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15. Buddha with Five Tathagatas

 Buddha with Five Tathagatas

15. Buddha with Five Tathagatas
Central Tibet (a Kagyu monastery?), early 13th century
Distemper on cloth
42.9 x 32.7 cm (167/8 x 127/8 in.)
Private collection

This painting depicts a Buddha in the gesture of religious instruction (dharmachakra mudra). He sits on an elaborate five-tier throne, surrounded by a five-arc rainbow. His two-tier throne back is surmounted by a triangular element whose details have largely worn away. Careful scrutiny reveals delicately drawn addorsed hamsas (geese) and filigree scrolling crowned by a Garuda. A cloth emerges from beneath his lotus perch; it bears the triratna (three jewels), denoting the Buddha, his teachings (dharma), and the monastic community (samgha). The uppermost level of the throne is guarded by the ever-recurring lions and elephants. The throne is an elaborate version of the one
seen in the Kronos Amoghasiddhi (cat. no. 4) and the Metropolitan Museum's Portrait (cat. no. 5). The number of tiers is increased here, but the basic form, deriving from eastern Indian models, is retained: a central projection with a series of stepped setbacks. Also alike are the profiles of the tiers and the triangular antefixes. Side panels, which support the two-tier throne back, contain badly worn depictions of vyalas astride elephants. The gem-studded surface of the throne is enlivened with swirling golden patterns, which in early paintings imply water, but here read as filigree. The base of the throne is inset with three pairs of double vajras tipped with a triratna that alternate with more typical motifs. The Buddha is flanked by the standing bodhisattvas Manjushri (on his right) and Vajrapani (on his left). Two vidyadharas ("garland" or "knowledge" bearers) float on clouds in the top corners, while five Buddhas identical to the main deity are seated on the first tier of his throne.

An elegant drawing on the reverse of the painting clarifies some of the iconography (see fig. 34). In place of the usual consecratory mantras, an umbrella with streamers atop two lotus seats appears. Lined up along the lower seat and corresponding to the positions of the five lower Buddhas are symbols associated with the five Tathagatas (Celestial Buddhas): a jewel, symbol of Ratnasambhava; a thunderbolt scepter (vajra), symbol of Akshobhya; a wheel, symbol of Vairochana; a lotus, symbol of Amitabha; and a thunderbolt scepter (vajra), symbol of
Amoghasiddhi. The upper lotus support corresponds to the seat of the main image and contains a petal-spoked stylized wheel at whose center is a vajra tied with streamers, set on another lotus base. The upper part of the drawing implies that the central figure of the painting is Vairochana, whose family head is Akshobhya, hence the thunderbolt at the center of a wheel.1 The mudra that the central figure makes is also characteristic of Vairochana, who is considered in most instances to be the presiding deity of the pentad of Tathagatas, who, therefore, appear below him. However, it is unusual for a deity to be shown twice in the same painting and for other figures to assume the mudra of Vairochana. Another possibility is that this central figure is one or the other of the two Buddhas who preside over the five Tathagatas, either Vajrasana or Vajrasattva. However, neither the hand gesture nor the symbols behind the Buddha tend to support this hypothesis.2 Finally, the central figure might be Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, who is sometimes shown making dharmachakra mudra, the "turning of the wheel of the law," and from whom the concept of the Tathagatas may have arisen.3 Although the wheel on the reverse of the painting is associated with him, the vajra is not appropriate for the historical Buddha. Therefore, the identity of the central figure of this Esoteric assemblage remains uncertain.

Despite their initially disparate visual impact (because of the worn condition of the thanka and the associated loss in color depth), the style and decorative motifs of this painting are related to those of several other early-thirteenth-century paintings in the exhibition.4 The body of the central figure, with his thin neck, exaggerated widow's peak, wiglike hair, small ushnisha (cranial protuberance indicative of wisdom) topped with a jewel, and delicate limbs, is akin to that of the Shakyamuni
Buddha (cat. no. 16). The standing bodhisattvas are very like those in the Buddhist Hierarch (cat. no. 17); note not only the similar distribution of weight of the figures but also the particular angle at which the heads are held. A similar angle also occurs in the kneeling yellow figure in the Shakyamuni thanka. The Buddha and the hierarch both share the use of multiple rainbows, the atypical panel
supports that hold up the throne back, vajras (thunderbolt scepters) used as decorative devices, as well as a highly unusual small border motif of intermeshing triangular elements. Finally, all three pictures have a throne cloth with a triratna at its center (the portrait uses this symbol also as a major decorative device). The lineage in the hierarch's portrait determines the dating of the group.      SMK

1. Mallman 1986, p. 392. [back]

2. Ibid., p. 130. Vajrasana is associated with the earth-touching mudra. Vajrasattva holds a bell and a vajra and usually wears elaborate regalia; Mallmann 1986, pp. 419-20. [back]

3. Bhattacharyya 1958, p. 48. [back]

4. Also closely associated with these is a Samvara and Nairatmya with footprints (see Pal 1984, no. 12), which shares an almost identical lineage and many of the same motifs as the Buddhist Hierarch (cat. no. 17). [back]

all text & images © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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