All forms of communication and expression begin with simple signs and culminate as systems of symbols. These systems are utilized by the individual and by the culture that applies the symbolic system. Symbols originate from specific objects and the symbolic value of an object or image is derived from the meaning and emotions evoked. The mind of a person can create a unique symbol applicable to the individual life. Societies also create symbolic systems that are relative to and applicable to the collective. This is the kind of system that will be discussed here.
To understand the importance of religious art and iconography one must know the human mind. Faith and religion are vague concepts until they are given a face and a name. Human society operates in a world of symbols that the brain can create, adjust to and utilize. A single representation can invoke ardent awareness in a mind that a three-hour lecture will leave predominantly empty. External images are particularly important to a religious tradition with a theology as complex as Buddhism.
Symbolism of Tibetan Buddhist Iconography consists of hundreds of separate deities and many of these deities have thousands of manifestations. They all have their origins in ancient Indian and Tibetan religious traditions. While the symbolic system often originated in the indigenous traditions of Hinduism and Bon, the actual symbolic images have evolved into a unique and intricate iconography.
Tibetan Buddhism has assembled an amazing inconographic symbolism , the explanation in this document can only skim the surface. The main system is the organization of deities, which are primarily presented in thangka painting. Therefore, the focus in this text will be the typical symbols of the main deities viewed in the Tibetan refugee community of Dharamsala. Each figure has basic parallel characteristics to inspect for interpretation.
The typical set-up of a thangka consists of a large central deity, set in a landscape and surrounded by smaller complimentary deities. Every aspect of the painting has symbolic meaning but there are certain ubiquitous features that are necessary to examine in order to understand the entire image. The central deity is obviously of primary importance.
The physical traits of the primary deity should first be observed in order to identify it. One looks at the position, or asana ( zug tang ) of the figure, as well as the hand gesture called the mudra ( chag gya ). One will also notice the physical traits such as the skin color, the number of arms, the number of eyes, and the aura of the deity. A deity will commonly have subsidiary objects such as things held in the hands, a throne, clothing and ornaments. The other deities and the surrounding environment are also important aspects of thangka paintings. This is the typical structure of this form of religious art.
Another popular subject of thangka paintings is the mandala. Mandalas, first created in ancient India , play an integral role in Tibetan tantra. The topic of the symbolism of Tibetan mandalas could fill a hundred thousand pages and it is not possible to cover it in this document. However, as with the other topics, I will be able to skim the surface of the complex symbolism of a specific mandala.
The analysis of the symbols applied in thangka paintings leads one halfway to a comprehension of the symbolic system. The other half of this system is the manner in which this system is viewed and retained by the culture as an entirety. Not every Tibetan is able to list the thousands of deities and manifestations of Tibetan iconography. However, there are certain images that all Tibetans are able to relate to and use as reminders and tools in the spiritual process.
Therefore, as a collective, Tibetans are a part of the symbolic system of Tibetan iconography, from the beggars on the street to the reputable scholars. The scholar, typically a monastic scholar, will have a more in depth understanding of the system. Tantra practitioners have the most contact with the symbols and are a necessary aspect of the continuation of the system.
In tantra, the practitioner not only views and reveres the different images but also seeks to identify with and symbolically become the images. The objective is to connect the symbolic image with the mental and physical existence of the individual, to make a psychic leap into the symbol and dissolve the self into it. In this way, the practitioners themselves can become symbols to the populace. Tibetans are aware of this practice and thereupon are encouraged to utilize the powerful images and carry on the symbolic system.
In the case of Tantric practitioners, the images and symbols are tools utilized to reach a certain goal. After this goal has been reached, mundane conceptuality ends and the images lose their significance. Like all objects and conceptions of samsara, religious images and symbols lack a true and absolute existence. Therefore, the system of symbols is created and utilized for the ultimate purpose of its own termination. In general, most Tibetans have not reached a state where this realization is possible but know it to be an immutable fact.
The religious art of Tibet has used the symbolic system in thangkas for hundreds of years and the basic symbols are common knowledge to the Tibetan populace. The iconography is understood on a fundamental level and is integrated into the religious perceptions of the cultural identity. This, in turn, shapes the collective identity throughout the generations, making the symbolic system an intrinsic part of each individual and the culture in entirety.