A Guide to Decoding Buddhist Symbolism in Tibetan Art
NEW YORK, April 17, 2017 — Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Senior Curator for Traditional Asian Art at Asia Society Museum in New York, provides an inside look at the Tibetan thangka paintings on display in the exhibition she co-curated, Unknown Tibet: The Tucci Expeditions and Buddhist Panting. (4 min., 57 sec.)
Buddhist thangka paintings are visually captivating and impressive — but there is more to them than meets the eye. Thangkas often focus on a specific deity and scene, and their form and surrounding details are often rich with symbolism, turning them into a medium for religious storytelling. Because of this, extracting all the intricacies and meanings from the paintings requires training.
According to Deborah Klimburg-Salter, guest curator of Asia Society Museum’s Unknown Tibet: The Tucci Expeditions and Buddhist Painting exhibition, Tibetan thangkas were originally created for the purpose of helping the viewer or Buddhist practitioner on his journey to enlightenment. In her exhibition catalogue essay “How To Read A Tibetan Painting,” Klimburg-Salter says that a thangka's characteristics — like organization and juxtaposition of figures, repetition of figures, and size — contribute to the storytelling of the painting.
Fully understanding the symbolic expression of the religious, social, and even political contexts of a thangka would require a degree in art history — but you can learn some of the basics using our guide below.
The lotus is often understood as a symbol of spiritual purity. The blooming of a lotus is said to mimic the Buddhist eightfold path — it grows from the mud (the cycle of life), it appears clean on the surface and floats above the mud (purification), before finally producing a beautiful flower (enlightenment).
The victory banner is depicted using four colored panels of cloth that represent Buddha’s victory over four maras, or hindering forces, in the path to enlightenment: pride, desire, disturbing emotions, and fear of death.
The reverberation of a conch shell is said to symbolize the deep, melodic, far-reaching sound of the dharma, the Buddha's teachings, that awakens spiritual disciples from ignorance.
The dharma wheel, sometimes known as the golden wheel, or dharmachakra, is always depicted with eight spokes. These spokes represent the principle of the Eightfold Path: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
The parasol is a symbol for protection from harmful forces and a place to take refuge the way followers take refuge in the dharma.
The treasure vase with flaming jewels symbolizes Buddha’s dharma teachings, which, despite being shared with others, never lessen in value. It also more broadly represents long life, health, wealth, prosperity, and other benefits in this world.
In Sanskrit, vitarka means applied thought or reasoning. The mudra is often considered to be the gesture of discussion or debate. Here, we have a lama with his right hand up and with his thumb touching his index finger, indicating he is teaching.
This gesture is often associated with meditation, representing the supremacy of an enlightened mind and wisdom.
With all five fingers of the right hand extended to touch the ground, this hand gesture symbolizes the Buddha's summoning Sthavara, the earth goddess, to witness his defeat of mara (the hindering force) that will be followed by his attainment of enlightenment.
This mudra symbolizes charity and compassion. It is the gesture of the accomplishment of the wish to devote oneself to human salvation.