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Notes on Deities in Tibetan Buddhism



A Buddha is a title for the awakened one who has achieved enlightenment. In Buddhism, various Buddhas are represented, among which three are displayed in this exhibition.




Shakyamuni is the historical Buddha, the originator of Buddhism. In Sanskrit, ‘Shakya’ is his clan name while ‘muni’ is the name given to a benevolent sage in ancient India. He was believed to have lived around the 5th or 6th century BCE. Born a prince of Kapilavastu (now part of Nepal), he later became a monk and at the age of 35 achieved enlightenment.




‘Dhara’ literally means ‘Permanent Possession’. Vajradhara is the ultimate primordial Buddha and the the progenitor of the Vajrayana system of Buddhism. He is represented as a Sambhogakaya Buddha, one of the three forms that the Buddha manifests.




The ‘Unshakeable One’ presides over the Vajra family of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. He acts as the corrective to anger and hatred as his mirror-like wisdom reflects the world in its truest state, devoid of any distortions warped by the human ego.


Passed on from the Indian subcontinent to the Himalayas, Tibetan Buddhism followed the Vajrayana tradition. ‘Vajra’, meaning diamond, is also the thunderbolt weapon held by many deities that symbolise the immovable state of Buddha’s enlightenment, while ‘yana’ means a vessel or a vehicle. Vajrayana thus means the ‘Path to Buddhahood’ and its believers practice tantras and worship specific deities. Many deities in Tibetan Buddhism thus carry ‘vajra’ in their names, and their statues are holding the weapon vajra.


In Vajrayana Buddhism, the world is made up of five cosmic elements, which are represented through the five Celestial Buddhas. Each Buddha embodies an aspect of wisdom with a corresponding colour, cardinal direction and hand gesture. Vairochana is the central Buddha, while Akshobya, Amitabha, Ratna Sambhava and Amogha-siddhi represent the East, West, South and North, respectively.




A bodhisattva is a person who is on the path towards ‘bodhi’ (awakening or Buddhahood). This refers to an enlightened being who is fully equipped to attain nirvana, but has postponed it for the altruistic purpose of saving all living creatures. In order to do so, they often assume various forms, such as the wrathful ones, rendered so as to frighten away the egotism—the cause of all sufferings. They are also depicted in the yab-yum form—the sexual union of a male and female deity, to signify the inseparability of wisdom and compassion, which is essential on the pathway to enlightenment. This exhibition displays two prominent bodhisattvas in Tibetan Buddhism in various emanations.




‘Pani’ means ‘in hand’, so Vajrapani translates as the ‘Vajra Holder’. As an attendant to Akshobya, he is a patron deity of Tibet, and the primary keeper of all tantric teachings. Vajrapani, Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri are the three great bodhisattvas of Tibetan Buddhism, manifesting power, compassion and wisdom of Buddha respectively.




Avalokiteshvara, known as Chenrezi in Tibetan, meaning ‘Looking with a Merciful Eye’ at sentient beings, is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Considered to be the attendant of Amitabha, he is the patron deity of Tibet rendered in 108 emanations. All of the Dalai Lamas, the Karmapas and many other religious leaders are considered manifestations of Avalokiteshvara.


Usually rendered in yab-yum form, the male Vajrapani, symbolising compassion, embraces the female partner who represents wisdom. This signifies that only by combining the two can enlightenment be achieved.


Mahacakra Vajrapani


Avalokiteshvara is commonly personified as Padmapani (literally ‘Lotus Bearer’), identified by the winding stem held in his left hand. The lotus is an emblem of Amitabha and is a symbol of Avalokiteshvara’s immaculate purity and compassion.




Shadakshari, meaning the ‘Six-syllable Mantra’, is the personified form of the om ma ni pad me hum (hail to the jewel in the lotus) mantra, which calls upon Avalokiteshvara to help guide all beings towards enlightenment. Rendered in the tantric form with four arms, he is also referred to as the four-armed Avalokiteshvara. The four arms represent the four divine states of mind: compassion, love, sympathetic joy and equanimity.




Being another manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, Amoghapasha literally means the ‘Unfailing Lasso’, referring to a constant form of compassion that brings all sentient beings out of suffering and into a state of happiness leading to enlightenment.




Other Deity




Vajrayogini is the principal female deity in Tibetan Buddhism, representing wisdom. Although found in a variety of forms, including Vajravarahi in this exhibition and the female consort to Cakrasamvara, she is common to all schools of Tibetan Buddhism.


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