Tibetan Thangka

17th/18th C.
Painted with natural mineral pigments on fabric over board
38” h. 29” w. (framed dimensions)

This Thangka depicts a group of “yidmas”, personal deities associated with the most well-known form of Tantric Buddhism called Vajrayana Buddhism practiced in Tibet (A tantra is a doctrine or ritual system in which everything is interconnected, the foundation of many of India’s religions. The practitioner of this form of Buddhism meditates and concentrates on a portrait, a realistic or abstract image or a painting. The believer identifies with the divinity who is symbolically present in the portrait. The essence of the divinity, or the divinity’s strength flows into the believer. Through concentration on and union with the divinity in this image, one will attain the formless and expressionless state of nirvana).

Depending on the character of the believer, the yidam may be peaceful or fierce. Friendly yidams are usually buddhas. A fierce yidam is nothing but one’s own pent-up, intense ferocity, a rage that is directed against one’s annoying undercurrents that stand in the way of a breakthrough to total understanding. Whenever one is bothered by one’s own obstruction undercurrents, or clings to the pleasure-seeking life too much, the wrathful yidam will appear in its’ fierce, bloodthirsty-like guise. The moment that believers banish their ego to the background, the yidam will reveal itself in its’ peaceful guise. The glow that one can feel in the process of intense thought, rage, or joy, translates into an aureole of flames in the portrayal of yidams. In general terms, these savage types of yidams protect Buddhism from enemies that threaten the faith of Buddhism.

In this Tangka, there are five dhyani buddhas (meditation buddhas), each stand in the head of what is called a Buddha family, a gathering of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and the divinities. In the center, in a big portrayal, is the dhyani Buddha Akshobhya, in a terrifying manifestation called Vajra Heruka. He, like the other fierce yidams, has accessories and attributes adapted to their character. Their headdress consist of five small death’s heads, the fierce variant crown of five flower petals indicates the five dhyani buddhas, and is regarded a peaceful divinity. The long necklace is formed by skulls strung together. In their hands are skull cups, a staff and intestines. The symbolism of the skulls is clear: conquering death and thereby putting an end to the cycle of rebirth.

Heruka yidams usually carry in their hands the vajua (a ritual object in the form of a thunder-dagger or wedge, symbolizing the male aspect of duality, or method) or ghanta (a prayer bell, the female aspect or knowledge). In order to attain understanding, knowledge is necessary and, armed with knowledge, the proper method is necessary to allow this knowledge to operate so that benefit can be derived from it. When the vajra and ghanta are held together, it is a symbol of eliminating duality and finding union with the All, an essential part of Tantric Buddhism. In this thangka, the fierce yidams are portrayed standing or dancing in a sort of intense sexual fusion, which is actually a non-organic action that is meant to express the elimination of duality.
As guardian deities, most yidam portrayal thangkas have a special place in the monastery close to the holiest part of the complex or near the altar. Others usually reside in a separate temple space and guard the entire monastery complex from there. This Heruka thangka is quite rare and hardly possible to find in the market place in Tibet today.