Tibetan Symbols: Paintings, Jewelry and Ritual Objects
When visiting Tibet you can't fail to notice the beautiful Thangka paintings that hang from monasteries and home altars across the region. These paintings are full of information about Buddhism and the Tibetan worldview and they unite the opposing passions of religion and analysis in their geometric and rule-governed depictions. In them, icons and characters out of Buddhist lore float against brilliantly coloured backgrounds filled with complex Buddhist symbols, swirling landscapes and geometric patterns. In some you can see the teenage bodhisattva Manjushri swinging a flaming sword, symbolically slicing away the artificial dualities of thought. Others depict the Tibetan Wheel of Life, (Bhavacakra) a representation of the endless process of birth, suffering, death and rebirth that unenlightened beings endure - a cycle known as Samsara.
The name Thankgas comes from the Tibetan word 'thang' meaning flat and implies how the paintings were created on a flat surface. They come in two forms: goku (cloth images), which are water colours painted on canvas, and the gochen thangka (precious-cloth scroll images), which are woven in silk, embroidered or sewn together.
The painting first emerged around the times of the death of the Buddha Sakyamuni (563-483 BC), who is thought to have founded Zen-Buddhism. When the religion spread throughout the Himalayan region in the seventh century it fragmented into different orders and allowed Nepalese, Chinese and Kashmiri styles to influence the paintings development. The earliest known use of stitchery to create Thangkas dates from the thirteenth century when images were woven and embroidered in China and given as gifts to Tibetan rulers or ommissioned by them. These pieces combined Tibetan artistic style with Chinese textile techniques. By the fifteenth century, the first fabric Thangkas were made in Tibet itself using local "appliqué" techniques usually used to make nomad and festival tents, ritual dance costumes, and altar decorations.
Thangkas then had three different functions; firstly wandering monks carried them to help instil religion and historical teachings in rural populations. They would depict high ranking Buddhist figures and scenes from their lives, the wheel of life, or the Buddha himself. Thangkas were also used for consecration and as gifts to monasteries. They would portray the deities to whom a plea for something would be made. But the largest group of Thangkas were used for meditation and date back to the yoga-tantric practices.
The popularity of embroidered Thangkas grew throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and spread throughout the entire Tibetan Buddhist region, with examples being made in Mongolia, Bhutan, and Ladakh, as well. The Thangkas then broke away from their original functions and were used in temples, home altars and processions. Most monasteries had their own sewing workshops where special pieces were created to display at festivals. Thangkas made from pieced silk were used in very large pieces, as they could be rolled out on hillsides or down the sides of palaces and monasteries.
Great skill and care is needed at every stage in the creation of a Thangka painting and it takes around ten years to become accomplished in the craft. Students will spend their first three years of training learning to sketch the deities. Two more years are then devoted to the techniques of grinding and applying mineral colours and pure gold and in the sixth year, they study the religious texts and scriptures used for their work. Even then they still need another five to ten years to become experts in the field.
The youngest apprentices will begin the making of a Thangka by applying a special treatment to the cotton canvas base. After drying the canvas, the outline drawing is applied. Here an intricate knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and mathematical proportions is needed. Thangka painting is not considered a creative art, so you won't find any with signatures of the painter on. They are iconographic works, so all the images are based on repeating patterns and the artistic freedom of the painter is limited to colour combinations. The templates either come from copies from the past, from books or were drawn by the master based on old iconographic patterns.
Next backgrounds like the sky or the earth are applied. Here, students learn how to grind local stones into lively reds, deep blues, and electric orange paints. Then shimmering gold patterns are applied using gold leaf which is pressed into powder. Finally the faces of the deities are added by the master. Only when this is done does the Thangka receive its 'life'.
When Thangkas were still used for religious purposes, they were mostly painted in cloisters. But as visitors started coming to the Himalayas by around the 1960s, painting schools and studios were set up to produces works that tourists and art collectors could buy. Some of these schools are managed and sponsored by non-profit organizations that assure the training and employment of young Tibetans. In this way the centuries old tradition still lives on and if you get the chance to visit Tibet, the kaleidoscopic colours and mind bending patterns of the Thangka are a sight not to miss.
The Om symbol is a very important symbol in Tibetan jewelry and accessories. The word Aum is the primordial symbol, the first sound ever heard, and the sound that the earth was created by. The sound starts with an opening of the lips and ends with a closing. This represents pulling all things into the body while making the sound. The Om sound is similar to the Greek Logos, and in Christianity it could be linked to the Christian Amen. Everything in the world both begins and ends with this sound.
The Om symbol is found in both Hinduism and Buddhism, and began in Hinduism, but I will first discuss the sound and its cosmology in the context of Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism, the most used mantra is 'om mani padme hum.' This phrase means 'hail to the jewel in the lotus.' This mantra is the mantra of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara.
When Buddhist practitioners recite this mantra they are striving to attain a Buddha-like mind and spirit. This means a mind and spirit free from earthly evils such as attachment, jealousy, and greed. And the Buddhist practitioner wants to find more love, peaceful bliss, and contentment. "Om Mani Padme Hum" is also the Bija mantra in Tibetan Buddhism. This means that it is the seed, or original mantra.
The Tibetan Om symbol is different than the Hindu in appearance. The first character of both om symbols, from a western perspective, looks like a backwards three. But the second symbol of the sanskrit om looks like a circle, while the second symbol of the Tibetan one looks like a V. The earrings pictured above represent the Tibetan om symbol. On our website we also offer purses and other items with the sanskrit om symbol. But regardless of whether the symbol is a Tibetan Buddhist or Hindu symbol, the symbol is always recognizable as om.
In Hinduism the symbol is the first symbol of all of the mantras, and each of the mantras in the Upanishads begins with om. Yoga classes in the west are traditionally started and ended with the om sound, or with an entire mantra. By starting and ending a yoga class with om, the teacher brings a sense of opening and closing to each class, almost as if she ended each class with a 'the end.' In The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which are where much of the philosophy in modern-day yoga classes comes from, in verse 1:27 states, "God's voice is Aum." Meaning that not only is om the beginning and ending of all things, it is also from God, and to go further it is God.
At first glance, the Tibetan dorje symbol appears to be a weapon. But the dorje symbol is not a weapon, it is a ritual object. In Tibetan Buddhism, the dorje symbol is inseparable with the bell. In Tantric Buddhism, the bell represents the feminine, and the dorje represents the masculine, or the dorje represents a thunderbolt, and the bell represents a diamond. The bell can also represent the body, while the dorje represents the mind. In Buddhist ceremonies in Tibet, the bell and the dorje are always used together. The dorje can be used to strike the bell. When holding the dorje and bell together, the dorje is held in the right hand, and the bell is in the left hand.
The Tibetan Buddhist deity, Vajrasattva, is commonly shown holding the dorje in the right hand and the bell in the left hand. Other Buddhas who are pictured with the dorje are Vajrapani, and Padmasambhava. In Tibetan, dorje translates to 'noble stone.'
The dorje symbol came to Tibetan Buddhism from Hinduism. In Sanskrit, dorje is called 'vajra.' Vajra means, 'thunderbolt' or 'diamond,' and the vajra is indestructible. The vajra is like a diamond, because it can destroy, but it cannot be destroyed. The vajra represents spiritual power. In Hinduism, the vajra is the weapon of Indra (the god of rain, lightning, and the sky). The vajra symbol also destroys ignorance. The vajra is the symbol of Vajrayana Buddhism, one of the three major branches of Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhism is also known as the 'Thunderbolt Way' or the 'Diamond Way.'
The vajra is often used as a tool in meditation. Practitioners can meditate on the vajra to achieve the 'thunderbolt experience.' The thunderbolt experience is a symbol of union of the relative and absolute truths. Relative truth is what we experience in everyday life, conversely, absolute truth is the timeless state of being unified with nature and everything around us. The bell and dorje symbol can also be meditated on, because we must balance both the masculine and feminine elements within us in order to reach enlightenment.
Each part of the dorje symbol has a certain meaning. The two spheres of the dorje joined together in the middle represent the two sides of the brain. This dual nature in the dorje itself can also represent the body, mind, or masculine, feminine, etc. Just as in other types of eastern philosophy and religion such as the yin yang symbol, this duality is represented in the dorje.
The spheres represents sunyata, the primordial nature of the universe. There are two sides of the dorje, and these represent two lotus flowers joined together, one side is for the phenomenal world (samsara), the other is for the noumenal world (nirvana). The three rings in the center of the dorje represent the spontaneous bliss of Buddha nature as emptiness, effortlessness, and signlessness. The eight upper petals represent the eight bodhisattvas, and the eight lower petals represent their consorts. Above the lotuses, there are three rings. These rings represent the six perfections, patience, generosity, discipline, effort, meditation, and wisdom.
The double dorje symbol is known as the vishvavajra. It is also known as the double cross. This symbol is made when two dorjes are mounted together. The double dorje symbol is often used as a stamp or a seal, and placed on the bottom of statues and pendants. When the dorje or the double dorje sign are worn as pendants, they remind the wearer of the indestructibility of knowledge.
In Hinduism, Indra's thunderbolt has open prongs. There is a legend that Shakyamuni took the vajra weapon from Indra and pressed the prongs together to make the dorje into a peaceful instrument rather than a weapon.
Learn more about Tibetan, Hindu and Buddhist symbolism in these books from Amazon: