Depicting Sakyamuni Buddha with the 35 Buddhas of confession
Shakyamuni Buddha (Tibetan: sha kya tu pa, sang gye. English: the Enlightened One, Sage of the Shakya Clan) together with the two principal students, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana standing at the sides, while surrounded by the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas.
Table of Contents
Karma Kagyu Tradition in Tibetan Buddhism
The date of the painting based on stylistic elements is approximately 17th to early 18th century – not later than 1732 for reasons which will be discussed below.
On the viewer’s left of the large central Shakyamuni Buddha is a standing Shariputra and on the right side is Maudgalyayana.
Immeasurable light – Amitabha Buddha
At the top center is Amitayus Buddha. Although having a different name Amitayus is in fact a form of Amitabha 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 artist or donor.
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 Vajradhara Buddha or possibly Vajrasattva.
The painting is associated with the Karma Kagyu (Khamtsang) Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism 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 Karmapa 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 Shamarpa, Palchen Chokyi (1695-1732).
These latter two teachers passed away together of smallpox while returning from China in 1732. There is a painting in the Rubin Museum collection that is comparable in line work, clouds, and color to the painting of Shakyamuni and the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas.
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.
The Tibetan Buddhist 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:
- Victory Banner (middle right)
- shirt of armor (top right)
- sword (top left)
- Mount Meru in the lap (2nd row, top right)
- Nageshvara Raja Buddha (2nd row, top center)
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.