April 05, 2012

Himalayan Buddhist Art 101: Calm Abiding

Jeff Watt

Buddhist practice and Buddhist art have been inseparable in the Himalayas ever since Buddhism arrived to the region in the eighth century. But for the casual observer it can be difficult to make sense of the complex iconography. Not to worry—Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt is here to help. Beginning with this post and future posts, Jeff will make sense of this rich artistic tradition by presenting a weekly image from the Himalayan Art Resources archives and explaining its role in the Buddhist tradition. We begin with shamatha, or "calm abiding."

Meditation instructions for calm abiding (shamatha) can be found depicted in Himalayan and Tibetan art, often replete with written instructions. The key images used are a monk holding an elephant goad (hook) and a lasso along with the elephant, a monkey and a rabbit. A blaze of fire depicts the mental aspect of effort or diligence.

Comparing the mind to an unruly elephant,  a monkey and other elements originates with the writings of the 4th-century Indian Buddhist scholar Asanga. In Tibet Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) emphasized the visual analogy in his teachings and commentaries on meditation.

It is thought that the artistic depiction of shamatha meditation came relatively late and possibly first arose in the 19th century as a wall mural. The image shown here is of a poster published in North India in the early 1970s. An original Tibetan version of the painting has not yet been located, however images of a Bhutanese mural from Thimpu Tango Shedra have been added to the Himalayan Art Resources "Calm Abiding" page. View the other images on the "Calm Abiding" page to see the following key elements used to depict shamatha meditation.

Key Elements:

- The monk holding an elephant goad and a lasso is the individual
- The flame represents effort
- The elephant represents the mind
- Black elephant color represents the mental factor of sinking (lethargy)
- The monkey represents distraction
- Black monkey color represents the mental factor of scattering
- The Five Objects of Sensory Pleasure are the object of distraction
- The rabbit represents subtle sinking (lethargy)

Further Links:
Colored Image
Black and White instructions in Tibetan language

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rich.kooyer's picture

I am attending a Christian Seminary and in a Spirituality in Art class and this series will be very helpful in bridging my Buddhist practice with the rest of my cohorts who are liberal in their Christian practice though curious in Buddhist iconography. The Minneapolis Institute of Art has the Yamantaka Mandala made from a special composite that was allowed to be saved after the Dalai Llama visited. It will be interesting to apply some of this knowledge there.

Christopher Budd's picture

Thank you so much for this and this series. I'm looking forward to reading more in this.

bija's picture

+1. Thank you.

Dominic Gomez's picture

I can imagine Tibetans unschooled in Christian iconography similarly wondering what's going on in stained glass windows of Medieval cathedrals.