The Magic of Composition in Tibetan paintings

The Magic of Composition in Tibetan paintings

By the the painter sat down to begin the sketch he already had in the main contents and of the . Usually, the patron had indicated to the painter precisely which deities he wanted to be depicted.

Sometimes the patron also furnished a diagram that showe the names and relative positions of each figure in the , such diagrams often having been composed by the of the patron.

When the patron provided no diagram but knew exactly what he or she wanted, the painter carefully noted down the plan for his records, particularly if the painting was at all complicated or if he had a backlog of commissions.

The beginning of the  of a Tibetian Painting

With such a diagram or plan in hand, the job of establishing the composition was simplified. The then had only to divide up the , allocating the proper amount of to each figure and in the general outlines of the .

But if the patron could provide no more than the names of the figures to be painted, it was often up to the artist to design a suitable layout. For a painting with multiple images, the artist would first determine from the patron which figure was to be the main one and which figures were subordinate, and he could then proceed with laying out the design.

In many instances, however, no consultation or new composition was necessary. A large number of the compositions were fixed by and artistic tradition, and these the painter could simply draw from memory or according to standard examples.

Further, we will know in more detail about some of the ways in which the painter established his sketch, including the and principles which he followed for new compositions. But it will be best to introduce these methods and principles indirectly, by first describing and classifying the main types of compositions, especially those with established and contents. This is the best approach since the basic principles can be seen most clearly in the established compositions.

Classification of Religious Paintings

According to thinking, most functioned as rten (literally “supports”), that is, as physical representations and embodiments of , speech or mind.

The majority of were rten, as were , , and . For a object fully to function as a rten, it had to be ceremonially imbued with the spirit of by means of a ceremony (rab gnas).

that were not rten also existed in , including paintings that taught or illustrated some aspect of Buddhist doctrine but did not mainly depict the form of or deities.

Paintings of the latter type could probably best be called “didactic” paintings. They include both straightforward of and , and of religious and and themes.

Only a small number of paintings did not fit into either the rten or didactic classes. Among them were, for instance, paintings that had a ritual use as surrogate in relation to a main rten image, such as the dmar rdzas (depictions of sacrifices) placed before the images of wrathful guardians in the Protectors


Chapel (mgon khang).

There were a few other unusual types of painting, such as poetical diagrams and protective and astrological diagrams and . But here we will mainly be concerned with rten and didactic paintings and the varieties that they included.

Paintings as rten

Paintings that depicted the bodily forms of enlightened beings were considered to be sku rten (“body supports”).

Such paintings made up the vast majority of thangkas. We may also mention in passing a slightly. Different kind of rten painting in which inanimate sacred objects were depicted. When examining a large group of thangkas one occasionally comes across paintings of stupas, as well as of important and monasteries.

These too are rten paintings, because temples were thought of as varieties of “body support”, and stupas were “supports” of an .

The Presence or Absence of a Temporal Framework

Paintings of animate sku-rten figures can to some extent be further classified according to whether they do or do not express a definite temporal framework.

Most thangkas placed their subjects in a realm beyond ordinary space and time. in a pure realm (dag pai zhing khams) or Buddha field. They depicted no particular moment or event although as rten they embodied a living and immediate presence.

By contrast, some compositions clearly attempted to portray one or more episodes in the career of the subject, thus locating the event in the historical or legendary past. We could call such thangkas “narrative paintings.” Some narrative thangkas portray a succession of notable events in the life of an enlightened one or saint.

The twelve great deeds of the Buddha

Examples include thangkas of the twelve great deeds of the Buddha and of the important events in the life of .

Such paintings could be called “biographical”. The subjects need not always be events in the life of a historical personage.

A thangka of  Gesar of Ling

A thangka showing episodes from the epic cycle of King Gesar of Ling would also constitute a biographical thangka. Another type of narrative thangka is that which portrays events from a succession of the past lives of some great being.

Outstanding events in the past lifetimes of Sakyamuni as set down in the JeLtaka tales (skyes rabs) were sometimes the subject of paintings. All types of narrative paintings could be painted either as single or as a series of compositions each of which depicted one or many events.

In paintings that portrayed several episodes, the episodes were separated from each other by walls or boundaries, or by empty spaces in the landscape. Some single paintings depicted only one episode from the life of a saint, such as the meeting of Milarepa with the hunter. In such paintings, the was commonly portrayed in a more realistic manner, placed (as far as the style permitted) within an almost three-dimensional landscape.

When drawing such episodes from a saint’s life the artist generally had a greater amount of compositional . The remaining types of rten thangkas are those that portray the sacred figures in their general aspect within a pure realm, and not as actors in a particular situation.

The simplest of such compositions merely consists of a single figure placed in the middle of a background. Here the only differences in composition between similar paintings derive from the varying complexity of the backgrounds. But when the composition consists of many sacred figures, another distinction has to be made.

Some paintings depict figures whose identities and positions are iconographically prescribed. But distinct from those there are also many paintings in which the needs or wishes of the patron determined the selection and placement of the particular figures.

Established Groupings

Among the compositions that consisted of a fixed grouping, most possessed the main figure (gtso bo) and a “retinue” or group of lesser figures (‘khor).

Some paintings, however, depicted groups with no main figure, showing each figure as an equal of the others. The eighty-four Siddhas, the thirty-five Buddhas of confession, and the sixteen “” could be painted in the latter way, although they could also be combined with the main figure or with some other groupings.

The eighty-four Mahasiddhas

The eighty-four could be painted around the central and main figure of the Buddha . Similarly, artists almost always painted the composition of the sixteen arhats around the central figure of the Buddha Sakyamuni.

This composition would also include the two main disciples of the Buddha, Sariputra and , the two companions of the arhats, Hwa-shang and Dharmatala, and the four Lokaplas, the great guardian kings of the four directions. Other examples of a fixed grouping with a main figure and retinue are found in paintings involving.


is sometimes depicted as one of three figures as listed below:

The great Padmasambhava is also shown together with a retinue of his twenty-six main disciples. Another grouping depicted him in eight famous manifestations.

Furthermore, there existed a famous set of block-prints depicting all twenty six disciples in combination with the eight manifestations.


The example par excellence of the fixed composition involving the main figure with retinue was the . The symbolism of a mandala is complex, but essentially the form depicts a coherent group of deities seated symmetrically around a main central figure within the -plan of a divine mansion.

The mandala represents the citadel of enlightenment, portraying it as a dynamic integration of complementary aspects and energies. Mal).

Mandala paintings on were sometimes made up into thangkas and framed in in the usual way, but in consecration and in certain other rituals and meditational practices they were more commonly used unframed.

The Main Figure in its Pure Realm

Another type of composition consisting of a chief figure with a retinue showed the main figure in his or her special pure realm.

In general, the idealized backgrounds of most thangkas and murals were meant to portray the physical surroundings of a Buddha-field or pure realm (dag pai zhing khams).

However, in some compositions, the artist made a special effort to depict a specific realm. and were commonly painted as if in the realm of often appears on his famous copper-colored mountain (zangs mdog dpal gyi ri), and the are also portrayed in their own special domain.

Repetitive Depictions

One of the most straightforward types of the composition also involved a large number of figures. These compositions consisted of a central main figure surrounded by many smaller identical figures, although sometimes the surrounding figures would be another aspect or manifestation of the same central deity.

The lesser figures were arranged in vertical and horizontal columns and usually were painted only in outline. The number of these smaller figures was often between one and two hundred and their size would be anywhere from half to one-fifth of the size of the main deity.

Such thangkas did not contain a background landscape but were usually painted with either a red or black background and with the smaller figures painted in gold outline. Occasionally the background was painted in gold and the figures, in this case, would be outlined in red.

The main figure was usually painted in full color, although sometimes this would also be an outline painting with only certain parts of the deity rendered in color. Such compositions were commissioned because there was felt to be greater merit in numbers by multiplying the number of figures the patron also multiplied the force of his merit or the force of the deity to counteract a threatening obstacle or problem.

Compositions That Depict Lineages

Another type of group composition that involved a main figure with a retinue portrayed the complete transmission lineage of a particular religious . Nowadays the two most common varieties are the so-called “” and the “assembly fields” (tshogs zhing).

For the religious practitioner, these paintings embodied the whole lineage through which the tradition descended, from its ultimate origin down to the practitioner’s own teacher. Such paintings could be used by a mediator in the tradition as a support for his or her visualizations.

Refuge Trees

The “refuge tree” depicts the objects or beings in which the practitioner takes refuge (skyabs su gro ba’i yul) that is to say, it represents the beings and things in which the Buddhist places his trust as prepara tion for and as an actual part of religious practice.

The common “refuges” of are the Three Jewels the Buddha, , and Sanga. In bestowers of refuge also include the (both one’s immediate teacher and the earlier teachers of the lineage), yi-dam deities dakas and , and the protectors of the Dharma.

Usually, the givers of refuge were envisioned as dwelling in a great “wish-fulfilling tree” (dpag bsam gyi shing). In the center was one’s teacher in the form of the main figure, whose identity depended on the particular tradition being practiced.

Then on branches of the tree, which radiated out to the four cardinal points, were seated four of the other “refuges”. In practices stemming from new-translation-era one might find yi-dam deifies on the front branch, Buddhas on the branch to the main figure’s right (i.e. to the left with relation to the viewer), the Dharma in the form of a stack of sacred scriptures to the rear, and the Arya Sangha in the form of a group of and on the branch to the main figure’s left.

Above the tree in the sky (or sometimes seated around the main figure in a ) was depicted the line of teachers through whom the lineage had been transmitted to one’s immediate teacher. In the sky below the main branches of the tree, there dwelled a host of protectors and guardians.

Assembly Fields

Thangkas or murals called “assembly fields” also served as a help for the meditator in some traditions to visualize the totality of his lineage. Here again a great many figures were pictured, but not with the same spatial orientation as in the refuge tree.

The assembly field was a group of exalted beings who were worshipped and to whom were made. The group constituted a special “field” (zhing) in relation to which the meditator could greatly increase his “assembly” (tshogs) of merit. The Dge-tugs-pa tradition produced most of the thangkas of this type, including those of the Graduated Path (lam rim) and (bla ma mchod pa) practices.

Assembly-field paintings contained a characteristic placement of their figures. The main, central figure occupied the central pinnacle of a seat, and he was surrounded by descending concentric rows of exalted beings.

Each row or group of rows below the main figure consisted of figures belonging to one of eight classes of beings. In their descending order these were:

  1. Gurus
  2. Yi-dams
  3. Buddhas
  4. Sravakas/Sthaviras
  5. pakas

In the sky above the main figure there were three separate assemblies of teachers. The teaching lineage of the empowerments and practices constituted the central group. On the main figure’s right there was the “Lineage of the Vast Conduct” (rgya chen spyod brgyud), the lineage of the Yogacara Mahayana descending from Maitreyanatha and .

On the other side was the “Lineage of the Profound View” (zab mo ita brgyud), the tradition coming down through Manjusri and . At the bottom of the composition, beneath the great lotus seat, there existed lesser deities who were not , such as the four great guardian kings, the great worldly and , and a number of making offerings.

Finally, to indicate the relationship of a practitioner to this vast assembly, a was often depicted in a lower corner making a symbolical offering of the and its contents in the form of a mandala.




Principles of Composition in Individually Designed Thangkas

In some of the established groupings that consisted of the main figure with a retinue, such as and assembly fields, not only were the identities of the figures determined but their placement within the composition also was rigidly controlled by textual prescription or usage.

In certain other fixed-grouping paintings, however, the artist himself could determine the placement of some of the figures, and to some extent, he could add to or improvise with the layout. Yet even where such compositional leeway existed, the artist’s sketch was still guided by certain general principles of composition.

Such principles were almost universal within religious , and they are the very principles that we must spell out when describing how a painter could sketch a grouping of deities that he had never seen before.

Many of the thangkas that we have seen painted were begun merely on the basis of a list of the deities that the patron desired to be portrayed (such chosen deities were called dod lha).

The artist’s first task was to arrange those figures on the painting surface. What principles guided his work at this time?

To begin with, most often thangkas contained one main figure and a number of lesser ones. To indicate the relationship between the figures the artist employed both size and placement.

The most important figure was the largest and was painted in a central position, usually exactly upon the central vertical axis of the composition.

The next prominent principle of layout had to do with the lesser figures they were usually placed in symmetrical balance around the main figure, commonly above, below and on both sides of it, depending on the number of figures involved.

Certain compositions called for asymmetrical balance, with the main figure drawn in a superior size .but positioned to the right or left of the central axis, with the face in partial profile. However, most Central used this sort of composition only when executing those for which established models such as famous block-prints existed.

Another important principle of composition in Tibetan painting was that of hierarchical arrangement. This principle was not evident in every rten thangka, but it was very important for the painter when he designed a new composition.

In a painting that depicted a number of smaller figures in the background, such as gurus, yi-dam deities, Buddhas and protectors, these – figures were not only arranged in a symmetrical pattern around the central figure but were generally grouped according to class – each class occupying a relatively higher or lower position within the composition.

In a multiple-figure composition whose “retinue” included depictions of gurus from the transmission lineage (brgyud pai bla mal, these figures traditionally occupied the highest elevations in the painting. Often at the top center, there was depicted the ultimate and primordial teacher Vajradhara in the new-translation

era (gsar ma pal tantric cycles, and Samantabhadra in the old (rnying rna pal. Similarly, the lord of the family (rigs bdag) of the main figure occupied this position in some compositions, as when Amitabha was placed above the main figure of Avalokitesvara.

When a painter depicted many gurus or all of the teachers in the lineage, he would usually place these figures in a descending chronological sequence. He would begin first at the top center of the painting, arranging the figures in two series sloping down and away from the top center and then down both sides of the painting. The temporal sequence of the figures at the top was center, its right, its left, second right, second left, and so on.

In an elaborate composition with many figures of different classes, the next stratum below the gurus could be occupied by yi-dams and by Buddhas who were not conceived of as gurus of that particular lineage. (As mentioned above, a Buddha. could also be depicted at the top as the originator of the lineage). Finally, the major and minor protectors of the lineage were placed on the bottom levels.

The system of hierarchical stratification only operated in a relative way, that is, only among the figures actually present the composition, excluding the main figure. If no gurus were depicted, for instance, the next appropriate class could occupy the highest stratum.

If no class but protectors were depicted, even they could be painted in the highest positions. Although a few established compositional types did not follow the above principle, such stratification was typical of complex thangkas of “desired deities” (dod lha) that the painter had to design for a patron. At the very least the painter almost invariably placed gurus above, and protectors below, other types of figures.

This sort of hierarchical stratification was reflected in the composition of the “assembly fields” described above. It also appeared in certain visualizations codified by ritual texts, and it was followed in other spheres of Tibetan Buddhist religious activity as well.

The Venerable pointed out to us that the ordering of the lesser figures in the background of a thangka (Le. the figures apart from the main, central figure) corresponded to the order in which the same classes of deities were addressed with (bkra shis) in the chanting of religious assemblies. The traditional sequence was as follows:

1) Gurus

2) Yi-dams

3) Buddhas

4) Bodhisattvas

5) Daka and Dakini

6) Dharmapala

7) Yaksa (gnodsbyinJ

8) of (nor lha)

9) Lesser deities (Mahanaga, gter-bdag, etc.)

Lama and Thangkas

A learned lama was quick to notice when the deities were placed out of order, whether in the liturgy chanted in the temples or in a thangka. We once heard a Sa-skya-pa a scholar criticize the composition of a recent painting where the artist had wrongly placed the yi-dam above some of the gurus of the Sa-skya-pa lineage.

As he reminded us, the preeminence of the guru over the is an important point that one also finds in biographical literature, for example in the life of Marpa the Translator (1012-1099) when the great Indian siddha projected the form of the yi-dam and asked Marpa to whom he would bow, to the yi-dam or to the guru himself. A similar episode also occurred in a dream that Rje-btsun Grags-pa-rgyal-mtshan ) had of his father Sa-chen Kun-dga-snying-po.

It bears repeating that the principle of hierarchy did not govern all compositions. In thangkas depicting teachers or great yogic adepts (), yi-dams were sometimes placed above and before them in the sky, as if appearing there in a vision.

Also, for aesthetic reasons such as balance and equal distribution some artists placed members of different classes on the same level of the painting (although the relative status of the deities could still be shown by putting one deity outside and a little below the other).

Furthermore, a few painters were ignorant of these precise hierarchical conventions.

Nevertheless, most knew in general that they should put such figures as Buddhas and teachers above, and wrathful.




About dipakdaspaswan

Namaste! I am Dipak Paswan from Nepal. I love to write articles about Asian religion and cultures. If you like this post or have any question please leave me a comment or use the contact page to reach me.

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