The Tanka

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


A Teacher has the two and thirty signs
As well as all the eighty minor marks;
Therefore the method of achievement
Is to take on the Teacher's form.

Vajrapanjara Tantra

  When the world still sighed and sadness shadowed the departed Buddha's light, faithful Kashyapa summoned the First Council of disciples. At Rajagriha the Vinaya (Rules and Disciplines) of the Sangha was collected together with the Sutras (Doctrines) taught by Buddha. Later, as the passing years witnessed the demise of many who had known the Enlightened One in the flesh, the Abhidharma (a metaphysical treatise) was added to these to constitute what came to be known as the Tripitaka or "The Three Baskets". Centuries later marked a split between the followers of the older Teachings and the fresh ideas that provided the basis of what came to be known as the Mahayana School of Northern Buddhism, To this the Yoga doctrine of Patanjali, the mode of Mantrayana and the Tantric doctrine of Shakti worship were all wedded in varying degrees, shaping the form of Buddhism that entered Tibet in the seventh century A.D.

  Even in the fifth century Buddhist ideas had penetrated the snowy land of the Bons through Nepal and China. Rare objects of religious art had come to Lhasa as part of the dowries of two princesses from these respective lands. In India itself the painting and sculpture associated with the life of Gautama and his Teachings had undergone a thousand years of intensification and extended 'speakingness', to use the Tibetan phrase "br jod-pa", before reaching Tibet wherein it was reborn. The seventh century iconography brought by Indian Buddhist monks became transformed through the special genius of these high mountain people into a unique blending of religion and art. Tales were carried back and the outside world began to hear of strange and powerful gods, whose forms were carved of wood or painted on jewel-like banners that curled and fluttered in Himalayan winds. People spoke of how the life of the Buddhas and of saints and demons undreamt of came alive upon such richly treated thang-kas. The stories grew in wonderment even as Tibet secured its isolation and travellers diminished in number. The mysteries seen by these few seemed to confirm that the gods do indeed dwell in the loftiest heights of this world. The mysteries grew with the flowering of their artistic expression and the world, in sleep, felt their presence.

 What man of spiritual inclination has not, in his dreams, raised his eyes over Himalayan heights to imagine plateaus where rise many-storeyed monasteries, their tiled roofs glistening in the clear and rare sunlight, their silken thang-kas hanging from the eaves? Few among such dreamers travelled there in waking life. Few indeed were they who saw the richly painted halls or witnessed the rebirth of Bodhisattvas and High lamas upon cloth within an artist's cell. And yet with wars and struggles for dominion, about which the outside world knew little, some of those wonderfully portable works of religious art trickled as precious loot into the market-places of India and China. What originally had been known in ancient Bharat as the pata and had evolved an intensified religious significance in Tibet as the thang-ka (meaning 'a plain' or 'flatland') now came into the hands of collectors from afar, and its name took on the simplified orthography of 'tanka'.

  Even those who merely collected them were amazed at the powerful strangeness and elegant detail of these early tankas. The wonderful episodes of the Jatakamala (the Garland of Birth-Stories of the Buddha, from which Aesop's fables, the biblical story of Barlaam and Josaphat, Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale and Shakespeare's As You Like It had, over the centuries, taken their inspiration) were vividly illustrated in a series of tankas. Many others conveyed the sublime or sometimes frightening visages of Bodhisattvas and gods in all their varied aspects. The tankas conveyed a world of powers and possible forms that shattered the mould of the more conventionally subdued styles of Chinese art or the exquisitely refined energies of Indian forms. Their bold colours and revelations of exotic realms startled people and made them aware of a world view unfettered by the often hypocritical niceties of modern civilization. Here Dhyani-Buddhas, Medicine Buddhas, Dakinis, Yi-dams, witches, gods of the Bardo, saints and demons, monsters and monks, revolved around one another in spheres of boldly interpenetrating designs. No tidy division between dreaming and waking or heaven and hell was to be found here. The frightening and the beautiful interacted at each point and suggested a transcendent neutrality resting within or beyond the forms.

 The creators of this singular art have always found their themes in the rich fields of Tibetan Buddhism, with its Bodhisattvas descending from realms of purity and the revelations of such beings in infinite numbers within the countless lands that occupy the ten regions of the cosmos. With their complex transformation through forms and worlds of reincarnation wherein good and evil entities endlessly congregate, with the continual striving of all beings for enlightenment, with all such possibilities and potentialities, this all-embracing religion has provided inexhaustible inspiration for artistic expression. The tankas, in turn, have provided many levels of instruction, inspiration and spiritual edification to monks of every degree and laymen as well. Within the Gelugpa Sect alone there are at least three hundred deities, and those additionally recognized by other sects swell the pantheon to double that number. All these are identified by ornaments, garments, mudras, asanas, thrones, vahans, symbolic objects held, colours and potential transformations.

  Of the various types of tankas in which such beings may be portrayed, the most exoteric are the merely decorative or mainly instructive. Tankas were commissioned by monasteries or wealthy individuals for a variety of reasons. A wealthy merchant might wish to acquire one to achieve spiritual merit or some worldly goal such as more wealth or longevity. This sort of tanka may include a plea text and an illustration of the donor in a posture of humble patronage at the feet of the central deity. Decorative tankas were often composed in a series, showing Buddha and his disciples or the Four Protectors of the World, or incarnations of the Tashi or Dalai Lama. Instructive tankas showed episodes arranged in a landscape, revolving clockwise from the top right, around the central figure. The entire painting served as a model of the progressive unfoldment of events in the life of Buddha or such exemplars as Padmasambhava or Tsong-Kha-Pa. The images and the overall design were not meant to be expressions of ideal beauty but of inner superiority, the manifestation, through signs and proportions, of a state of being transcending humanity. The tanka paintings were meant to evoke participation in an essential condition wherein beauty or art for art's sake is subordinated to ritual concerns. When an unimpeachable balance of aesthetic form was achieved by the artist, it was because he sustained a fully centered alignment with the lotus-enthroned deity in the centre of his work, around which all creatures progressed in their striving and through which that which attained perfection could present itself to the world. The tanka is thus sacred and may be consecrated by a High Lama and bear the imprint of his hands on its reverse side.

  The painting itself is usually done on cotton rather than silk, the material being stretched on a wooden frame and covered with a thick mixture of glue and chalk, which is then carefully polished with the smooth surface of a conch shell. Everything is drawn, even today, according to canonical rules, and the details are so numerous that an artist would have to be extraordinarily knowledgeable to be able to render them correctly free-hand. Thus it is that transfer impressions made up of tiny dots are often used, the artist inserting a needle through each dot onto his canvas to connect them later with red or black ink. In order to produce a tanka of any merit the artist must be a saintly man. He is usually a lama and must be learned in the scriptures, reserved in manner, and his place of work must be clean. He accompanies his work with the recitation of prayers while his disciples prepare the colours to be used, and he executes the more important aspects of the work. Some of his followers may be permitted to do some of the drafting, but all must be executed in proper sequence, the principal figures outlined first before the surrounding figures and landscape are drawn in. The faces of the principal figures are drawn only on auspicious dates (the fifteenth day of any month) and coloured on the thirtieth day. One is reminded of Navajo sand-painting, wherein the Hatali chants and works with helpers who prepare the coloured sand and assist in the rendering of less important aspects of the design. Here also auspicious times and phases of the moon are observed in the creation of magical art.

  The finished Tibetan painting is called me-long ('mirror') and is framed on ail sides by silken material involving a highly skilful succession of graded hues that complement the painting and guide the eye continually back to a deeper and more intense involvement with the theme of the work. In addition to the frame proper, the painting is usually enclosed by bands of silk symbolizing a red and yellow rainbow of celestial light radiating from the image to signify that the painting is a reflection of remote heavens, diffusing a divine radiance. In the centre of the inferior border a square of silk of another colour is often applied. It is the t-an-sgo or 'door' of the tanka which enables passage in and out of its otherwise circumscribed realm. Often this applied patch is decorated with figures of dragons representing the sphere of cosmic waters wherein lie the endless possibilities latent in the world of maya. As a threshold of 'becoming' it marks the gate between the world of Nature and matter and that of intellect and spiritual purity. In accordance with this, the tanka when rolled must only be rolled upward; it is a desecration to roll it from the top down.

  Great pains are taken in the preparation of the traditional paints used for tankas. White pigment is extracted from lime, red and yellow from arsenic, green from vitriol, vermilion from carmine, blue from lapis lazuli and gold from its own mineral source. The gold is melted and beaten into leaves, which are then heated, washed, dried in the sun, cut, rubbed into powder and washed again. This requires several days, after which the powder is dissolved in urine and rendered into a paste capable of being applied. The methods used take into consideration the occult nature of each substance and the proper way to bring about its transformation and subsequent participation in the birth of powerful beings and symbolic forms. Of no less concern is the development of certain geometric patterns which serve as the basic structure to the figures and overall composition of a tanka painting. In drawing a figure free-hand, the artist works with a network of horizontal and vertical lines in which the span (tala) is taken as a unit of length. Thus the tala between the tip of the thumb and the index finger of an outstretched hand corresponds to the distance from the hair-line to the chin. In the Navatala system the standing body is divided into nine portions corresponding to the ninefold division of the world. Iconographic texts following rules originally developed in India determine these systems. A representation of Buddha proceeds from an assumed central line known as the "Brahma line" (Tshangs-thig), which follows the organic line of the spine and is analogically regarded as the centre of the universe. From this main axis subdivisions are drawn in symmetrical harmony as guidelines for the talas and their divisions. Thus the figures drawn are truly microcosmic expressions of macrocosmic dimensions, whilst permitting the individual vision of an artist to emerge in works of unique power and sublimity.

  The finished tanka must be consecrated to fit it for its ritual purpose. In a detailed ceremony meant to blow into the work the breath of life, an officiating lama prepares holy water to be used in a bowl and a pot, which together form a world-picture. The lama leads the deity from the heart-lotus in which it is waiting through the channel of his right nostril to the two vessels. When the deity is dipped into the vessels, its divine power is transmitted to the water so that it can be used in consecration. The water cannot, of course, be sprinkled on the painting itself, so a mirror is used instead, enabling the deity to enter the painting through its reflection. The reverse of the painting is now furnished with mantras that awaken the life of the figures (each having its own unique bija-mantra) and, in special cases, the scarlet impression of the hands of the consecrating lama. Such imprints carry something of his meditative powers and act as an intensification of the link between the deity invoked and its formulated expression.

  With very few historical exceptions, Tibetan artists do not date or sign their work. As a youth, such an aspirant trains under a Master and lives in service with him and with other pupils. Often initially belonging to no particular monastic order, he has to be trained by qualified lamas if his work is to serve the purpose for which it is created. The rigorous rules to be mastered are first transmitted to him orally, followed by a long period of practice to acquire the manual dexterity needed to draw the lines with an unwavering yet sensitive hand. It is only partly, however, a question of training under the watchful eye of a Master; he must also be instructed in the sacred tradition as laid down in various texts. These teach the developing artist not only how to prepare himself spiritually for his work, but also the proper timings for its execution, based on cosmological metaphysics unknown to the outsider. Visionary representations of tantric deities involve a mastery of the meanings contained in mantras and germinal syllables that become translated as 'crystallization points' for visual design. Such mastery is rare and requires many lives of devoted work.

Regardless of the hardships of the path
I strove to meet him,
And the mere aspect of his visage
Transformed my mind.

The Blue Annals

  The Trikaya doctrine of the Mahayana System teaches that in the beginning there was the primordial Adi-Buddha who, by his wisdom and meditation, created the Dhyani-Buddhas. These divine beings evolved in turn the Dhyani-Bodhisattvas, creators of the universe, whose mortal manifestations enable them to live on earth for brief periods as Manushi-Buddhas to teach mankind. Each Dhyani-Buddha is the author of a world cycle, and his Dhyani-Bodhisattva its actual creator, represented through his Manushi-Buddha as the Teacher of that cycle. Amitabha was the author of the fourth cycle, in which we now live. Avalokiteshvara was its creator and Gautama Buddha its mortal Teacher. Depicting these worlds of cycles on a tanka, the artist identifies their author, creator and teacher by location, colour, element, sense, vahana and characteristic symbol. As with other religious themes, he must follow the strict canons of ideographic proportions and symbolism embraced by the Tibetan monastic tradition. The question arises whether there is room for any creative freedom at all. In considering this, one is struck by the lines from an ancient source:

 The image, all of whose lines are complete, is a bestower of happiness, whereas the image in which they are lacking causes all sorts of evil.


  Does such imprecision result from a lack of Truth and is it an expression of that lack? Is this so from the perspective of the whole? Would such incompletions or alterations affect the figures depicted so as to render them false? Are they thus useless and impotent? How could such an image be the cause of all sorts of evil? Is it analogous to a case wherein, owing to a subtle chemical alteration in a physical organism, the production of a particular normal molecule ceases, thus opening the way for the proliferation of an analogue-molecule which produces a disease? This would imply that very distinct classes of elementals could be evoked and possibly galvanized by different qualities of drawings, leaving aside the nature of their subject or the spiritual state of the artist. This also raises a question about the inherent truth in the canons themselves. Are they universally constant guides capable of engendering truly revelatory visual manifestations of divine beings? From what realms have these canonized forms been drawn? William Quan Judge noted that:

 The world is so old that man's acts and thoughts for many millions of years have stamped the Astral Light full of pictures. But the Astral Light itself has cycles, tides, and changes, so those must be allowed for; it is useless to try to explain this, but in the changing of the cycles the symbols are sometimes mixed and interblended. When a class of elementals is fully developed and ready to run its course from the beginning of an Age, there is a symbol for it that can be used until the complete decadence or extinction of that class.

The Path, August 1889

  A canon such as that determining the religious art of tankas is endorsed by lamas who are seers and men of deep meditation. The experience of their tradition must have given them many examples of disaster wrought from the incorrect rendering of an image or a mandala. There are also inspiring examples of spiritual progress and even enlightenment received through the execution or contemplation of a tanka. It is said that there was such a painting of Manjushri kept on the wall of Tsong-Kha-Pa's Ga-wa-dong retreat. At Ga-wa-dong there was a Kam-pa lama named U-ma-pa Pa-wo-dorje who had been under the care of Manjushri for many lives. He had always repeated Manjushri's mantra, "Om a ra pa tsa na di", even before birth in his mother's womb. When Tsong-Kha-Pa met Lama U-ma-pa at Ga-wa-dong, he was able to ask Manjushri questions about the profound Emptiness and the glorious deeds of compassion of sutra and tantra through Lama U-ma-pa. This enormously inspired the noble reformer, who experienced a decisive improvement in his meditation. Shortly after this, while meditating in his retreat, a great light shone forth from the heart of Manjushri depicted in the painting. This was the first time Tsong-Kha-Pa saw Manjushri, but thereafter he met with him at will and learnt from him the difficult points concerning the stages of the path.

  Surely this is an account of a very lofty spiritual initiation. It cannot be dismissed as a mere psychic projection or a tempting encounter with temporal entities in the astral light. What we know of the life and work of Tsong-Kha-Pa suggests the highest form of incarnated spiritual intelligence and yet he, along with other Mahayana Buddhists, would be the first to assert the transparency of all visible and created manifestations against the translucent background of the universal Void. Subtle though the forms of the gods and Buddhas may be, they are still transient and, therefore, relative to a particular cycle of manifestation. In man's search for Truth, must he ever confront only its relative form? The Sage, whilst not mistaking the means for the goal, yet takes refuge in the means and brings to it the highest purity of self-sacrifice. The religious artist of true meditation likewise sees the world of phenomena as a vision, as a state yet to be realized, in which form and colour are changed in accordance with the depth of understanding. He brings the intensity of this perception to bear upon the canonical rules governing the traditional expression of his art. It is thus that truly creative expression takes place. Far removed from the notions of creative freedom stressed in purely aesthetic art, the creativity experienced here is one reflective of universally true acts of creation echoing generations of Buddhas and the primordial Adi-Buddha.

  The tanka containing deeply contemplative representations helps individuals of advanced spirituality to establish a spiritual world-picture. The painting is the point of departure for the world-picture to be formed in the mind, wherein it springs from a single point and is offered to the Supreme as a gift. Such a painting employs primarily symbolic representations, and these can be interpreted only by the initiated. At times the Initiate himself may create one of these and destroy it after its use. To look upon one of these, even for one uninitiated, is to become aware of its manifestly mysterious character, which is not lacking in a visionary element, even though the representations are based on knowledge acquired through a theoretical discipline. In truly visionary paintings the Initiate may hold fast the mysterious figures he has seen so that they may serve others for meditation. The style of representation in these cases attains a fantastic power of expression, not only because the art has been completely mastered and its technique enacted with the ultimate degree of refinement, but also because a direct visionary element emerges from the paintings. The figures speak to one as living beings, and the geometric patterns become pathways leading into the deepest recesses of the viewer's being.

  From the decorative tankas destined to uplift a broad lay public to the instructive and contemplative or visionary tankas, all levels of human needs and spiritual abilities are addressed. For the initiated the strange figures depicted may exercise immediate efficacy within the whole process of meditation, helping them (as in the case of Tsong-Kha-Pa) to attain higher states of enlightenment. To the uninitiated, their often terrifying mien may signify nothing more than those diabolical beings overcome by Lord Buddha and now known as "protectors of the sacred doctrine". Meditating upon a tanka, an Initiate can experience the 'form of emptiness', empty of physical particles, form beyond matter. This form of emptiness, adorned with the major and minor marks of a Buddha in the aspect of father and of mother, is the cause; the supreme immutable bliss, which is induced by dependence on various empty forms, is the effect. A union of these two is the cause-effect vehicle.

That bearing the form of emptiness is the cause,
That bearing immutable compassion is the effect.
Emptiness and compassion indivisible
Are called the mind of enlightenment.

Kalachakra Tantra

  In cultivating emptiness and compassion the Initiate contemplates all phenomena as a magician's illusions, whilst practising right giving and ethics in all modes of action. And practising this with undiminished force, he must train in cognizing emptiness. In the words of Devakulamahamati: "Mere meditation on emptiness is not a complete method." To be added to this is the practice of Deity Yoga, which involves meditation on a mandala circle, the chief method for achieving a form body. It is said that one cannot attain Buddhahood through causes that do not have an aspect similar to the effect of a form body. To become Buddha-like one should meditate upon the divine body of the Buddha, not the outward illustration of the painted form, but the essential and universal affirmation of sacrifice which characterizes the idea of Voidness in manifest existence and which shines through the marks and symbols of his manifest body. Only a very wise aspirant struggling on the path can know at what point a particular rendering in line and colour of these characteristics can be of help. Without the proper guidance of an Initiate and Teacher, it is best to look upon such tankas with respect and some awareness of their inherent power, while leaving them alone until such time as the aspirant may be guided to their threshold.

  But one cannot avoid the worlds of form out of fear. Their denizens must be met and conquered or understood by the aspirant. Through compassionate acts and meditation upon more and more abstract conceptions of Be-ness, such a seeker attempts to balance their development, merge the eye and the heart and release that which transcends all apparent opposites. These aspirants acquire knowledge which finds its use in deeds of sacrifice. From their knowledge of secret wisdom they can, eventually, project the image of the Buddha in a pure heaven-like space created out of their own consciousness. In this state of consciousness the realized yogin merges with the Void and draws images of Buddhas which arise before his inward eye in a magic halo of light. Proceeding along this path of actualizing deities (Grub-thabs), the yogin can become aware of all their attributes and characteristics so that they may help towards inner perfection.

  The visions which the yogin as artist attempts to represent in pictorial form are drawn from this succession of actualized deities. Only when the realization of the Void or Emptiness and that of Deity Yoga are brought into perfect balance can such visions act as true and constant guides and reliable means to inner spiritual perfection. The reason why a deity can thus take on a universally recognizable appearance is because, in the end, individual human consciousness is a spark of the Universal Mind. But if the vision arises in the mind of one who still fears the Void, clings to form of any sort (including ideas) or seeks to liberate himself before others, it will be picked from the lower astral matrix in which endlessly ensnaring entities have their being and sustenance.

  There is an enormous difference between merely entering a tanka with one's eyes and becoming initiated by its design. Action tantra involves laying out a painting of a deity, arranging offerings, bathing, observing rituals and inviting a deity to take its place in the tanka. This lower form of tantra is followed by Performance and Yoga tantra, wherein the wisdom deity is invited to take its place in one's own self-generated symbolic being. The aspirant moving through these three levels of discipline to the fourth, that of the Highest Yoga Tantras, slowly eliminates his dependence upon external activities and increasingly focusses upon what the Mahayana system refers to as meditative stabilization. With the Highest Yoga Tantras the reliance upon external activities ceases, and an internal balance between the Yoga of Emptiness and Deity Yoga permits such a one to enter into a tanka and realize its essential truth with no sense of otherness whatsoever. The colours, the symbols, the many marks of perfection as well as the frightening powers are known in and through the nature of such an individual, who, even while embodying them, remains at heart merged in the pure colourless, formless, attributeless Light of the Unmanifest.

  For such souls a tanka contains a sacred reflection of infinite possibilities, at once signifying everything and nothing. They see that its Emptiness is full of compassion and that it becomes a Teacher to others who still struggle in the fields of duality. They believe in the efficacy of the two and thirty marks and are committed to the perpetuation of such forms for as long as even a single creature may yet struggle to achieve Enlightenment.

Blessed are They who,
While seeing through form,
Yet embrace it
For the sake of others.
They are the Buddhas
Of Endless Compassion.
They are the Rare Teachers
In our midst.
May we worship at their
Lotus Feet in all lifetimes.