Depicting Sakyamuni Buddha with the 35 Buddhas of confession

Sakyamuni Buddha with the 35 Buddhas of confession

Depicting Sakyamuni Buddha with the 35 Buddhas of confession

(: sha kya tu pa, sang gye. English: the One, Sage of the Clan) together with the two principal students, and standing at the sides, while surrounded by the .

The general subject of the is and the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas.

Karma Kagyu Tradition in Tibetan Buddhism

Shakyamuni is the leader of the Thirty-five Buddhas. The painting belongs to the Tradition of . The majority of figures are painted in gold.

The date of the painting based on stylistic is approximately 17th to early 18th century – not later than 1732 for reasons which will be discussed below.

However, based on the figures in the and dated comparable this painting can be comfortably dated to circa 1670.

On the viewer’s left of the large central Shakyamuni Buddha is a standing Shariputra and on the right side is Maudgalyayana.

These two are the principal students of the Buddha. In their right hands they hold the ’s staff called a Kakkar. Held in the left hand is a black begging .

Immeasurable light –

At the top center is  Buddha. Although having a different name Amitayus is in fact a form of Buddha. Amitabha translates into English as ‘immeasurable light’ while Amitayus means ‘immeasurable life’. The placement of Amitayus at the top center is a decision of the or .

Neither Amitayus nor Amitabha are found in any list of the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas. Amitayus is included at the top of the composition for auspiciousness but could have been substituted with the figures of Buddha or possibly .

The painting is associated with the (Khamtsang) Tradition of Tibetan as is evidenced by the inclusion of two Tibetan teachers wearing the unique black and red caps of the Karma Kagyu school.

The two are located slightly below and behind the Two Principle Students of the Buddha. The black hat is on the viewer’s left and the red hat teacher on the viewer’s right.

Depiction of painting according to Time

As for the dating of the composition, if the painting is from the 17th century then the black hat Karmapa will be the 11th, Yeshe Dorje (1675-1702) and the red hat teacher will be the 6th Gyaltsab, Norbu Zangpo (b.1660).

If it is the 18th-century composition then the two teachers are the 12th Karmapa, Jangchub Dorje (1703-1732), and the other is the 8th , Palchen Chokyi (1695-1732).

These latter two teachers passed away together of smallpox while returning from in 1732. There is a painting in the Rubin collection that is comparable in line work, clouds, and color to the painting of Shakyamuni and the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas.

The painting is of the   and is dated confidently to between 1659 and 1671 based on an inscription on the back of the work.

With that comparable and confident dating it becomes very likely that this Shakyamuni painting is depicting the 11th Karmapa and the 6th Gyaltsab and commissioned in the last quarter of the 17th century based on the life span dates of the two teachers.

Ritual and arts of the Tibetans

The Thirty-five Confession Buddhas are arranged to the sides and below on the right and left descending halfway down the composition.

In and there are at least three different iconographic systems for depicting the individual Thirty-five Confession Buddhas.

The principal authors of commentaries and texts were (not necessarily the famous Arya Nagarjuna), and Je Tsongkapa along with a number of others.

The Resource Center has approximately sixty texts associated with the practice of the Confession Buddhas.

5 unique iconographic Tsongkapa system

There are five unique iconographic characteristics in the Tsongkapa system. These characteristics can be seen with the four Buddhas that hold the hand attributes:

  1. Victory (middle right)
  2.  shirt of armor (top right)
  3. sword (top left)
  4.   in the lap (2nd row, top right)
  5. Nageshvara Raja Buddha (2nd row, top center)

This is generally depicted with a blue and a white neck and head. He has a hood of seven snakes and the hands perform a gesture of at the heart.

This form of Nageshvara Raja follows the descriptions from the texts of Jowo Atisha describing the meditational deity Nageshvara Raja. The remaining thirty of the Thirty-five Buddhas display only hand gestures without any physical attributes.



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