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The Three Noble Truths that Shakyamuni Buddha taught immediately following his enlightenment constitute the foundations of Tibetan Buddhism. These noble truths are as follows:

1. Suffering exists. 
2. The causes of suffering are greed, hatred and delusion. 
3. There is a cessation of suffering.
4. There is a path of the cessation of suffering. 

The paths leading out of the cycle of suffering are built upon on these truths. Those who wish to follow the Tibetan-Buddhist path first take refuge to the ”Three Jewels“, to Buddha, to the Dharma (i.e. to Buddha’s teachings), and to the assembly of the Sangha (here the community of the enlightened is being referred to as an object of Refuge). One becomes a Buddhist, literally translated; ”some-one who deals with inward things“. In order to find the path the seeker needs the support of someone who has already found it. He or she turns to a teacher who is experienced in this way and requests teachings. There are three so-called ”vehicles“ that lead the seeker to the goal of enlightenment:

1. The Lesser Vehicle, or Hinayana
2. The Greater Vehicle, or Mahayana
3. The Diamond Vehicle or Vajrayana

In Tibetan monasteries, and as well as in Ladakh (Ladakh belonged to western Tibet) the primary traditions that are taught and practiced are Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. 

In Hinayana the goal is personal liberation with the aid of virtuous actions. In Mahayana the goals is liberation for the benefit of all sentient beings with the aid of the Six Paramitas. These are: 

1. Dana (Generosity) 
2. Shila (Ethics)
3. Shanti (Patience) 
4. Virya (Joyful Exertion) 
5. Dhyanba (Concentration) 
6. Prajna Paramita (the Perfection of Wisdom)

In Mahayana (taking Refuge acquires an added dimension. Here one takes Refuge to the Guru (i.e. to the teacher), to the Yidam (i.e. a meditation deity upon which one meditates in order to free the mind from the ego), and to the dakini (”dakas “and ”dakinis “mean ”wanderers in the heavens “and are enlightened beings.) The goal of Vajrayana is the liberation of all sentient beings. This is accomplished in Vajrayana by means of meditation on deities that one dissolves back into emptiness at the end of one’s meditation session. Things appear, but are free of inherent existence.

When one enters the lakhang (temple) of a Tibetan – Buddhist monastery, one is greeted with a multitude of images of the most varied kinds. They are all aids to meditation, since one works with visualization in both Mahayana and in Vajrayana. One meditates on the different aspects of the Mind of Enlightenment. This Ming of Enlightenment id manifested in the form of Avalokiteshvara of Compassion, for example. Avalokiteshvara is not represented in isolation, but within a mandala, i.e. together with his entire retinue.

If one contemplates this mandala a positive impression is formed in one’s consciousness and the mind, which is disturbed and wanders distractedly here and there, and which according to the Buddhist view is deluded, is led bank to its true nature, i.e. to the Buddha-nature that is symbolically represented in this mandala. This is fundamentally different from worship of a multiplicity of divinities (as is often claimed in the literature even now) but a form of contemplation, an internalization of perfection,

of wholeness that takes place until one has recognized this perfection as the true condition of one’s own nature. The concepts of appearance and emptiness play a decisive role in this process. Practitioners must not remain attached to appearances, but rather must recognize the emptiness in the appearances. In this way they attain the clear view of the way things are in reality. Emptiness, however, does not entail nihilism, but simply means that things do not exist in and of themselves. They arise through conditions.

Since all human beings have their very own, individual dispositions, we all need our very own paths to knowledge and understanding. Meditation on Avalokiteshvara is the appropriate path for the one, whereas another needs a wrathful manifestation such as Vajrapani in order to overcome his or her ego. Vajrapani, for example, embodies the aspect of power of the Mind of Enlightenment, Man-jushri on the other hand embodies the aspect of wisdom. More on this topic is to be found under the discussions of the individual representations. These mandalas are based on (Mahayana and) Vajrayana meditation texts, the so-called Tantras (in traslation this means ”context“, or ”continuity“.) There are four Tantra classes: 

1. Kriyatantra - Here the emphasis is on external, ritual forms of contemplation, with the aid of which one can accumulate merit. 

2. Charyatantra - This Tantra makes use of practices that serve the development of the mind.

3. Yogatantra - This is a purely meditative practice in which outward appearances have been left behind. 

4. Anuttarayogatantra - This is the highest form of Tantra, intended for disciples with the highest abilities who are able to concentrate on emptiness. It should be pointed out once again that emptiness has nothing nihilistic about it. The point is to see things as they really are, free of concepts and artifice.

On Iconography

The Historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 B.C.)

Siddhartha Gautama (563 – 483 B.C.) was the historical Buddha. ”Buddha“ is a Sanskrit word and means ”the awakened one“. This is the honorific title for Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in 563 B.C. in Lumbini (present-day Nepal), in the noble family of the Shakya hence his name ”Shakyamuni“, ”the ascetic of the Shakya clan“. As the son of a prince he grew up in luxury, far from the poor population. One day he observed the poverty lying beyond his father’s gardens and thereupon left his home at the age of 29, in order to find his salvation in asceticism. But it was only after he had abandoned strict asceticism and had discovered the Middle Way that he attained enlightenment in meditation under the Bodhi Tree (”Tree of Wisdom“). Immediately after attaining enlightenment he did not wish to speak any more. It was only the god Brahma who could persuade him to give teachings about his path. 

He then went to Benares (present-day Varanasi) gave his first teaching to five ascetics. This event is termed ”the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma“. Buddha Shakyamuni taught for a total of 45 years, and died in 483 B.C. near Kushinagara. It was after about 450 years that the first artistic representations of the Buddha arose. These were not in any way representations of a historical figure in the sense of portraits, but stylized representations of his enlightened state. 

As mentioned above, the state of enlightenment is shown in many forms.

Thus, in Tibetan – Buddhist art there are representations of both peaceful and wrathful forms. Every gesture, every object that is held, and every color; all have their precise meanings.

It would transcend the scope of this book to go into detail on this topic. Therefore we shall present a general overview here or in the context of the individual illustrations that may awaken the reader’s interest in examining this topic more closely. 

The representations of the Buddha do not begin with Buddha Shakyamuni, but rather with twenty-four prehistoric Buddhas. Buddha Shakyamuni mentioned six prehistoric Buddhas by name; later texts mention an additional eighteen. 

The iconography does not end with Shakyamuni Buddha, either, but rather represents the coming Buddha in advance. Buddha Maitreya is to come five thousand years after Buddha Shakyamuni. They all have in common the fact that they were earthly persons who found their enlightenment meditating under trees. The future Buddhas will also be earthly persons. In Vajrayana meditation practice, the Five Transcendental Buddha are of great significance. They are: 

Buddha Akshobya, (”The Unshakeable One“). His family is the Vajra family. His direction is the east, his color is dark blue and he represents the Mirror-like Wisdom that reflects everything without being affected by the reflections in any way. His intermediate paradise is Abhirati(”Joy“). In his rifh hand he holds a vajra, symbol of highest consciousness and of method, and with the tips of his left-hand fingers he touches the earth. Buddha Shakyamuni touched the earth in this fashion to call upon the earth as witness to the truth of his words. Portrayals of Akshobya can vary from the form mentioned above; for example, one can also find the vajra depicted on the base of the throne, or he can be portrayed with his female partner Locana. Here Akshobya holds the vajra and bell in his crossed arms. Locana holds a skull cup and vajra. 

Buddha Ratnasambhava,(” The One Born from a Jewel“). He is head of the Ratna (Jewel) Family. His direction is the south. His color is yellow and he embodies the Wisdom of Equality of Essence. He holds a wish-fulfilling jewel in his left hand, and his right hand is in the gesture off granting. He will grant freedom form material need to whoever turns to him for help. He can also have a begging bowl filled with three jewels in his left hand. He is also portrayed riding a horse or a lion. His female partner deity is Mamaki. She holds a skull cup and chopping knife. His intermediate paradise is called ”The Glorious“, and is characterized by the absence of avarice and by the presence of all good things in overflowing abundance. 

Buddha Amitabha, (”The One of Limitless Light“). He is head of the Lotus Family. His direction is the west. His color is red and he embodies wisdom and clarity. He holds his hands in the gesture of meditation in his lap, the left hand supporting the right. In most cases he also holds a begging bowl. His intermediate paradise is Sukhavati (The Blissful). His begging bowl frequently contains fruits, and peacocks ornament his throne. His female partner deity is Pandara. She holds a skull cup and a chopping knife. 

Buddha Amoghasiddhi, (He who Unswervingly Attains His Goal) is head of the Karma family. His direction is the north. He embodies the All-Accomplishing Wisdom and his color is green. His right hand is raised in the gesture of fearlessness, and his left hand rests palm-up in his lap. His female partner is often the Green Tara Vairocana, (He Who Enlightens“ or The Sun-Like).

These Transcendental Buddhas have no connection whatsoever with the laws of earthly existence. They do not incarnate and do not die; they are omnipresent as Buddhas, they are also termed the Five Tathagatas or the Five Jinas, or the Dhyani-Buddhas; and each of them is regarded as the head of a mystical family. 

These Buddhas were introduced in 750 B.C. Each of them is guardian of one of the cardinal directions and is lord of a particular intermediate paradise. One can be reborn in one of these intermediate paradises and hear the Buddha’s teachings directly. The preconditions are a karmic connections and having previously accumulated merit through the practice of the Six Paaramitas, such as generosity, ethics, etc. 

Mental poisons such as greed, hatred and ignorance are unknown in these Buddha-Lands. Here one can attain enlightenment very easily. The colors, attributes etc. of the different Tathagatas are presented in charts below. 

Another class of Buddhas are the four Adi-Buddhas, Vairocana (one of the Five Tathagatas), Vajrasattvu (he Whose Nature is the Absolute), Vajradhara (Holder of the vajra), and Samantabhadra. 

Vairocana was regarded as a primordial Buddha around 800 B.C. it is assumed that this phenomenon arose due to inspiration driving from Islamic monotheism. The concept of an Adi-Buddhas is to be found already in earlier texts, but the belief in a primordial Buddha became widespread only around 800 B.C. Although all of the Adi-Buddhas represent the Absolute, they have different characteristics. Thus, Vajrasattva is translated as He Whose nature is the Absolute.

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