Guru Padmasambhava: Symbolism and Visual Culture

in Article
Published on: 06 November 2019

Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche

Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche is a meditation master, scholar and a socially engaged Buddhist born and brought up in Odisha, India. He is the spiritual director of Rigon Padmasambhava Mahavihara, Odisha; Rigon Tashi Choying Vihara, Nepal; Ripa International Center, Switzerland; and Ripa Center Moscow, Russia.

Thank you. Respected chair, speakers and all my friends here. Actually, I feel I’m here on this session quite by accident, because my colleagues yesterday spoke on the easier parts, about the life and teachings of Guru Padmasambhava. I’m here to speak on iconographies on which I’m not an expert. Nevertheless, I will try to shed some light on them.

Since I was three years old, I have actually lived, breathed, dreamed and slept Guru Padmasambhava. So here, more than being confident, I feel very blessed to be speaking a little bit about the guru. I understand the time constraint is always there. Usually I do not have a habit of going over the time, and I will try to do my best, also because I don’t have much to read this time.

I will talk about the symbolism and visual culture associated with Guru Padmasambhava. No religious or spiritual icon has left a more powerful impact than Guru Padmasambhava in the hearts and minds of people in the region of the Himalayas, from Nepal to Ladakh, Karsha, Kinnaur, Spiti, Sikkim, Bhutan, Mon (which is now present-day Arunachal) and Tibet. Excuse me if I have left out some places here and there but they are all included within this. As a matter of fact, the arrival of the guru from the Indian subcontinent during the eighth century transformed the spiritual, cultural and social landscape of the Himalayas forever. Guru Rinpoche tamed and transformed hostile forces in the inaccessible terrains of Tibet and the Himalayan region, turning it into the most fertile and spiritually receptive land, where the Buddha Dharma has been transplanted fully.

To this day, Himalayan Buddhism remains the sole living tradition, whereas all the other schools of Buddhism—Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana—are merely studied and practised as fully integrated paths. Guru Padmasambhava, as his name suggests, was born from a Lotus. Some, of course, do argue that he was born to human parents; however, we are not going to get into those details or arguments. According to a prophecy of the Buddha, around eight or ten years after his own passing, Padmasmbhava would arrive. The guru is believed to have lived in the Indian subcontinent for some centuries, appearing in as many forms and aspects as necessary to accomplish his enlightened activities. During this time, he would be known by different names as you may have already heard. The principal among them are the eight manifestations; the Buddha foretold of Dharma traveling to the north, Guru Rinpoche fulfilled his prophecy by making Tibet and the Himalayan region the home of his spiritual legacy.

Material resources of sacred images and visual culture of this iconic guru in his home country, India, before his journey to Tibet and the Himalayas, remain scant and untrustworthy. Now, there may be two reasons, from my own limited thinking, of what may have contributed to this. We all know about Nalanda, what happened to that huge collection and the libraries, that they were burnt due to several factors. The images of Guru Padmasambhava and other deity figures probably may have met a similar fate I would say, not exactly in the same way, but there was a systematic assimilation of Buddhist deities into Hinduism around the tenth century. It is well known and documented.

I have also seen in places like Odisha, there are places that are clearly Buddhist, with Buddhist deities but have now been transformed, assimilated and called by different names. Such a thing could have happened. It is not that there have not been Buddha’s statues or deities in India, but very few remain for us to talk about.

In the Jajpur district of Odisha, which I am from, there is a Jatamukha Avalokiteswara statue which is dated to the eight or ninth century. Inscribed on its back are 25 lines that clearly mention the name Padmaprabha which is sometimes referred to as the other name of Guru Padmasambhava. For this reason Odisha scholars tend to believe—not only tend to believe but strongly argue that—Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava was actually born in Orissa. Now of course, yesterday we have had another take on it (by Prof. Lokesh Chandra); quite interesting, though outrageous, that Guru Rinpoche was born in Tamil Nadu.

I think it is a great thing that the guru’s popularity is gaining so much ground that everybody is making a claim on his birthplace. This is natural anyway. I am actually happy that there are so many claims. Our best shot yet at identifying the origin of guru’s costume and attributes is probably the Kingdom of Zahor. It is not clear where exactly Zahor is. It is still under argument and dispute, I believe so. Rewalsar, popularly known as Tso Pema, is in Zahor, I am still not exactly clear on this. When Guru Rinpoche saw his physical image that was to be enshrined in Samye monastery in the eighth century, he is believed to have remarked, “It looks like me!” That’s the statue that I think many of us have seen. Because of this remark, that is probably the most popular, most famous statue of Guru Rinpoche.

This statue of guru is thought to be the first of the visual images and the most authentic as it was approved and blessed by him and bears closest resemblance to the guru. To the Tibetan and Himalayan audiences, this image and its aspects have become prominently associated and uniquely identified with Guru Rinpoche. When sacred images of the guru later emerged as part of the terma treasure, most of them held a striking resemblance to the Samye statue.

The King of Zahor, around the seventh century perhaps, offered his crown, royal costumes and daughter, Princess Mandarava, to Guru Rinpoche as part of repentance and confession as the history goes—the guru had appeared unscathed even when put to burn in pyre for days. The image that the king saw after those days of fire was of the guru seated on a freshly blooming lotus in the middle of the lake, adorned with a crown and regal costumes, in a majestic pose of fearlessness. This would become the universal icon of the guru as Padmasambhava. Based on this representation, I would therefore like to touch upon the description a little bit based on what I know. Because the exhibition that is brilliantly displayed upstairs in collaboration with the Royal Government of Bhutan carries the full image of Guru Rinpoche, so, I will not need to have all the pictures here. If you can please have a look at that exhibition, it is wonderful.

The portrait of Guru Rinpoche depicts him with wide-open eyes, which is a very special gaze of the guru: the Mahasandhi gaze. He is frequently distinguished by sumptuous locks of hair, in which we may discern the reflection of the Bodhisattva figure as well. If any historical background exists of the legendary biographies of Guru Rinpoche, it will reflect some clue as to the religious culture of his homeland. The visual and material evidence sheds some light on this issue. From an artistic point of view, the many rock sculptures and other images, were for long almost untouched, unrecognised, until analytical study on their refined aesthetic and innovative iconographic character led them to be considered the forerunner of themes that blossomed later in Himalayan art.

For instance, Patachitra, an art form that still flourishes in Odisha in a village not so far from Puri, Jagannath Puri. There is a whole village dedicated to this Patachitra form of art. Many scholars now believe that the origin of Thangka painting may have been from Patachitra painting. This tradition is still very much alive today in this Odisha village. I just wanted to highlight that.

Now the common depiction of the guru is seated, with his feet in the royal posture. His face is serious but smiling. He blesses magnificently and has the splendour of major and minor marks of enlightenment. He wears a five petal lotus crown on his head, with three points symbolising the three kayas, five colours symbolising the five wisdoms, a sun and moon symbolising skilful means and wisdom, a Vajra to symbolise indestructible Samadhi, and a virtuous feather to represent the realisation of the highest view. His two eyes are wide open with a piercing gaze. He has a youthful appearance of 16 years old. His complexion is fair with a tinge of red. On his body, he wears a silk cloth, Dharma robes and a gown. His right hand holds a five-pronged Vajra; his left hand rests in the gesture of equanimity as he holds a kapala (skull) brimming with Amrit and containing the vase of longevity that is also filled with Amrit of deathless wisdom and ornamented on top by a wish-fulfilling tree.

The Khatanga that rests on his left arm is a particular divine attribute of Padmasambhava and interesting to his three kayas, you can always see it. It is a Danda actually with three severed heads, denoting the three kayas, crowned by a trishula and dressed with sash of Himalayan rainbow or pure lights of the Mahabuddha. He is depicted solo or surrounded by the eight vidyadharas of India, and often with his two consorts, the famous ones, one from India and one from Tibet (Mandarava and Yeshe Tsogyal); sometimes he is depicted with all his other consorts as well.

In the course of time, the creation and construction of the great guru’s iconic representatives may have varied due to cultural craftsmanship in particular countries. The iconic illustration of Guru Rinpoche—whether it is in the form of statues made of mud clay, or metal cast or carved on rocks or painted on scrolls— will be found enshrined in the temples, in people’s houses, dotted on hilltops, roadsides, lakes and rivers. Not only did the guru lay the foundation of Buddhism, particularly the Vajrayana tradition, he also gave birth to the Himalayan Buddhist cultural heritage, which is today the most visible identity of the Himalayan people.

Now, despite our historical differences and views sometimes, what actually unites all the Himalayas together is the reverence towards Guru Padmasambhava.

During the period of Theravada’s dominance, until around the third century, and before the emergence of Mahayana, it is argued that Buddha was not depicted in any physical form, but through representation and symbolism. Others argue that during one of the Buddhist councils held after the passing of the Buddha, an old lady who met the Buddha narrated his physical features, and the first known image of the Buddha was carved by master craftsmen. It may also be noted that this marked the transition of the Buddha’s teaching from a simple philosophical path into a principal force of a religion.

Although there has been considerable scholarly debate, it seems clear that Buddhists began to depict the Buddha very early on, perhaps even before his Parinirvana though such images do not survive today. After the emergence of Padmasambhava in the world, sacred iconic images, visual arts, and the ritual culture of symbolism exploded on the back of emerging universal acceptance of Buddhist Tantra and its deity Mandala. With the advent of Bodhisattva’s ideal of Mahayana Buddhism from the fifth century onward, there was an eventual emergence of Vajrayana taking centre stage, at least in the Himalayan region. Visual art or sacred art form took a dynamic shift. The Mandala principle consists of infinite universes, home of subtle energies and the innate awakened state of mind, which is manifested in the form of a deity. From a single family to multiple family with retinues, the deities occupy a particular space, and universe. Each dwell in their own Mandala, thus invoking colour, magic and mysticism for a tantric practitioner, a sadhaka or tantrika to enter into the direct experience of pure vision.

Now that is a big topic, pure vision. That is where Vajrayana differs from other schools of Buddhism mainly—the subtle view or drishta, pure vision. That is where Mayayoga, Anuyoga, Atiyoga, the three intersect. How your own mental state becomes purified; your own projection of the world also changes according to that, that is what is called pure vision. Pure vision is not imagining something outside being pure; it is the projection of a mind that is primordially clear and luminous. To enter into this pure vision one must be initiated into the Mandala by a qualified and accomplished teacher or guru through the process of Abhisheka. After that, one receives essential instructions and the application of Sadhana, the sacred text that leads the practitioner into the gradual development of visualisation, mantra repetition, and meditation on a deity.

Perhaps no other country bears testimony to the living tradition of Guru Padmasambhava’s sacred visual culture than Bhutan. I may not need to actually highlight a lot here because there has been so much spoken yesterday on Bhutan, especially by the Honourable Dasho Ura and the rest. I feel like saying some things about Bhutan because it is really a wonderful place to talk about. In fact, Bhutan remains the only Vajrayana kingdom in the world. The imposing and majestic Takhtsang, Tiger’s Nest, in Bhutan is the place where Padmasambhava manifested as Dorje Drolo, a fierce and wrathful form of the guru riding on a tigress’ back and subduing the negative spirits and opposing forces, therefore laying the ground for the founding of the Kingdom of Bhutan. The guru watches over the well-being of the people of Bhutan ever since.

The Paro Kyichu temple and the Bumthang Kurjey temple are among the most ancient places of pilgrimage, bearing impeccably preserved images, murals and body prints of Guru Rinpoche. Most of these historical places have been named after him or one of his manifestations; the biggest religious event in the calendar of the kingdom is Sechu, a commemoration of Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava’s birth, life and enlightened activities. Most popular are the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche.

Guru Rinpoche’s story is retold on this day, the Sechu day, through a rich tapestry of costumes, masks, music, dance, ritual objects and mantras performed in a vibrant splendour, bringing forth a spiritual climax, leaving audiences with a renewed sense of hope, faith and blessings. A visual culture that can only be experienced by living it. I think it is very important to understand that one has to live the culture; one has to live the experience to really understand and appreciate what it is. Because feeling makes a difference. Feeling brings that experience and, therefore, living the culture makes a big difference in what the life and legacy of Guru Padmasambhava really means and Bhutan is one country that actually lives it.

So, in conclusion, I would like to say there is no doubt that sacred visual arts and culture do play a significant role in religious traditions, instilling faith, inspiring the devoted to remain firm on the path, reminding them of higher purposes in life, providing a sense of belonging and refuge in times of distress. Whether one is well versed in scriptures or even able to read them, visual images and visual culture are easily connected and accessible to all.

From an academic perspective, visual culture provides ample room to peek into the sociology, anthropology and history of a society in the past and helps us better understand geopolitical and socio-economic structures of the present day. Most of the South Asian countries are an example of how religious visual culture shapes every aspect of spiritual and temporal life. To study and understand this visual culture and its symbolism help us to gain more wisdom and respect for diverse sacred visual cultures that have had a positive influence on society and humanity at large.

I feel that we have so many things to talk about the Himalayas, there is no question of urgency regarding the presence of the guru in the Himalayan region. There is plenty of life being infused there. The real point is how much about him is known in his host country, India. That’s the main challenge. I think that is important. In the Himalayan region we are living Guru Padmasambhava. I would like that this conference draws on that, how to bring the awareness of the legacy of the teaching and life of Guru Padmasambhava into the vast consciousness of the Indian population.