Thangka and Shakyamuni

In China, Culture, Essay, Travel by Hao Wang


Tibetan are good at using minerals. They use minerals for medicine, construction, and painting. The art form of using mineral is the Thangka painting. The gold color comes from the fine gold dust, the blue color from the fine blue gem dust, and the green color from the fine green gem dust, so on and so forth.

Thangka was originated in Nepal. Tibetan advanced it with great deal of influence of Chinese painting style. Thangka is a way of teaching Buddhism. The monks and living buddas paint Thangka under certain context, dependent on their thought and mood of the day. They use either Yak stock or a very strong kind of paper for longevity of the painting. Colors of minerals can last a long time.

Tibetan do not say “buy a Thangka”, they say “invite a Thangka”. Once you invite a Thangka, you would bring it to the living buddas in the Buddhism Temples to “enlighten” the Thangka. The living buddas will recite scriptures after unscrolling the Thangka. After the recitation, they would roll the Thangka up and put five kinds of grains in the scrolls. One would not open the Thangka until he or she reaches home.

Xiao Xu brought me to the “Eight Corner Street” to see Thangka. At a reputable “Thangka Art Villiage”, the sales people brought me to a collection of antique Thangkas. Many of them were made 100 years ago. They collected these art from the ancient temples in southern Tibet then sell them to tourists. It was understood that the major portion of the proceeds went back to the temples for their renovation and operation.

The salesman brought to my attention to a set of Thangkas of 90 to 100 years old. I particularly liked one that is very colorful. In the center is the “Infinite Longevity Budda”. The bottom corners features one “White Shepard Goddess”, a goddess bringing safety, and “Green Shepard Goddess”, a goddess bringing health. The top corners features Shakyamuni and Amituofu, two most powerful figures in Buddhism. Collectively, this Thangka brings health, longevity, and safety to its owner. I decided to invite it home.

Xiao Xu advised that we should bring the Thangka to DaZhao Temple to be enlightened by a living budda. So we went. DaZhao is the center of Lhasa. Potala is the palace of the ruler of Tibet, not the religious center. DaZhao is. The historical Lhasa was built around DaZhao. The most important statue there is the life sized statue for the 12 year old Shakyamuni, the founder of the Buddhism. Shakyamuni’s students wanted to preserve their teacher’s real look. So they consulted Shakyamuni’s nannies and built four life-sized 8 year old Shakyamuni and four life-sized 12 year old Shakyamuni. All these 8 statues were made of solid gold. These statues were the most sacred to Buddhsim believers because when they see the statue they see their great budda from 2500 years ago.

Tibet owns one 8 year old Shakyamuni statue and one 12 year old Shakyamuni statue. The 12 year old Shakyamuni was a gift from Tang Dynasty of China as the wedding gift from the Chinese emporer for his daughter who married the king of Tibet at that time. Prior to that, Tang China provided financial aid and military support to the king of India to restore their kingdom and preserved Buddaism in India. Out of gratitude, India King gave Tang emporer one of the statue. The 12 year old Shakyamuni statue thus resided in DaZhao, the center of the Tibet, since 7th century.

As Xiao Xu and I passed by the golden statue and paid our respect, I asked if the living budda and monks standing in front of the statue can enlighten my Thangka. Xiao Xu said they usually enlighten it upstairs outside of the center of Temple. I insisted that she ask the living budda. To our surprise, the living budda agreed and asked us to wait. After a while, he sent a monk outside and took my thangka and brought inside of the steel curtain that separates the tourists and the statue. They opened my Thangka and presented it to Shakyamuni in close distance. The living budda and the three monks started reciting scriptures for the Thangka. Then they rolled the Thangka up, put five kinds of grains in the case along with it, and handed back to me.

Xiao Xu told me this was very rare as Buddhism believers think one glance of the Shakyamuni would relieve them from all burdens and suffering. Enlightening my Thangka in front of Shakyamuni in this manner is something people would not have dreamed of. Although I do not consider myself a religious person, I am awed in great gratitude. My only thought was to bring the enlightened Thangka to my family and bring Shakyamuni’s blessing and protection to everyone.