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 ren