Lineage Painting and Nascent Monasticism in Medieval Tibet

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  • Lineage Painting and Nascent Monasticism in Medieval TibetAuthor(s): Steven Miles KossakSource: Archives of Asian Art, Vol. 43 (1990), pp. 49-57Published by: University of Hawai'i Press for the Asia SocietyStable URL: .Accessed: 13/06/2014 03:25

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  • Lineage Painting and Nascent Monasticism in

    Medieval Tibet

    Steven Miles Kossak

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Ihe late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries a.D.

    were the crucial period for the germination of much

    of the iconography which would come to dominate

    later Tibetan art, including that of the idealized por traits of spiritual founders. The precedent for these

    is to be found in the Medieval period Tibetan lineage

    paintings, which themselves constituted an original artistic mode.1 The Metropolitan Museum has

    recently acquired a thanka painted around 1300, a

    Portrait of a Great Teacher Surrounded by Lamas and

    Mahasiddhas, which is one of the few paintings sur

    viving from this period which can be seen as a

    transition between the lineage and idealized portrait genres. Of equal importance, it is one of the best

    documented of all early Tibetan paintings. An

    examination of its complicated and somewhat

    enigmatic iconography throws into relief the

    historical dynamics of the early sects and explains the motivating rationale for both genres.

    There is only a small corpus of extant Medieval

    period Tibetan thankas, and perhaps one-third of

    these are lineage paintings. The format of these

    lineage paintings is fairly standardized, consisting of a large central figure of a richly robed hierarch

    seated on a raised dias surrounded by cartouches

    containing portraits of his spiritual "lineage"

    (Fig. 1). Although most of the central lamas are

    depicted in a stock attitude?seated, with their

    heads turned in three-quarter view?their features are often individuated to an extent that suggests life

    portraiture.2 Despite the existence of detailed his

    tories of this early period, few of these paintings have inscriptions which allow any of the figures to

    be identified. Therefore, it has previously not been

    possible to specify the precise nature of the rela

    tionship between the main figure and those sur

    rounding him. This information in turn might

    provide a clue to the dating of individual thankas as well as to the circumstances which caused them to be painted.

    The Metropolitan Museum's thanka portrays a

    central enthroned figure, surrounded by smaller

    Fig. i. Je Sangyay W?n Drakpa and His Lineage. Tibet, ca. 1270,

    ink, colors, and gold on cloth, h. ca. 48.2, w. 36.7 cm. Private


    auxiliary ones (Fig. 2). The central figure is por

    trayed as a siddha (one who has achieved miraculous

    spiritual accomplishment). He is seated on an

    antelope skin (a traditonal seat for a siddha or yogi) placed on a lotus, the whole set upon an elaborate raised throne. An animal horn rests on the fingertips of his raised right hand and in his left palm is held a cylindrical casket (?) surmounted by a sculpture of a snow lion. He wears a tall pointed yellow cap

    with long pleated side flaps and bands of gold embroidery circling its peak, a red loin cloth, and

    elaborate gold jewelries like those typically carved out of human bones and worn during Tantric

    ceremonies. Rising from the base of the throne is a stylized border representing mountains (symbol

    izing Tibet?), which frames the entire upper portion of the enthroned figure. Into the wide border of the

    painting are set fifteen cartouches, each filled with a representation of a lama, mahasiddha, or Buddha.

    All these originally had Tibetan inscriptions which


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  • Fig. 2. A Great Teacher Surrounded by Lamas and Mahasiddas. Tibet, ca. 1300, opaque watercolor

    and gold on cloth, h. 68.5, w. 54.6 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Friends of Asian

    Art Gifts, 1987. 1987.144.

    identified them, most of which survive.3 The central

    figure alone is unidentified by inscription, save

    perhaps by a cloth which was originally attached to the painting, which bore the embroidered

    inscription, Jnana Tapa, "heat of knowledge." At the top center of the painting, above the cen

    tral figure's head is an elaborately decorated arch

    within which presides a seated adi-Buddha (?) (a

    primordial Buddha) in a posture of meditation with

    his consort to his right.4 Six lamas are portrayed, three on each side of the adi-Buddha, arranged in a chronological sequence (beginning to the left of

    the adi-Buddha and read from left to right across

    each successive row). All the lamas make mudras

    (hand gestures) which connote the exposition of


    doctrine. The first monk in the sequence is probably

    Desheg Chenpo, the third abbot of the Kadampa monastery of Phanyul (Neusur) monastery.5 The

    next four monks are all abbots of the Kagyupa

    monastery of Taglung, which was founded in 1180.6

    They are Je Thangpa Chempo, also called Taglung

    Tashipel (1142-1210), the founder and first abbot of

    the monastery; Kuyal Rinchengon (1191-1236) (Fig.

    1), his nephew and successor; Je Sangyay Yarjonpa

    (1202-1270), third abbot of the monastery; and Je

    Sangyay Won Drakpa ( 1251-1296), who held the

    abbot's seat for only a single year (Fig. 1). After

    leaving Taglung, Sangyay Won proceeded to

    Kham, where he founded the monastery of

    Riwoche, which was to become the most important

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  • Fig. 3 Detail of Portrait of Atisha. Tibet, first half 12th century,

    ink, colors, and gold on cloth, h. 49.5, w. 35.5 cm. The Kronos

    Collections, New York.

    in the area.7 There is no historical information

    available concerning the last lama portrayed in the

    painting, Ch?ku Orgyan Gonpo. The eight mahasiddhas who surround the bottom

    half of the painting can be identified by their in

    scriptions (some of which, however, are fragmen

    tary) and by their characterizations and attributes.8

    They are (beginning on the middle right and pro

    ceeding around clockwise): Indrabhuti, shown

    seated on a throne and wearing royal (?) garb;

    Padmavajra, in ecstatic embrace; Luipa, regarding two jumping golden fishes; Kukuripa, dancing with

    his dog held in one arm; Dombi Heruka, seated on

    a leopard and holding aloft a skull cup; Bhusuku,

    flying through the air holding a vajra (ritual

    thunderbolt) and bell; Nagarjuna, with snakes in his

    hair; and Saraha, dancing with arrows and a water


    In order to understand the meaning and devel

    opment of the lineage and idealized portrait genres, a brief outline of the early history of Tibetan Bud

    dhism is necessary to set the stage. Although Buddhism had been introduced into Tibet in the

    seventh century, it remained largely a court religion with a perilous foothold in the country. It developed neither a popular base, a monastic hierarchy, nor

    a secure means to ensure the unsullied passage of

    doctrine. Buddhism was challenged by the ad

    herents of the indigenous shamanistic Bon religion, which remained the religion of the Tibetan people as well as of certain traditionalist sectors of the court. Eventually, geographically isolated from the

    theological currents of the Buddhist world, Tibetan

    Buddhism became debased. By the tenth century it

    had largely disappeared from most of central Tibet, and what did remain was largely a melange of

    Tantric and Bon rituals.

    However, in the late tenth century a Buddhist

    renaissance was begun by Yeshes ?, the king of a

    small kingdom in western Tibet's Upper Sutter

    Valley. Yeshes ? was intent on purifying the cur

    rent practice of Buddhism and sent several missions

    of students to Kashmir (one of the most important seats of Buddhist learning at the period) in order to have them educated. The most important of his

    prot?g?s was the Great Translator, Rinchen Sangpo, who became renowned for his translations of

    Budhist texts into the Tibetan language. Under his

    spiritual guidance a number of small new

    monasteries, decorated by imported Kashmiri

    artists, were also founded in western Tibet. Despite these positive changes, Buddhist practice still

    appears to have remained somewhat debased and the new monasteries largely the dominion of the court

    and wealthy classes.9 At this period, Tantra was the form of Buddhism

    current in India, Kashmir, and Tibet. This system

    incorporated the esoteric revelations of the siddhas, which included the use of untraditional means to

    achieve spiritual knowledge. Tantric practices were

    largely divided into two main currents, that of

    Mahamudra, in which stress is laid on the "prac tice of the mind" (mystic insight), and that of the

    "practice of the energy" in which the focus is on

    the Six Yogas (yogic meditation).10 It was Tantra's use of magic, wine, and sexual relations in some

    rituals which was resonant with Bon practices and

    permitted their admixture. Tantric teachings, unlike that of earlier Mahayana doctrine, promised the possibility of spiritual emancipation within an

    adept's own lifetime. Although certain of the

    mahasiddhas' texts and doctrines were eventually written down, thereby becoming available to a

    large audience, the most secret of their revelations were kept inaccessible. These were made available

    only through the personal transmission of a guru to

    his adept. In 1040 Lha Tsunpa, Yeshes ?'s nephew, sent

    another mission to India in order to bring back to

    Tibet an Indian pundit who would serve to further

    purify and revivify Tibetan Buddhism. In 1042,

    Atisha, an eminent Indian teacher who had been an


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  • upadhyaya (either a professor of sacred literature, head of a section of the monastery, or an administer

    of sacred vows) at the monastery of Vikramashila in Bihar, arrived in Tibet. He was in many ways

    ideally suited for the task before him. Although he

    had become an adept of Tantric Buddhism at an

    early age, he had decided to travel outside of India, dominated as it was at that time by Tantric prac tice, in order to study traditional Mahayana doc

    trine with the great Buddhist scholar Dharmakirti

    (Dharmapala) in the Sumatran kingdom of Shri

    vijaya. He was therefore thoroughly versed in both

    traditional Mahayana philosophy as well as in


    Atisha immediately realized that Tibetan

    Buddhism lacked not only a monastic base but also

    the necessary code of daily conduct and religious

    practice which was a product of it. Therefore, he

    taught that the "precept of the lama was more

    important than scriptures and commentaries."11

    This conservative doctrine stressed the importance of monastic discipline?including celibacy, absti

    nence from intoxicants, and the primacy of basic

    meditational practices in the search for religious

    knowledge. Tantric practices, which had formerly been central, were relegated to

    a secondary and

    somewhat sequestered role.

    Many of Atisha's tenets were aimed at recreating India's traditional monastic order in Tibet. Doctrine

    was transmitted in an orderly fashion, on a one-to

    one basis, directly from teacher to pupil. The

    Tibetans refer to this transfer of an "instruction

    handed down from master to disciple along a

    spiritual lineage" as dam ngag.12 They believed that

    the most important truths of Buddhism were avail

    able not from texts but only through the practical

    personal experiences of meditation guided by a

    teacher. This carefully controlled transfer of

    dharma was also important in that it assured that

    the teachings were not contaminated by outside

    influences, as they had been in earlier times.

    The most important revelations of the Tantric

    texts, whose underlying truths were shrouded in

    arcane symbolism, were held inaccessible from the

    majority of monks. As in India, their esoteric mean

    ing was divulged to only a select few, whom their

    teachers deemed spiritually evolved enough for

    initiation. For example, when Neusurpa (the first

    abbot of Phanyul monastery) first met his teacher,

    The teacher at first explained to him the "Offering of

    Jvalamukhi" (Khabarmai torma) and said: "When I met the

    Master [Atisha], I was also given this first." Neusurpa then

    thought to himself: "He seems to be giving the complete secret

    precepts in the manner of the Master," and thus the complete

    precepts were bestowed on him.13


    Thus the transmission of both standard and esoteric doctrine was carefully controlled, theoretically thereby preserving its purity and therefore that of

    Tibetan Buddhism as a whole.

    Similarly, ordination, as in India, was accom

    plished under the direction of both a sponsor and a kalyanamitra (a distinguished monk who oversaw

    investitures). This ensured the worthiness of the candidate. In the Blue Annals3 the participants in the investitures of each important lama are recorded; otherwise they would be unknown. Their names are

    preserved in this context only because of the central role they played in preserving the continuity of the

    passage of doctrine within Tibetan Buddhism. Atisha gathered a large popular following, not

    simply in western Tibet but also in central Tibet, where he also journeyed to preach. His followers

    eventually became known as the Kadampas (ones of

    the doctrine, as opposed to the unreformed Nying mas, who presumably were believed to follow


    debased creed).14 The Kadampa sect never gained the wealthy patronage lavished on some of the other

    sects, and it was largely absorbed by the emergent

    Gelugpa sect in the fifteenth century. Its strict mora...


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