Final Paper

Thesis and Bibliography

By analyzing the figures, mudras, symbols and colors of three artworks from 1400s Tibet, this essay will explore the culture and religious beliefs of Tibetan Buddhist inhabitants. It will reveal who the artists were and what their intentions were when they created these artworks.


Encyclopedia Britannica. “Tara, Buddhist Goddess.” Article revised August 04, 2017.

This website discussed who the goddess Tara was. It described her story, her two different forms, what she looks like, her symbols and why people meditate to her.


Jayarava, Dharmacārī. “The Hundred Syllabe Vajrasattva Mantra.” Western Buddhist Review 5 (2010).

In this article, the author analyzes Sthiramati’s The Vajrasattva Mantra: Notes on a Corrected Sanskrit Text. The author identifies the differences in Sthiramati’s interpretation to the traditional Tibetan text. Jayarava explains that Sthiramati’s version affects the use and meaning of the mantra. This article is useful in learning about the importance of using and interpreting mantras as a way of practicing one’s Buddhist beliefs.

Secondary Source

John Brzostoski: Articles, Essays, Art, Reviews, Fition, Etc..“The Key to the Art of Tibet.” Published in 2000.

Brzostoski starts by describing what art is and how it’s not only about visual appeal. It’s about teaching lessons and ways of thinking and that’s exactly what Tibetan Buddhist artists were trying to convey.


Sabai Designs Gallery. “Buddhist Art Collection: Understanding Buddhist Art and its Symbolism.” Accessed on November 5, 2017.

This article describes Siddhartha’s life, symbols of Buddhism, and mudras. It also compares different styles of Buddhist art from all over the world.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Tibetan Buddhist Art.” Last modified October 2003.

This article describes when and how Buddhist art originated and it’s purpose. It started as commissioned pieces from Chinese and Nepalese artists for different Tibetan celebrations. Buddhist art was specifically made to help the viewer in his meditation and to get closer to Nirvana.

Secondary Source

The New York Times. “Don’t Know Much About Tibetan History.” Last modified April 13, 2008.

This source describes Tibet’s history with China. It includes China’s view on Tibet and the debate of whether Tibet should be an independent country.


Thondup, Tulku. Masters of Meditation and Miracles. Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1996.

This book describes different Buddhist schools and Buddhism in Tibet. It also includes information on Buddhist masters and religious symbolism.

Primary Source/ Academic Text

Tucci, Giuseppe. Minor Buddhist Texts. Rome: Istituto Italiano Per Il Medio Ed Estremo Oriente,1956.

When Tucci was traveling in Tibet he found many Sanskrit manuscripts in which he acquired some of the originals and took photos of others. In this book, he has translated them so that the reader can better understand “Buddhist thought.”


Valentine, Jay. “The Family and Legacy of the Early Northern Treasure Tradition.” Journal of Global Buddhism Vol. 16 (2015): 126-143

This article examines Northern Treasure Tradition’s familial and clan relationships to discover more about the major traditions of Tibetan religious writings. By retracing lineages, one can identify trends regarding family and reincarnation in those specific traditions. In this way, I can examine the people who have influenced Tibetan tradition, art, and religion.

Secondary Source

Yü, Chun-fang. Religious Studies in Contemporary China Collection. Translated by Pei-Ying Lin. The Netherlands: Leiden, 2015.

This source talks about understanding the changes that Buddhism has gone through as it spread to different parts of the world. It explores the driving forces behind these changes and the impact they have on the religion’s development. It discusses the different schools of Buddhism or Chans of thought such as Tathagata Chan and Patriarchal Chan. This article helps better understand Buddhism, its origins, and how it’s evolved.



An object can tell a lot about the culture in which it came from. By analyzing its materials, designs, functions, production and labor an object’s past can be uncovered. This essay will examine three artifacts from the Cosmic Buddhas in the Himalayas exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The objects include “Twenty-One Emanations of the Goddess Tara,” “Vajradhatu Mandala,” and “The Buddha Vairochana Presiding over the Cosmic Axis.” All of these pieces are from 14th century Tibet. By discovering these objects origins, their meanings and purposes will be revealed. This essay will explore the importance of certain religious representations, discover who the people were that made and used these artworks, and what the religious symbols purpose’s are to current practicing Buddhists.

In the Buddhist culture, artwork is very prevalent because it aids in meditation. Artwork is meant to remind people that they can achieve enlightenment by encouraging the presence of the divine in their lives. In John Brzostoski’s The Key to the Art of Tibet, art is a trigger for internal processes and is supposed to reveal truths. Brzostoski said that as some Buddhists reach enlightenment, they record the images they see into paintings so the others know what they experienced in their meditations. He said, “Seeing the image allows one to enter the painting, which acts as a special mirror into the mind-body.” He explains that mantras, or religious chants, were created so that a person could better enter the state of mindfulness.1 Art was created for people to experience this moment of Nirvana and come to a better understand about the world and themselves.

———————————————————————————————————————1“The Key to the Art of Tibet,” Published in 2000,

For Tibetans, creating artwork is a religious act. As the artist creates, they offer certain prayers and perform rituals. Afterwards, they will perform a ceremony of consecration. Most of the artists from early Tibet were lamas or monastics of a certain high ranking. At this time, people from China and Nepal were often commissioned to make artwork for religious sites or for individual use in Tibet. Art was created for many occasions and it was very common to find artworks that were worshiped in the home. It’s hard to distinguish Tibetan characteristics in artwork because they have had many influences from different, neighboring cultures. Artists would move from one monastery to another learning and acquiring techniques from other artists therefore specific cultural styles were integrated. However, there are specific styles, figures, and poses that can reveal who made the artworks vs. who they were made for. Firstly, all Tibetans follow certain proportions and standards when drawing gods. A thangka, or Tibetan Buddhist scroll, is painted with exact knowledge of proportions and measurements of each deity. A grid has been passed on through the centuries to ensure the continuity of these Tibetan styled figures. Tibetan art is characteristic of certain colors, line work, styles, and normally has one main figure in the center surrounded by other figures. The deities represented in an artwork can reflect the Major Tibetan Order in which the artist was from, including the Nyingmapa, the Kagyupa, the Sakyapa, and the Gelugpa. We can determine who certain figures are in the paintings by their color, location in the painting, their mudras and what they are holding, and symbols. For example Medicine Buddha, or Bhaishajyaguru, holds a medicine bowl in his left hand and a myrobalan plant with three buds in his right hand. This way the viewer can determine the deity and their mantras.

“Twenty-One Emanations of the Goddess Tara” is a painted stone sculpture. Green Tara sits in the middle of the sculpture holding a lotus flower and her right hand is in the Bhumisparsa mudra, which is the gesture symbolizing enlightenment. This sculpture, with the five Taras above, Green Tara in the center, and other identical Taras below represents the twenty-one forms of Tara. In Tibet, she was believed to be one of the wives of the first Buddhist king. We can determine it’s her in this artwork because she is generally seated on a lotus throne with her right leg hanging down, wearing jewelry of a bodhisattva, which is someone who has reached Nirvana but is not considered a Buddha yet, and holding a closed blue lotus flower. Tara offers protection against disease, evil spirits and war. They would meditate to this deity to help develop their compassion. Tara is a female Buddha in Vajrayana Buddhism.2 This piece of artwork was therefore created for practicing Vajrayana Buddhists.

“Vajradhatu Mandala” is painted cloth with gold embellishments. This piece was most likely created by a lama. He probably stretched cotton that had been treated with chalk and glue across a wooden frame and then proceeded to weave threads to make the outlines of the imagery. Next, he would added mineral paint on top. We can determine that Vairochana is represented in the center because of his white skin and because he sits on a lotus flower, a sign of purity. He is surrounded by nine encircled deities. Vairochana’s hands are in the Anjali mudra, which is when the hands are pressed together as a form of honoring the moment, another set of hands are in the dhyana mudra, where the right hand rests on top of the left and both palms face up with thumbs———————————————————————————————————————

2 “Tara, Buddhist Goddess,” Article revised August 04, 2017,

touching symbolizing concentration and healing, while the rest of his hands hold symbols, including his symbol, the wheel of Law. Outside of the nine deities are symbols of the families associated with the five Transcendent Buddhas and more symbols including a thunderbolt, a gem, a lotus and a vajra, or a ritual object signifying “indestructible nature of the ultimate truth.” In the corners of the painting are more deities and other historical figures that were associated with the teachings of Vajrayana. These figures aid in determining where the painting originated because they feature Rinchen Sango, a well known Tibetan translator, and a Tibetan monk seated before worship objects, consecrating the mandala forever. This painting can be dated because it was compared to newer mandalas. It was from the 14th century because of its “smooth scrollwork and subtly graded palette.” We can also determine who created it because the line work, figures, mudras, and architectural elements are close in style to the Vajravali series which was created by Napalese, or Newari artist.

“The Buddha Vairochana Presiding over the Cosmic Axis” was a panel of a crown worn by Buddhist priests during religious ceremonies. It is painted wood. Vairochana represents the origin of the Dhyani Buddhas. He presides over the five Tathagatas, or Transcendent Buddhas of Vajrayana Buddhism. This painting represents the Buddha Vairochana after he reached enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and revealed the dharma to the gods. Buddha’s hands grasp a vajra and surrounding him is a halo which is commonly used in Buddhist art because when Gautama was awakened, it was said that his body glowed. This light is called prabhamandala. We can also determine that Vairochana is represented here because of his white skin, which symbolizes a pure conscience, his symbol is the wheel of Law which is represented above his head, and he sits on a lotus throne supported by lions. We are able to determine from what part of the world this artifact if from based on Vairochana’s hand gestures. His mudra is the gesture of teacher, or the wheel of Law. Both hands are held across from the heart while the right palm faces outward with the thumb and index finger touching and the left palm faces inward with the thumb and index finger touching. All these details are commonly expressed in Tibetan traditional art.

There are small details that reflect who made the artworks. For example, both “The Buddha Vairochana Presiding over the Cosmic Axis” and “Vajradhatu Mandala” had representation of Vairochana as the main deity in the artwork however his mudras differentiated what region the artist was from. From examining different aspects of these artworks we can identify what is going on in them, who they were made for, and what their purpose is. Most forms of art are not simply supposed to be admired for their artistic qualities, but are to be analyzed to understand a deeper meaning. Through the research and analysis of these three artworks, Buddhist religious beliefs were explored and revealed. Whatever form of art it is, sculpture, painting, textile, etc., we all put a little bit of ourselves in our work, and it’s the viewers job to reveal those truths.


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