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Sacred Art


By Geshe Lobsang Tsultrim

This history of how images were first constructed deals with both painted and sculpted forms.

Our first topic is how the first painted image came into being. Previously in this world, when the lifespan of men were decreasing from one hundred thousand years, a king of men known as “Fear-subduer” ruled his kingdom in accordance with the highest norms; and owing to that, men’s lifespan were increased and their lives were filled with happiness.  Through the king’s practices of asceticism the gods blessed him with the attainments of great power and wisdom, and with the highest gift of peace, so that weapons and war could not penetrate into the world of men.

One of that king’s subjects, a Brahmin, had a particularly son dear.  When that son died the Brahmin said to the king, “It is widely renowned that through your power all men dwell in happiness.  But you have committed a certain error and have not watched over your kingdom faultlessly.  The Lord of Death has robbed me of my son, and if you do not return him to me I will kill myself.”

Having heard that, the king took the Brahmin to the presence of Yama, King of the Dead, and repeating the account of his accusation, ordered him to give back the boy.  Yama replied that the boy’s life-supporting deeds had exhausted themselves.  Words were exchanged back and forth, and at last a fight ensued between the king of humans and the king of the dead.

Using divine weapons, the king of men vanquished the host of Yama.  Finally Yama, bearing a staff, and the king, brandishing a staff atop of which was the head of Brahma, made battle.  When this was transpiring and the whole world had been cast into terror, the god Brahma appeared and said, “When one’s deeds are exhausted, even Yama is not to blame.  Nevertheless, draw a picture of the Brahmin’s son, just as he was.”  Then the king drew that picture.  Brahma blessed it to become a really existent boy, and gave the boy to the Brahmin.


That king became known as “King Naked-subduer”, because he vanquished Yama, king of the naked hungry-spirits.  And because he was the painter of the original picture, he became known as the “first artist.”  Following the command of Brahma, the king bowed and worshiped Yama, and all became pleased at heart.  Afterwards the king went to the abode of Brahma.  There the king asked Brahma how to paint pictures and Brahma replied with the verses:

Medicine Buddha

By Geshe Lobsang Tsultrim

“The king of peaks is Sumeru.

Of all those beings born from eggs,

Soaring Garuda ranks as chief.

Of men, the best is king on earth;

Of arts, pictorial is chief.”

And with verses such as follows, he set it forth in great detail:

“O king, all of the arts and skills

Depend upon the graphic art.”

The history of painting began at that time.  Concerning the representations of the Great Teacher’s bodily form in the religion of the Omniscient Buddha, painted sacred images antedated those that were sculpted.  Moreover, the first such painted image was the one which Bimbisāra, king of the city Rājgrha, sent to Udrāyana, king of Roruka.  Even though those two kings lived at a great distance from one another, sight unseen they struck up a very cordial relationship.  In the reciprocal exchange of gifts, once Udrāyana sent Bimbisāra a priceless jeweled suit of full-body armor.  King Bimbisāra, in his difficulty in finding a reply to that gift, ordered some artists to draw the form of the Buddha.  Trying to do so, the artists could not but gaze insatiably at the Blessed One’s form, totally enchanted, and they were unable to ascertain his measurements.  But then the Buddha seated himself by the bank of a body of water, and they made a copy from his reflection in the water.  The picture they made, having a representation of interdependent origination beneath, is famed as the one “taken from water”.  That image the king incased in layers of gold, silver and copper.  Swathing it in cloth, he lifted it atop the back of an elephant and sent ahead the message, “I am dispatching to you the gift which is the greatest of the great in the three-fold universe.  You should go out to greet it at a distance of two and one-half leagues.”  Accordingly, Udrāyana went out to receive it, and when, in an extensive open area, the couriers revealed that image, the traders of Magadha let loose the cry, “Obeisance to the Buddha!” Immediately upon hearing the sound of the Buddha’s name, the hairs of the king’s body stood on end, and he inquired, “O wise ones, who is He who is called the Buddha?”  They replied, “Lord, it was said of a scion of the Sakyas that should he not renounce the world he would become the universal emperor, but should he enter religious life, he would become enlightened.  This is the bodily image of that very Buddha.”

As soon as he beheld that image, the king was filled with happiness, and that evening as he coursed forwards and backwards over the links of interdependent origination, the king, being wise and of fortunate endowments, perceived the truth.  Later he sent to king Bimbisāra the message, “Since owing to you I have put an end to the round of births, now I desire to see some fully ordained monks.”  King Bimbisāra related that message to the Blessed One, and Noble Katyayana, with a following of five hundred, was dispatched.  They were welcomed by king Udrāyana, who spread the Doctrine by means of erecting five hundred temples and many other pious deeds.

Concerning the history of how the second painted Buddha image originated, it was produced through the Buddha’s action of projecting his radiance onto a cloth, and that image was sent to Pearly Vined One, daughter of the king of Singhala.  Once some merchants of Sravasti went to the island of Singhala and were speaking of the Buddha.  The king’s daughter, Pearly Vined One, heard the sound of the Buddha’s name and faith arose in her.  She respectfully composed a letter to the Blessed Teacher, which the merchants on their return conveyed to the Buddha.  In reply, the Buddha emanated rays of light on the surface of a cloth in such a way that a picture resulted.  That icon produced through the impression of that form upon the cloth’s surface had extremely pure features.  Through the Buddha’s bestowing it, together with a message, to the princess, she perceived the truth.  Afterwards she sent three great measures of pearls to the Great Teacher as an offering, which the Buddha divided among himself, the Dharma, and the Sangha.  From that time forth, wherever the Victorious One’s doctrine has spread, the great tradition of painting icons on cloth has also widely flourished.

The first sculptured sacred image was the image called the Sandalwood Lord.  In the city from which the Buddha had gone to the god-sphere to teach his mother, that city’s king, ministers, and retainers had a great desire to erect as an object of worship an image built of sandalwood that would resemble the body of the real Great Teacher.  Through the magical powers of the Buddha’s disciple Maudgalyayana, an artisan was transported to the god-sphere where he fixed in his mind the exact shape of the Buddha’s body and then returned.  Then in that city, which was known as Gsal-Idan, he made a lifelike image of the Blessed Teacher in a standing posture, with a brightly shining jewel on the front of the protuberance on the crown of his head, and marked with a wheel on his hands and feet.  It was an image without any visible disharmony or imperfection.  Later, when the Blessed One returned from the divine sphere by descending the jewel ladder miraculously projected by the god, Visvakarma, the sandalwood image at Gsal-Idan itself took six steps forward, going to greet the Buddha.  That famous image is now in China, remaining there for the welfare of beings.  From it an embroidered replica was also made, called the “Ze’u-thang”, about which there is more to be said, but our cursory sketch of the history of sculpture ends here.

Here in Tibet the traditions of painting and sculpting images flourished greatly through the kindness of great Bodhisattvas such as the three great religious kings of the past.  Concerning particularly the stylistic traditions of painted images, one tradition based upon the Buddha’s image at Bodhgaya, which possessed the measurements He had at age twenty-five, existed in India, Nepal and elsewhere.  Yet because it was mostly the artists of Nepal who upheld this painting tradition, it was called Nepalese style (bal bris), and this tradition came to be widespread in Tibet.

Later in Tibet there was a master artist named Bkra-shis-rgyal-po, who had a student even greater than himself.  This great disciple was named Sman-lha-don-grub.  When Sman-lha-don-grub was born at Sman-thang in Lho-brag region of Tibet, there was also discovered a native vermillion deposit at Lho-brag.  In his childhood he mastered grammar and poetry, and the scripts of many different languages such as Lancara, Wartu, Darika and Tibetan.  He was believed to be the embodiment of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.  Becoming disgusted with the life of a householder, he set off upon a wandering existence.  In the course of his roving from place to place, once at Stag-lung in Yar-‘brog he came upon a brush and brush case, together with some examples of painting.  Beginning from that time he devoted himself wholly to painting, and he went to such places as Gtsang and Sakya in search of master painters of religious subjects.  Once he chanced to see the Chinese embroidered tapestry called the “Ze’u-thang,” which he himself had created in a previous lifetime when born as a Chinese artist.  By the mere sight of it he recollected his previous lifetime, and in that way there arose very vividly in his mind the pictures of a style which closely resembled a Chinese type of painting.  In addition, conforming with the doctrines of many schools of painting, as well as following the teachings of the Kālacakra Tantra and the Commentary on the Root Tantra of Cakrasamvara, he composed the text called Sku gzugs kyi cha tshad kyi rab tu byed pa yid bzhin nor bu (The Wish Granting Jewel: A Treatise on the Dimensions of Religious Images), in which he systematically expounded the following seven topics: 1) A statement of the major marks and minor characteristics of the Tathāgata, 2) Refutation of the basic formulations of incorrect opinions, 3) Explanation of the faults of imperfect measurements, 4) Basic formulation of what constitutes proper dimensions, 5) Statement of the virtues of proper dimensions, 6) Desired characteristics of both artist and patron, and 7) A detailed explanation of the practical steps used in painting.

Further, in the time of Kun-dga’-rnam-rgyal, there came to the Gong-dkar Rdo-rje-gdan monastic center from Sgang-stod a great figure known as Sprul-sku Mkhyen-brtse-chen-po.  Because of slight differences between his painting style and that of Sman-lha-dron-grub, there came about a painting style which was named Mkhyen-style (mkhyen bris) after him.

Besides those, there was also a famous artist called Sprul-sku Byi’u-chung who was born in Yar-stod.  Through his great diligence in the study of painting, he clung inseparably to his pages of examples and his drawing board.  Because he flitted about from place to place in search of fine painting styles and examples of fine art, there was said something to the effect that “This incarnate lama is not different from a little bird”, and on that account he was named “Byi’u” or “Little Bird”.  The painting style he developed was a little different from those descended from Sman-lha-don-grub and Mkhyen-brtse.

Also, I have heard that from the area of Mtshur-phu there originated an artistic tradition famed as the school of the three masters named Bkra-shis.  That style is nowadays widely known as the painting style of the Karma encampment (Karma sgar bris).  It is dissimilar to the above styles and it has gradually become very widespread.

The relationship of sculpted sacred images to painted ones is that the circumference of a sculpted image measures three times the width of a painted image.

In accordance with the words of Maitreyanātha, “Without bringing to mastery the five fields of knowledge, even the Supremely Holy Ones will not attain the state of Buddhahood.”  Hence almost all the exalted beings in the past have attained self-sufficient mastery in the five fields of knowledge.  I myself have witnessed the signs of such mastery come to fruition, in having seen many times on the back side of old thangkas where great saints have acknowledged their authorship.  Therefore, if one should carefully scrutinize the supremely wonderful and correct paintings of the renowned great saints and masters it is certain that one would find further characteristic styles besides those of the above traditions.  But the four above-mentioned traditions that are widespread in Tibet are held to be the fundamental ones.


by Geshe Lobsang Tsultrim


Buddhas, whether manifesting as the highest emanation-body (nirmanakaya) or as the peaceful enjoyment-body (sambhogakāya), iconmetrically are in the ten face-unit class, one unit of which measures twelve and one half finger-widths.  Bodhisattvas are also in the ten face-unit class, but in their case each face-unit is one, half finger-width shorter, each face-unit measuring only twelve finger-widths.  Thus Bodhisattvas are five finger-widths shorter in total length than the Buddhas.  Female beings such as the Great Mother or goddesses are in the nine-span class, while wrathful deities are in the eight-span class, and dwarfed ones are in the class of six spans.  Generally speaking, the above classes of body measures form the basis from which Buddhist iconometry is to be taught.

To begin with, one must know that what we term a “face-unit” or “span” is divided into twelve finger-widths.  This is the general case, and once explained it is easily understood.  Each twelfth part of a face-unit or large-segment is called one finger-width.  One fourth of a finger-width is called a “leg”, and one-half of a leg is named a “grain”, eight of which, of course, equal a finger-width and two of which equal a leg.

Here let us begin by using as our first example the instance of the form of a standing Tathāgata, such as that of the Supreme Teacher, King of the Sākyas.  Having first fixed the straight vertical axis, which is the exact middle of the figure, its length is divided from top to bottom into the following segments: the protuberance on the crest of the head measures four finger-widths; from its base to the hair line, four and one-half finger-widths; from the hair-line to the “hair-treasury” (ūrna) between the eyebrows, and from that to the tip of the nose, four finger-widths each; and from there to the chin, four and one-half finger-widths.  The neck measures four finger-widths long, while the chest, stomach, and lower abdomen are each twelve and one-half finger-widths long.  Hence the upper half of the body measures sixty-two and one-half small segments.  Likewise, continuing downwards, the hips measure four finger-widths, the thighs measure twenty-five finger-widths, the knees are four finger-widths long, the lower part of the legs measures twenty-five finger-widths, and the foot itself is four and one-half finger-widths high, so that the bottom half of the body also measures sixty-two and one-half finger-widths.  Therefore, the sum of both halves of the body’s length is one hundred and twenty-five finger-widths.

The width of the body is likewise sixty-two and one-half finger-widths for each side of the body.  The individual measures are:  From the vertical center axis to the armpit, twelve and one-half finger-widths; continuing, the upper part of the arm from shoulder to elbow is twenty finger-widths long.  The forearm measures sixteen finger-widths; the hand, twelve finger-widths; and also there are measurements of one finger-width each at both the wrist and elbow joints.  Each half of the body thus measures sixty-two and one-half finger-widths, and the sum of both sides is a total width of one hundred and twenty-five finger-widths.

For a Buddha seated with legs folded in the vajra-posture (vajrasana), the main lines of the iconometric grid are as follows:  Beginning with the first horizontal line at the top of the central vertical axis and counting downwards, further horizontal lines are drawn at intervals of two finger-widths, four finger-widths, four finger-widths, one face-unit, four finger-widths, one face-unit, one face-unit, four finger-widths, eight finger-widths, four finger-widths and four finger-widths, making a total of twelve horizontal lines.  The intervals between the lines are: The crest-jewel, the head protuberance, the scalp down to the hair line, the face, neck, chest, stomach, side of hip, the thigh/pubic zone, the junction of the crossed legs, and the lowest extension of the knees.  The other vertical lines in the iconometric grid are placed to the right and left of the central vertical axis at intervals of one face-unit, four finger-widths, two finger-widths, and eight finger-widths, making a total of nine vertical lines.  The first line corresponds to the armpit, (the second line is not important at this point), the third line delimits the shoulder’s outer edge, and finally the outermost line indicates the outer extent of the knees.  This completes the description of the vertical lines.

The bodily form of the Blessed Teacher, the Buddha, is in the class of ten “palms” or face-units.  Regarding that measurement, it must be remembered that, as explained above, the total length exceeds by five finger-widths the measure of ten standard face-units.  The foregoing has been an explanation of the measurements for the Buddha’s emanation-body (nirmanakaya) manifestations; all such Great Ordained Ones who are freed from passion wear the three monastic robes and possess special signs and characteristics.  The artist must fix those attributes in his mind and reproduce as beautifully as possible whatever of them are suitable for artistic depiction.  Also, the bodily dimensions of Buddhas manifesting as the enjoyment-body (sambhogakaya), possessing the regalia of the universal emperor, are identical to the above.  The differences relate only to such things as ornamentation.  One difference of note is regarding their head protuberances.  Because the enjoyment-body manifestation’s head-protuberance is bound up within the upper half of his hair which is tied upwards in a top-knot, here the head-protuberance has no separate measurement, but according to tradition the top-knot would be fifteen finger-widths tall, or else the top-knot should extend one face-unit above the head-protuberance.  However, because it is slightly unbecoming if excessively long, expert artists hold that the top-knot may be eight finger-widths long, the crest-jewel three finger-widths long, and the jewel diadem six finger-widths in length.  In addition, the enjoyment-body should be decorated with thirteen jewel ornaments, and so forth.

The second major proportion is the measurement of Manjushri and the other Bodhisattvas.  This measurement is exactly the same as that of the Tathāgatas, except that each “palm” or face-unit is shorter by one-half of a small-segment.  Hence each face-unit equals twelve finger-widths, and since the total measurement is ten face-units, it is easy to see that the total finger-widths in their measure is one hundred and twenty.

The third major proportion is the measurement of the Great Mothers.  They are explained as being in the nine-span class because the length and breadth of the mandala goddesses’ bodies, such as that of Holy Tara, measure nine spans.  More specifically, the dimensions are the same as those of the above (Bodhisattva) class, measuring one hundred and twenty finger-widths, except for the following differences.  The area above the hairline on the skull and also the area of the neck are each one small-segment shorter than those of the above Bodhisattvas.  Since there is no four finger-width head-protuberance as in the above class, the length of the upper part of the body from the crest of the head to the base of the spine is four and one half spans.  Also, in the lower half of the body, four finger-widths are subtracted from the thigh and calf together, and one finger-width each are subtracted from both the knee and the top of the foot.  Thus, from the base of the spine to the soles of the feet, the lower half of the body measures four and one-half spans, and hence one can see that the full length of the body is a total of one hundred and eight finger-widths.  One can also understand that the extent of the body’s breadth is equal to the above because two finger-widths are subtracted from each of the forearms, upper arms, and sides of the chest.

The foreheads of the goddesses should be narrow, the shoulders high, and the muscular parts of the arms, as well as the throat, should be thin.  The breasts should be full and the eyes should be widely spaced and looking askance.  However, all of the above characteristics must be avoided when depicting males.  Goddesses such as Vajravārāhī should be painted in a slightly wrathful mien, and while the length of the central axis from the hairline to the soles of the feet is ninety-seven finger-widths, the breadth of the body is the same as above.  Concerning that body length, there is no real lessening in the length of the body from the first-mentioned one hundred and eight finger-widths, but because of the haughty, askew stance, eleven finger-widths are concealed from view.

The fourth major proportion is the measure of the wrathful ones such as Yaksas and Angry Yama, the class measuring eight face-units.  With respect to the dimensions of this class of violent beings, the measures of their actual bodies are taught as being only six face-units, although the seat beneath them and their hair each measure one face-unit, thus putting them in the eight-“palm” class.  The height of such a being’s foot is four finger-widths, and in a straight, erect stance the bottom half of the leg measures eighteen finger-widths but in the proud stance with limbs askew, their vertical measure is only one span.  The knees measure four finger-widths, and even thought the hips are explained as being eighteen finger-widths long, in the awry stance of haughtiness the thighs are in the same vertical area as the pubic zone, which is here covered by a distended belly.  In that way, from the base of the spine up to the neck, the torso measures three spans.  The neck measures four finger-widths, and the face and hair measure one span each.

This completes the description of the body’s length.  As for its breadth, the chest measures one face-unit wide to either side of the vertical axis, the upper arm measures twelve finger-widths in length, and the forearm and hand each measure one face-unit.  Fierce deities possess frightful and unlovely bodies.  Consequently, it is not necessary that their bodies conform to the requisite signs and characteristics of peaceful deities.  It is explained that their bodies need not be, for example, the same measure in both length and width; rather, their bodies should be squat and rotund.

The fifth major proportion is the measure of the dwarfed ones such as Pancaranatha.  From top to bottom their measures are: the shaggy mane of hair, one face-unit; the face, one face-unit; the neck, four finger-widths; the chest and stomach, one face-unit each; the thighs and lower part of the leg, eight finger-widths each; and the feet themselves, four finger-widths.

Besides this, there is also a slightly different measure for figures such as Ganesa.  The dimensions of such figures are as follows:  the skull above the hairline measures three finger-widths; the face, one large-segment; the neck, three finger-widths; the chest, one large-segment; the abdomen, one large-segment; the thigh, one large-segment; the knee, three finger-widths; the lower leg, one large–segment; and the foot, three finger-widths.  Figures such as Rāhu and the Great Nāga fit into the above proportional grid, from their main face down.  However, the upper face of Rāhu and the serpent hood of the Nāga are not within the framework of the proportions, and hence concerning them the artist must exercise his own discretion.  Beneath their stomachs there are hips measuring three finger-widths, and beneath these there should be drawn a snake tail measuring two face-units and three finger-widths in length.

In the case of Bhutadāmara, the face, excluding the part of the head above the hairline, measures one span, the torso measures one span, and from the bottom of the torso to the feet there is also the distance of one span.  Thus, the total vertical length is only three spans, his body being distorted in the manner of strutting haughtily.  Examples also exist where the total body length of a deity is eleven spans, such as in the case of the “Cycle of Eight Risen Corpses” (Ro langs brgyad skor).

Humans such as the immediate disciples of the Lord Buddha, as well as ordinary men, all have a bodily length of four cubits.  The area of the skull above the hairline measures four finger-widths, their face is one span long, the measure of their neck is four finger-widths, their chest, stomach and lower abdomen are one span each, the thighs are eighteen widths, the lower legs are eighteen finger-widths long, and the feet themselves are three finger-widths high.  However, the texts also prescribe that the neck be two finger-widths long, and it is all right if done so.  If done in the former manner, the length of the skull above the hairline becomes about two finger-widths too long.  The Self-enlightened Ones (pratyekabuddha) are as above except that they are slightly taller than ordinary humans since they possess a small head-protuberance.  Physical representations of one’s immediate spiritual teachers should have dimensions like those of the Buddha; so past masters have enjoined.

The different ways in which the figures sit or stand include the following foot postures:  The vajra-posture, the lotus-posture, the sattva-posture, the sitting posture of the hero, the sitting posture of an excellent one, squatting, reveling to the left, reveling to the right, possessing excellent bliss, right foot extended, left foot extended, sa-ga, rounded, and standing with both feet the same.  There are also many distinct hand gestures, such as the mudra of highest enlightenment.  For ordained ones there are special accouterments such as the three monastic robes; and also for the fully-ordained monks such pieces of equipment as the begging staff, begging bowl and so on.  These must be drawn according to the measures and forms prescribed in the Vinaya for their large, medium, or small sizes.  There are many varieties of ornaments for each of the fierce and peaceful deities.  Besides that, there are extensive, medium and abbreviated versions of thrones and backdrops, with their own measures and shapes.  Also, in the tantras there are taught the measures of the lines for each mandala, and the sizes and characteristics of the fireplace (used in homa rituals) for achieving each of the respective types of activities, and so forth.  As regards these and all other aspects of religious art, one should devote great efforts to accomplishing them, following the authentic teachings of the Buddha’s word and the treatises of his enlightened followers.  The faults of deviating from these correct dimensions and also the virtues of adhering to them are both stated in the scriptures in many places.  Yet to summarize, quoting from the Sdom pa byung ba’i ‘grel ba (Cakrasamvara Tantra Commentary):

“A sacred image that possesses the required characteristics, that has the qualities of peacefulness and so forth, and is beautified by its measurements and exact proportions, will become imbued with transcendent awareness.  In this world, deficient measures and proportions in image making will cause illness, death, loss of wealth and separation from near ones.  But an image which is perfect in every detail is the best thing for pacifying all such evils.  A sacred image that possesses the correct dimensions, and is neither insufficient nor excessive, may be worshipped.  The deity will approach a sacred image that has the true nature of the deity’s body and shape, possesses a compassionate and disportive mien, and is endowed with the correct base color.”