts, the three kindnesses are:  1. Conferring initiations.  2. Explaining the tantras.  3. Granting secret precepts.
[6] For a sustained discussion of liberation through seeing and related concepts, see Tokarska-Bakir, “Naive.” For works about the giant thangka of Paro, Bhutan, and the religious festival surrounding it, see Huntington, “Notes”; Stratton, “Paro”; and Fontein, “Notes.” Françoise Pommaret, “A Cultural Epiphany: Religious Dances of Bhutan and Their Costumes,” Marg, vol. 66, no. 4 (June 2015), pp. 30-39, has magnificent photographs of the Paro Tsechu giant thangka. Fontein estimates the size of the Paro thang-ka, which has the 'Second Buddha' Padmasambhava as its main subject, at about 50 by 50 feet. Fontein also attempts a history of giant fabric Buddha representations, most interesting being his discussion of the Korean kwaebul, “Hanging Buddhas,” which were made between 1622 and 1982 CE. But these kwaebul were mostly paintings on silk, and only rarely pieced together from silk. The word appliqué is very often used in connection with brocade icons, but since no backing cloth is required for their construction — the backing cloth might be added only after completion for purposes entirely protective in nature — the term is not always entirely appropriate (I admit to using such terms as appliqué rather loosely). On textile thangkas more generally, see especially Henss, “Woven” and Reynolds, “Luxury Textiles.” Primarily recommended for its approach to the conservation of brocade thangkas is Loh, “Decision.”

§   §   §

Apologies and acknowledgements:
I hesitate to get started with acknowledgements and apologies. I am afraid it will take too long. So, to be brief — and start with the main apology:

I apologize for talking about things I still do not know enough about. This is not a report about success, but rather an account of a continuing quest. Along the way I would like to make a modest point about the importance of Tibetan literature for knowing about Tibetan art.

I should first of all thank Amy Heller and Paul Nietupski for most, but not all, of the illustrations I’ve used. Tibeto-logic is an entirely independent and noncommercial educational enterprise, and all illustrations are placed here for educational purposes only. I would like to thank Pratapaditya Pal, the famous expert on Himalayan art, for laying down the basis for much of what I have to say about the Pasadena thangka. It is far from my intention to criticize his work which deserves only admiration and praise, but I think I have a few things of substance that can embellish the picture historically speaking.

Some of the Tibetan sources were found by myself the old fashioned way, by reading through lengthy Tibetan texts, but many of them would not have been located without hints and references from earlier works by David Jackson, Valrae Reynolds, Dungkar Rinpoche, Dagyab Rinpoche, Yukio Tanaka and others. Finding materials in the Fifth Dalai Lama’s huge biographies would not have been possible without the help of digitized texts done at the Lumbini International Research Institute in Nepal by Christoph Cüppers and Tsering Lama. Thanks to a workshop by Yuko Tanaka back in 2014, I was even able to try my hand at the stitching. I know it looks nice, so I must hurry to confess, the only line I did myself, and even then with a great deal of effort and struggle, was the one at the top of the flower on the right-hand side, the line you can hardly see. It took me over an hour. All the rest was done by Yuko. Well, trying to do it at least gave me a real appreciation of what those amazing Tibetan artists could accomplish.

Need bibliography?  The key to the shortened bibliographical references will appear at the end of Part Three.

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