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Deities and Devotion in Mongolian Buddhist Art

Padmasambhava Surrounded by Meditational Deities
19th century
Pigments and gold on sized cloth
53.7 x 39.3 cm

Hope College Collection, 2014.24

Padmasambhava often functions as a meditational deity in Tibetan and Mongolian Tantric Buddhism. This painting depicts Padmasambhava surrounded by a host of other meditational deities, including (moving clockwise from the top): Amitabha Buddha, Six-Syllable Avalokiteshvara, Bhaishajyaguru, Green Tara, Vajrapani, Ushnishavijaya, Seven-eyed White Tara, Manjushri, Two-eyed White Tara, Akshobhya Buddha and a younger incarnation of Padmasambhava.

Padmasambhava was a quasi-legendary mahasiddha who is said to have brought Tantric Buddhism from India to Tibet in the 8th century CE. He is regarded as a manifestation of both Amitabha Buddha and Avalokiteshvara, and is revered in Tibet and Mongolia as the founder of the Nyingma School. As here, Padmasambhava is typically portrayed as an intense-looking holy man seated in a cross-legged pose on a lotus-form pad. He is dressed in the sumptuous robes of a high-ranking cleric and wears a distinctive five-pointed scholar’s hat that was supposedly given to him by an Indian king. He holds a vajra scepter in his right hand, a skull cup containing a jar of ambrosia in his left hand, and has a trident-tipped ritual staff nestled in the crook of his left arm. The skull and two severed heads on his staff are said to signify his victory over desire, hatred and ignorance. The reverse side of the painting is inscribed with a five-syllable consecration mantra.

References: Fleming, Zara (ed.). Mongolian Buddhist Art: Masterpieces from the Museums of Mongolia. Volume 1, Parts 1 & 2: Thangkas, Appliqués and Embroideries. Chicago: Serindia Publications, 2011, pp. 264-269; Meinert, Carmen (ed.). Buddha in the Yurt: Buddhist Art from Mongolia, Volumes 1 & 2. Munich: Hirmer Publishers, 2011, pp. 166-167; Rhie, Marilyn M. and Thurman, Robert A. (eds.). Worlds of Transformation: Tibetan Art of Wisdom and Compassion. New York: Tibet House, 1999, pp. 244-245.