The gods of northern Buddhism

their history, iconography and progressive evolution through the northern Buddhist countries

by Alice Getty | 1914 | 98,662 words

Indispensable reference for art historians, scholars of Eastern philosophy and religion. Wealth of detailed scholarly information on names, attributes, symbolism, pictorial representations of virtually every major and minor divinity in Mahayana pantheon, as worshipped in Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, Mongolia, and Japan. 185 black-and-white illustrat...

Part VI - Convents, Temples, And Sacred Images

(a) The Convents. The modern Buddhist Lamaite convents (Dgon-pa T., Kuren M.) are ordinarily situated in remote places, often difficult of access, and if possible on a mountain and not far from a lake. They are planned on the lines of the ancient Sangharama. {GL_NOTE::} A quadrilateral space of ground is usually surrounded by a wall surmounted by numerous dorjaq (M.), streamers of ribbon on the end of a stick which are imprinted with the sacred formulas. These ribbons are held to have the power of keeping evil spirits away from the convent. We have here a relic of ancient animism. The principal entrance is on the south and it is surmounted by a kind of pavilion, in which are seen the statues of the four guardians of the temple (Lokapala, see p. 139). Before this gateway at a distance of sixty yards are two columns, upon which on feast days are placed a vessel of incense and a lighted lantern. At the same distance and all round the enclosing wall of the convent are placed large cylinders (Kilrde M.) covered with inscriptions and containing rolls of paper printed with prayers or mani. The pilgrims who have whirled these cylinders are considered to have pronounced the sacred formula Om, mani padme, hum as many times as the cylinder has revolved. There are also little Kilrde, which are carried by hand and turned for the same purpose. Nearer to the entrance are erected the Stupas (see Glossary).

Inside, the convent is divided into three courts by walls either at a right angle or parallel to the south side. In the first case the principal temple is situated in the central court, with the cells of the monks on the right and left; in the second it is in the third court, the two previous ones being occupied by the monks' cells. In both cases, however, the main way, which leads from the principal door to the temple, traverses the entire length of the convent from south to north, for the temple is always placed under the north wall. In the middle of this way is placed an altar with incense-vessels, and at each side of it (or on the right and left of the principal temple) are smaller temples or chapels. The cells, which are replaced in Mongolia by felt tents, are of various sizes and are placed in accordance with the rank of the monk who is lodged there. Their importance diminishes from left to right, or from north to south. The dwellings of the superiors of the convent and of the 'Qubilghans' are close to the principal temple.

(b) The Temples. There are hardly any temples outside convents with the exception of some buildings at Lhassa and other great towns. The principal temple of a convent, whether of Tibetan, Chinese, or mixed architecture, invariably has its entrance towards the south. This entrance is often preceded by a vestibule, usually containing the images of the 'four guardians' and a prayer-wheel. The wall looking towards the north (the abiding-place of Buddha) is the only one which must have no windows, and against this wall are placed on its inner side the statues of the divinities, before which stands the principal altar of sacrifice. The roof is sometimes gilded, but must be always surmounted by one or two Ghanjir (M.), a kind of gilded vessel filled with rolls of paper containing the prayers (mani). Moreover, in Mongolia, on the four corners of the roof there are gilded cylinders containing, besides the mani, a copy of the book of Atisa (the 'sacred' organizer of Lamaite Buddhism) called Lam-sgron (T.) or Bodhipatha pradlpa (S.), i. e. the way of attaining the Bodhi. In Tibet the cylinder is covered with black yak-hair striped cross-wise with white. It bears the name of Jaljan (M.) or Rgyal-mts' an (T.) or Dhvaja (S.). Above the principal entrance, near the roof, is a gilded wheel with two gazelles regardant on either hand, to commemorate the preaching of the wheel of the law or of the four truths in the park of the gazelles.

Inside, the end of the temple towards the north wall is occupied by the altar of the divinities, frequently separated by a rank of columns from the main body of the building. This latter is divided by other ranks of columns into four or five parts. Thus are formed a central nave, and on each side one or two lateral naves where the seats of the monks are placed. These seats differ in shape according to the rank of the monk: arm-chairs with backs for the superior and the head of the choir, stools for the Gelling, plain benches for the ordinary monks. The number of flat cushions (qolboq M.) made of felt and covered with yellow stuff, which are placed upon these seats, varies from one to nine in accordance with the rank of the Lama. Rank also accounts for the position in which the seats are placed. As in the cells, the left hand is more honourable than the right, and the importance of a seat diminishes from the altar on the north to the entrance of the temple on the south. The Gebgili (see p. xxxv) are seated on each side of the door. The Superior of the Convent and the principal celebrant have in front of their seats small low tables upon which they place their Vajra, gong, bowl of holy water, rosary, and other things. The Qubilghan have seats apart, placed in the nave in front of the altar opposite the door, so that these ' living gods ' partly mask the images of the divinities placed against the north wall.

The columns of the temple are painted red and draped with stuffs, or covered with frescoes like the walls; moreover, along the colonnades and also from the crown of the ceiling hang long ribbons of every colour of the rainbow. This mass of brightcoloured stuffs, which stirs at the least breath, combines with the absolutely unique odour and the half-darkness which broods in the building (the doors and windows are always covered with thick curtains), to impart a curious sensation, and to give a wholly singular aspect to a Lamaite temple.

(c) The Altar and Objects of Ritual. In front of the statues of the divinities grouped along the north wall rises the Altar, a kind of table covered with rich stuff, and of length varying with the size of the temple. Upon it are placed the following objects:

(1) the eight ' glorious emblems' (Ashta mangala S., Uljeitu naiman temdek M., Bkra4is-rtags-brgyad T.), i.e.

  1. the white parasol (Chattra S., Gdugs-dan T., Sikur M.) which keeps away the 'heat of evil desires';
  2. the 'two gilded fishes' (Matsya S., Gser-na T., Jighasun M.), 'symbol of happiness and utility';
  3. the sea-shell [Sankha S., Duh-dkar T., Labai M.), symbol of the ' blessedness of turning to the right ';
  4. the lotusflower (Padma S. and T., Badma M.), ' pledge of salvation or Nirvana ';
  5. the sacred bowl (Kalasa S., Bum-pa T., Bumba M.), 'the treasury of all the desires';
  6. the mystic diagram (Srivatsa S., Dpalrbe'u T., Balbu M.), ' the thread which guides to happiness ';
  7. the standard (Bhvaja S., Rgyal-mts 'an T., Boja M.), ' erected on the summit of the palace of salvation ';
  8. and, finally, the wheel (Cakra S., Kor-lo T., Kilrde M.), ' which leads to perfection'.

All these objects, whose dimensions vary according as they are made in wood or in gilded metal, are supported on stands more or less decorated.

(2) Beside or behind this group is set a similarly arranged tableau of the ' seven jewels ': the wheel, the 'Cintamani', the woman, the official, the elephant, the horse, the military leader (see Ratna in the Glossary).

(3) In front of these two groups are arranged seven cups of brass or silver containing the seven offerings; the first two are filled with water; the third holds a flower and the fourth the scented wands (kuji M.); the fifth (filled with oil and furnished with a wick) represents a lamp, the sixth is full of water, and the seventh of viands. This is a symbolic survival of the objects offered in ancient India to every recipient of hospitality; water to wash the feet, water to wash the face, flowers and perfumes for the charm of their appearance and odour, and finally everything necessary to provide light, drink, and food.

(4) Among these seven cups is placed another vessel with incense (Bdug-spas T., Jcke kuji M.), and a large lamp (Mar-me T., Jeke jula M.), which must stay alight and shine with even brilliance by night and day without flickering. In summer this is replaced by a lantern, lest the insects attracted by the light should scorch themselves and die of their burns.

(5) During certain of the services, for instance that of the Man-la (see p. 23), there are put also upon the altar the ' eight glorious offerings ', or ' eight blessed substances' (or 'things') (Bkra-sis-rdsas-brgyad T., Uljeitu naiman ed M.), namely: the mirror (Adarsa S., Me-lon T., Toll M.); the bezoar (Ge-ham or Ghi-dam T.), i.e. concretions which form themselves in the stomachs of certain animals, and, as is said, also at the back of the elephant's neck; the curdled milk (Sho T., Taraq M.); the herb ' durva ' (Dur-bas T., ObSsiln M.); the fruit 'bilva' (Bil-ba T., Modonoi-temesun M.); the shell (Dun T., Labai M.); finally the red lead, a piece of lead ore (minium) or mercury (cinnabar) (Li-gti T., Singghu M.). All these offerings recall the objects which were presented by a particular spirit or person to Sakya-muni himself.

(6) Sometimes are set also upon the altar the sacrifices of the five senses; a mirror (sight), a shell (hearing), a cup filled with nutmegs (smell), a bowl filled with fruit or sugar (taste), and a morsel of yellow silk stuff (touch).

(7) Finally a patra and a gong (K'ar-gsil T., Duldui M.) with some decorative vases and flowers complete the furniture of the altar. The ritual objects employed during the service are also placed upon the altar for the time being. These are, in addition to the vajra and little bell which the celebrants generally hold in their hands, the following objects: the Mandal M. (Mandala S., Dkyil-k'or T.), i. e. a dish of bronze, silver, or gold upon which are set representations of Mount ' Meru ' in the same metal and of the four great and eight little divisions of the world (Dvipa S., Tib M.). In the spaces between these representations, which suggest the toys of children, the offerings are set: little piles of rice, coins, shells, and the like. The mandal is placed at the right corner of the altar; beside it is the ' Kapala ' or Tod-ma T. (see Glossary), filled with blood or wine during the service of ' dokshit '. Balancing these two objects there stand on the left side of the altar, upon a pedestal, a mirror and the Bum-pa filled with lustral water for the same ' dokshit ' (cf. above, p. xxxix).

For the sake of ornament there are also placed upon the altar, as has been already said, vases and pots of flowers, and the whole is surmounted by a kind of baldachino (Bla-bri T., Labari M.). Behind the altar and consequently immediately in front of the images of the divinities hang from the ceiling quantities of ribbons of five colours (Ba-dang T. and M.), cylinders (Jalcan M.), and globes (Cima-purma M.) made of pieces of stuff in five colours sewn together and filled with scented hay, like our balls; further parasols, lanterns, scarves of silk (Qadaq M., ICa-bdags T.), and the like. All this forms a veritable forest in front of the images and obstructs almost completely the view of the divinities. We will, however, pull aside the tremulous curtain and penetrate to the images of the gods themselves.

(d) The Images of the Divinities. The Buddhist Pantheon includes, as we know, at least 500 deities. Each has a counterfeit presentation sculptural or pictorial. The statues, whose dimensions vary from the length of half an inch to several feet in height, are made of wood, papier-mache, ivory, stone, copper, iron, silver, gold, and especially bronze. They are covered with painting, with lacquer, and with gilding.

It is compulsory that there should be made in the lower part of each statue a kind of cavity in which are placed with certain ceremonies rolls of paper with inscribed or printed prayers (mani). These cavities are closed with a plate of bronze, sometimes bearing the image of the double vajra. Before being filled with this ' spiritual body ' the statue is treated like any other object, but afterwards it can be treated only as a sacred object though it merely represents ' the image of the divinity '; it is not an ' idol ', but a mere ' sacred image ' such as are possessed by certain Christian churches. The best statues are made in Nepal, Lhassa, and at the convent of Dolon-Nor in Eastern Mongolia. Usually they represent but a single divinity, sometimes, however, accompanied by his attendants; but often groups of three, five, or eight statues are made, all having the same character and the same dimensions so that they compose groups (for instance, the Buddha triad or Ts'on-k'a-pa with their two favourite pupils; the eight Bodhisattvas, the eight ' Drag-ched ' or • the terrible ones ', and others).

Pictorial art on the contrary represents a great number of divinities or persons symmetrically grouped. Most often the picture will portray on a large scale a divinity or personage as principal figure, and around him, on a smaller scale, scenes from his life, or divinities and accessory persons. Besides these there exist paintings representing mandala or 'the domain of the saint' (PI. XVI), as well as views of certain celebrated monasteries, and the like. The pictures are painted on a sized canvas prepared with chalk. This is stretched on a frame with zig-zag lacing as we should stretch a piece of tapestry. The colours are diluted with oil or water.

Among the pictures should be noted particularly the wheel of life or of the sansdra (Sansarjin kilrde M.), which sums up pictorially certain principal parts of the Buddhist doctrine. A huge dragon holds a disc formed of three concentric circles. The central and smallest of these encloses the likeness of three animals — the snake, the pig, and the chicken, symbolizing the sins of anger, ignorance, and voluptuousness. The surrounding and much larger circle is divided into six segments representing the life of the six categories of living beings (cf. p. xxii, n.). Therein are to be seen men busy at their affairs, animals real or imaginary, the preta tormented by thirst, the twenty -two compartments of Hell grouped around its divinity (ErliJc-qaghan M.), who presides over the last judgement and computes good and bad actions with the help of white or black counters which his attendants throw down before him. Finally the last two segments represent the war of Asura (see Glossary) against the gods, and the dwelling of the latter, a kind of Paradise. The third circle contains twelve images which represent, more or less vaguely, the nexus of the twelve causes (cf. p. xxiii).

Another class of paintings is formed by what is called Tsok-shin or Ts'ogs-Sin (T.). These have not yet been studied in any of the works written on Buddhist iconography. [1] I shall proceed to give a brief sketch of them based on my own researches.

We know that all the Buddhist-Lamaite divinities are divided into six large groups:

  1. the Buddhas,
  2. the Bodhisattvas,
  3. the Feminine deities,
  4. the ' protectors ' or tutelary gods (Yi-dam),
  5. the Defenders of the Faith (Cos-sJcyon T.) and the ' eight terrible ones ' (Drag-ched or Drag-gsed T.);
  6. finally- ' the minor divinities', genii, guardians of the four cardinal points, &c.

In the native albums of images of gods, e. g. that of the 300 divinities reproduced by Pander or by S. Oldenburg (see Bibliography), these divinities, to which are joined the saints and the Arhats, are classed as follows:

  • the Saints (to the number of 51),
  • the Protectors (42),
  • the Buddhas (48),
  • the Bodhisattvas (12),
  • the Goddesses (9),
  • the Defenders (27),
  • the Arhats (18),
  • the Drag-ched or Drag-gsed (12),
  • the Dakini and the Devi (Gon-po) (15),
  • lastly the Yama, Lamo, Guardians of the cardinal points, genii, &c. (45).

But what is the relative importance of each of these classes, and how are the divinities arranged in the Temple? No work on Buddhism answers this question in a precise and detailed manner. The pictures of the Ts'ogs-Un alone give some guidance in the subject to the student who has learned how to decipher and interpret them. Of the five pictures which I have been able to study, the largest comes from Nepal and dates from the beginning of the nineteenth century (collection of Mr. H. Getty); two others, of moderate size, come from Eastern Tibet (collection of M. Bacot in Paris) and seem to date from the middle of the last century; finally the two smallest come from Pekin and are still more recent (Getty and Deniker collections). In spite of their different sources, ages, and sizes, all these pictures are painted on the same scheme which I attempt to state in the lines which follow. (For the orientation see the frontispiece with the tracing of it and p. 160.)

At the top are three medallions surrounded with a border often of the colours of the rainbow, inside which are crowded numerous Buddhas (Frontispiece: a,b,c). Below is seen the image of the principal divinity (Sakya-muni in the Ts'ogs-bin of Nepal, Ts'on-k'a-pa in the four others), surrounded by smaller images of his different attendants grouped to right and left (d). Lower still, and occupying the largest part of the picture, is what we may call the principal pyramid of the divinities (g). This is a tree which supports the images of a great number of the divinities, arranged in a certain order which I shall give later. On both sides of this tree-pyramid are seen, in the upper field, two spaces (e, f) filled by groups of monks or genii on clouds, while below can be distinguished the row of guardians of the four cardinal points, and on each side of the trunk of the tree two sirens or Ndgas. Besides these are displayed on the right of the trunk the images of the seven jewels and eight emblems (see p. xlviii), while upon the left there is invariably a personage who presents upon a plate the offering to all these deities, an offering which consists of a kind of pyramidal cake.

In the explanation of the frontispiece (p. 160) will be found the names of most of the divinities which I have been able to identify in the Ts'ogs-sin of Nepal. Here I shall give only their arrangement in groups. It is in a way concentric, and the rank of every one of the divinities is determined by the distance at which it is put from the centre; the principal divinities are the nearest to the central point of the pyramid which is occupied by Avalokitesvara (No. 49 of the frontispiece). Above the chief divinity are three ranks of Bodhisattvas (Nos. 18-22, 27-31, 37-41) as his attendants; on his right are three Buddhas (Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, &c.) (46-48), and on his left three others (but of this I am not sure) (50-52). This central group, then, includes the principal divinities. It is surrounded on right and left by the goddesses (Nos. 17, 26, 36, 45, 23, 32).

Above the principal group is the double rank of the ' Protectors ' (Nos. 2-6, 10-14), flanked on right and left by feminine divinities of the second order (KurukuUa, &c, 1, 7-9).

Below Avalokitesvara stands the rank of Tathagata or Buddhas which overflows on to the sides of the pyramid above and below (15-16, 24, 25, 33-35, 42-44, 53-68, 77-82, 91-93). In the rank below reappear different Bodhisattvas (69-76) and below them the Man-la (No. 101) with his twelve acolytes (83-90, 94-95, 107-108). In the same rank as he on right and on left and encroaching also at each end on the rank immediately below, whose centre is occupied by the dakini (113-119), are placed the eighteen Arhats (96-100, 102-106, 109-112, 120-123). Finally the very lowest rank is occupied by the ' Defenders' and the Drag-ched (124-138).

As for the Ts'ogs-Un which come from Pekin and Eastern Tibet, in No. 1, the large figure of Sakya-muni is replaced by that of Ts'on-k'a-pa carrying upon his breast in a nimbus a little figure of Sakya-muni which itself encloses a tiny image of a Buddha of a bluish-grey colour. From this small image radiate rainbow-coloured ribbons or golden threads towards the groups of monks at the sides (e, f) and towards the 'pyramid of divinities'. The number of Bodhisattvas and of Dhyani-Buddhas is considerably reduced in the imagery of Eastern Tibet and of Pekin. On the other hand new personages appear in the most recent of the Ts'ogs-sin (e. g. that from Pekin in H. Getty's collection). Padmasambhava is seen there to occupy a place of honour, namely, that of the Buddhas, and to be surrounded by a multitude of feminine divinities. Among these figure Kwan-yin, unknown in the other Ts'ogs-tin. Several other Chinese saints are also to be seen in them.

However, if I attempted to treat this subject I should invade the domain of the author of the book to which I do but supply an introduction. Indeed everything that has been written above is to be regarded only as a means to facilitate the use and study of A. Getty's work by the reader. Thanks to the orientation which this introduction gives the latter, he will be able readily to understand the details involved in the history and representation of each of the divinities of the Buddhist Pantheon. It is not my business to estimate the value of A. Getty's work, but perhaps I may plead that in this book for the first time the problems of Buddhist iconography in general and in detail are to be found collected and systematically treated. Moreover the treatment is based on the author's own researches in Europe and in the Far East, and on information drawn from specialist works which the public finds difficult of access. These words should be enough to show the very great interest and utility of the book for general Buddhist studies.

J. Deniker.

Footnotes and references:


This Sanskrit term is applied to-day only to the convent libraries.


With the exception of ten lines concerning them in Grunwedel's Obzor sobranya, &c. (Review of the collection of the objects of lamaite cult, belonging to Prince Ukhtomsky, Bibliotheca buddhica, VI, St. Petersburg, 1905, text, p. 54.)

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: