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When entering a Tibetan Buddhist monastery for the first time, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed by the incredible variety of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and deities – some angry, some peaceful, and all almost always very colorful. But who is who and how can we distinguish the individual personalities from each other? There are usually some very clear attributes, symbols and colors that help identify the Buddha or deity in front of us. We’ll tell you here how to recognize the 10 most significant figures of Tibetan Buddhism.

 

(c) Roland Amon

The painting of Buddhist figures is subject to strict formal rules. Artistic freedom is in this case virtually inexistent. © Roland Amon

 

10 Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and deities

We have made a selection of Tibetan Buddhism figures which can be found in almost all Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and temples, no matter if in Tibet, Ladakh, Sikkim, Bhutan or Nepal. Some play a greater role in a specific school of Tibetan Buddhism, while others share a similar importance in all schools. They all have in common, though, that they are relatively easy to identify.

 

1. Buddha Shakyamuni – the historical Buddha

shakyamuni

Who is this? Buddha Shakyamuni is the historical Buddha, who lived around 600 BC and is considered the founder of the Buddhist religion.

How can I tell? Buddha Shakyamuni’s representations are usually scarcely decorated and show him scantily dressed. The hair is typically blue and the head is surrounded by an enlightenment aura. He is depicted in meditation posture (Dhyanasana) and holding a begging bowl in his left hand. The right hand touches the ground (a mudra called Bhumisparsa or “calling the earth to witness” = Buddha has called the earth as a witness of his inexorable path to enlightenment). His two favorite students flank him on his right and left side

.

 

2. Buddha Maitreya – the future Buddha

Maitreya

Who is this? Buddha Maitreya is the future Buddha. In Buddhism there are 5 “earthly” Buddhas, each associated with one of the 5 ages (Kala) of the world. Buddha Shakyamuni is the earthly Buddha of the fourth and present age. Buddha Maitreya is the final earthly Buddha, expected to appear during the 5th Kala. In his function as great teacher of mankind, he will supposedly lead humanity back to Buddhism.

How can I tell? Maitreya is easy recognizable by his posture from – he sits in “European posture”, with both feet on the ground. From this position one can quickly stand up and rise – a symbol of what is to come. In some occasions he is also represented standing up, waiting his time. Additionally, he usually wears a crown and is entwined with flowers. The associated mudra (hand gesture) is the Dharmacakra – the gesture which stands for the turning of the wheel of knowledge (in Buddhism, the wheel is also a symbol for teaching).

 

 

 3. Avalokiteshvara – Bodhisattva of compassion

Avalokiteshvara

Who is this? Avalokiteshavara (Tibetan: Chenrezig) is the Bodhisattva of Compassion and patron saint of Tibet. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who out of compassion don’t go into Nirvana, but instead stay back and help others to find salvation. The Dalai Lama is regarded as a manifestation of Avalokithesvara.

How can I tell? There are 108 (this is a sacred number in Tibetan Buddhism) different manifestations of Avalokiteshvara. However, the most common mode of representation is the shown above, with 11 heads and 1000 arms. On the palms of each of the 1000 hands you can see the eye of compassion. Its main distinguishing feature is Amitabha Buddha, pictured in his crown or as the last face at the top of the highest of his 11 heads.

 

 

4. Manjushri – Boddhisattva of wisdom

Manjushri

Who is this? Manjushri is the bodhisattva of wisdom and literature. As expected then, he holds great significance for scholars and students, who call and pray to him requesting gifts of knowledge and memory.

How to recognize him? The Bodhisattva is very easy to recognize thanks to his sword. The sword is a symbol of wisdom: with it, the ties of ignorance are cut. Another important symbol is the book by his side, resting on a lotus flower.

 

 

5. Mahakala – the guardian

mahakala

Who is this? Mahakala is among the Dharmapalas or “Defenders of the doctrine”. These are actually ghosts, demons and deities belonging to the old Tibetan tradition that have been converted or adapted from Padmasambhava (see below) to Buddhism. You can recognize them by their wrathful representations. Mahakala tantamounts to the Hindu deity Shiva.

How can you tell? Well, this is not always easy, since there are 75 different manifestations of Mahakala. He is, however, usually standing up. In the front left hand he holds a skull cup and in the right one the Vajra cleaver, with which he cuts through all the negative, materialistic attitudes. In the two back hands he carries a tricorn and a goad. He wears a tiger skin and a belt made of heads, and stands on two outstretched smaller versions of himself. Mahakala has three eyes and carries a 5-skull crown that represents the transformation of the mental poisons of hatred, greed, pride, envy and ignorance. These gruesome attributes symbolize his tireless determination to redeem himself.

 

 

6. Tara – female deity

Green_Tara

Green Tara

 

 

white-tara

White Tara

Who is this? Tara (Tibetan: Dolma) is a female Bodhisattva. There are five variations of her: green, white, blue, red and yellow. She is considered a great protector that guards people against the eight major dangers in life: pride, delusion, anger, jealousy, wrong views, greed, desire and doubt.

How do you recognize her? The Taras differ primarily by their different foot placement. For example, while the white Tara sits in meditation posture, the green Tara’s right foot rests on a small lotus flower. Also, in the white Tara, we can see the open eye of compassion on her forehead, her palms and her soles. Another symbols that we can find are the full-blown white lotus (representing the day) or the blue closed lotus (representing the night). The hands, both with their palms outwards, point in opposite directions: the right one down (a giving, conceding gesture), and the left one up (a gesture that grants protection).

 

 7. Padamsambhava – Guru Rinpoche

gururinpoche

Who is this? Padmasambhava (the lotus born), also called Guru Rinpoche, is the historically tangible founder of Tibetan Buddhism. He is considered the founder of the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma school, but is nevertheless of great importance for all the other schools too.

How do you recognize him? There are eight different forms, the most common of them being fairly easy to recognize: he is depicted sitting with a special hat with upturned ear flaps and a spring at the top. As hardly anyone else in Tibetan iconography, Guru Rinpoche is pictured with a beard. In his left hand he holds a blood-filled skull-cup and in the right the Vajra (Sanskrit: thunderbolt and/or diamond). With his left elbow he holds a magic wand, which tip is usually a flaming trident.

 

8. Palden Lhamo – female guardian

paldenlhamo

Who is this? Palden Lhamo is an old Tibetan female guardian deity. She is the only female deity of the 8 Dharmapalas. She is worshiped in particular by the yellow hat monks of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, and is considered the patron saint of Lhasa and the Dalai Lama. She is the wrathful manifestation of Tara.

How can you tell? Palden Lhamo is pictured riding on a mule through a sea of blood. She is black and blue, with sagging breasts, flaming eyebrows and a mustache (not very feminine J). In her hand she carries a cup made of her child’s skull, who was the product of an incestuous act. She is also surrounded by the loops of a string made with 15 severed heads. In her navel we can see a bright sun disc.

 

9. Tsongkhapa – founder of religion

tsongkhapa

Who is this? Tsongkhapa is also a documented historical figure. He is the founder of the last of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism: Gelug.

How can you tell? Tsongkhapa is very easy to recognize – he wears the yellow hat reserved for the Gelugpa, his hands make the gesture of Dharmacakra-Mudra (The Turning Wheel of Doctrine), and on his right and left sides we can find, respectively, the sword (a symbol of wisdom) and the book, supported by two lotus flowers.

 

10. Vajrapani – Bodhisattva of power

vajrapan

Who is this? Vajrapani is the Bodhisattva of power, one of the three main protective deities surrounding the Buddha, and is often represented in conjunction with the other two: Avalokiteshvara (compassion) and Manjushri (wisdom).

How can you tell? Vajrapani is usually depicted as a wrathful Dharmapala. He wears a crown and a tiger skin, and has a lasso in his left hand with which he captures and ties the adversaries of Buddhism. In his right hand he carries the Vajra (Tibetan: Dorje). His figure is surrounded by flames.

 

 

These tours with focus on buddhism might be interesting for you


lamayuru

Basics of Ladakh
Cultural trips with dayhikes
Our starter’s travel for those who do not know Ladakh and would like to visit the classic highlights and some insider spots within a relatively short time. Impressive dayhikes put the little extra to this marvelous tour.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: June-October


Mystic Ladakh
A travel to the spiritual roots
During this tour you are not only visiting monasteries but also special spiritual places and people like oracles, shamans and healers, who have a deep connection to their religion and important functions.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: June-October


Culture & Hiking in Sikkim
Cultural tour with dayhikes
This travel is ideal to get to know the former kingdom of Sikkim and the colonial town Darjeeling. Beautiful accomodations combines with impressive cultural sites and memorable day hikes.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: March-May & October-December


 




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Like every year also 2017 will have it’s cultural highlights which are really worth to be seen. To be able to plan already now your trip 2017 to Ladakh we put the most important dates together. 

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Ladakh: Monastery festivals & and other important dates for 2017

 

Name of festival
Venue
2017
Spituk Gustor Spituk 25.+26. January
Dosmochey Leh & Likir 24.+25. February
Yargon Tungshak Nubra (Yarma) 2.+3. March
Stok Guru Tsechu Stok 6.+7. March
Matho Nagrang Matho 11.+12. March
Saka Dawa All of Ladakh 9. June
Yuru Kabgyat Lamayuru 21.+22. June
Hemis Tsechu Hemis 3.+4.July
Dalai Lama’s Birthday
Jivatsal, Shey 6. July
Sachukul Gustor Sachukul 11.+12. July
Stongde Gustor Stongde, Zanskar 12.+13. July
Ladakh Polo Festival Chushot 11.-17. July
Karsha Gustor Karsha, Zanskar 21.+22. July
Phyang Tsesdup Phyang 21.+22. July
Korzok Gustor Tsomoriri 26.+27. July
Dakthok Tseschu Thakthok 2.+3. August
Sani Nasjal Sani, Zanskar 6.+7. August
Diskit Gustor Diskit, Nubra 17.+18. October
Thikse Gustor Thikse  6.+7. November
Chemde Wangchok / Padum Chemde 16.+17. November
Galden Namchot All of Ladakh 12. December
Ladakhi Losar (New year)
All of Ladakh 19. December

 

 

To get a little taste of what it is like have a look at this short video from the monastery festival in Matho 2016.

 

 

Do you need help with the Design of your tour?
We’d love to help you planning your trip to Ladakh – either in a pre-designed group tour or in your tailor made individual travel. We will choose the right festival for your and your tour.
Note: If you are truly interested in the cultue of Ladakh, we strongly suggest you to come in winter and be part of a monastery festival during this season as they are really special.




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Whoever has visited a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, no matter if in Ladakh, Tibet or Bhutan, has also probably noticed, usually at the entrance of the temple, a drawing of the Buddhist Wheel of Life. This symbolic representation, or Bhavacakra, serves as a wonderful summary of what Buddhism is, and also reminds us that every action has consequences. It is no coincidence, then, that this concept, and its colorful representation, are explained very early in the life of every child.

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The Buddhist Wheel of Life: Part 1

wheeloflife-ganz

The wheel of life is held or supported by a wrathful deity that usually represents Yama, the god of death, but can also occasionally be interpreted as Mara, the god of seduction, or Srinpo, a mythical giant.

 

 

The inner circle

derinnerekreis

At the center of the wheel of life there is a smaller circle. The wheel turns eternally, powered by the three animals in it: a rooster, a snake and a pig. They bite each other’s tail and symbolize the three poisons of life: the rooster stands for greed, the snake for hatred, and the pig represents ignorance or delusion. These three poisons are the ones that keep us trapped inside the wheel of life. The goal, then, is to free ourselves from this infinite cycle of rebirths.

The inner circle is surrounded by another one divided in two halves: shadow and light. In the dark half, the doomed, tied to one another, are dragged and tortured by monstrous demons. The brighter area is filled with people who have to eke out a better (or at least less horrible) existence.

 

 

The six realms of the Wheel of Life

Around the inner circle we find the six realms in which we can be reborn. We start with the less than ideal areas:

 

1. The world of hungry ghosts

hungergeister

Due to their narrow necks and throats, the hungry ghosts are unable to eat, and must therefore suffer maddening hunger and unquenchable thirst throughout their whole existence. It is mainly their greed that brought them to this realm. In this realm of unfulfilled (or unfulfillable) desire, the Buddha is represented with a jar full of nectar, symbolizing the virtue of generosity. To put it in simpler terms: this is how your karma looks when you are selfish and greedy. To avoid such a fate, be generous and make sacrifices.

 

2. The hell

hell

Whoever ends up here will suffer unimaginable pain, impossible heat and immeasurable cold. The depictions of Buddhist hell vary and recall in many ways those of the Christian one. The condemned, burning slowly over eternal fires, see their members and genitals chopped off before being cooked and eaten by insatiable demons. Once again there is a Buddha, in this case washing and cleaning with water the path that leads out of Hell. The simple explanation: anger and hatred are the way in; patience, the way out.

 

3. The realm of the animals

animals

This is the destination of those who had led lives particularly distinguished by ignorance and weakness. Existence as an animal is definitely not easy: they are hunted and eaten by humans or other animals without a moment of rest. Also here there is a Buddha, who with his sword – a symbol for the destruction of ignorance – shows the way out of the realm.

 

4. The world of the humans

humans

In the realm of humans, and due to their selfishness and passions, people suffer the misfortunes of illness, old age and death. In general, however, this area of life is the best of all six, since man has here access to the Buddhist teachings, and therefore has also the opportunity to escape from the wheel of life (that is, of reaching Nirvana). The historical Buddha, present here, symbolizes this possibility.

 

5. The world of the gods

gods

The world of the gods stands for pleasure and the illusion of eternal happiness. Sounds very tempting, right? But this realm is dangerous in its own way: one is never too far from the edge, and as pride and vanity grow inside us, so does the risk of falling back down into the lower reaches of the wheel of life. The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara warns us against this, by proclaiming the virtue of meditation.

 

6. The realm of the demi gods

krieger

The last of the six areas of life is a world inhabited by demigods in constant struggle, fighting a neverending battle with the gods. They quarrel over the ownership of the Tree of Desire, whose roots lie on the domain of the titans, but whose leafy top, heavy with ripe fruits, rests on the side of the gods. Filled with envy, they fight for the possession of the tree. So it’s jealousy that keeps them trapped in Samsara, the cycle of births. The Buddha in this realm reminds them of this.

Although redemption or illumination are most likely in the world of men, none of the six areas is hopeless. This is illustrated by the Buddhas in each realm, who draw attention to a world full with self-made dilemmas.

 

The 12 links of the wheel of life’s outer rim will be explained in a future post.

 

These tours with focus on buddhism might be interesting for you


lamayuru

Basics of Ladakh
Cultural trips with dayhikes
Our starter’s travel for those who do not know Ladakh and would like to visit the classic highlights and some insider spots within a relatively short time. Impressive dayhikes put the little extra to this marvelous tour.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: June-October


Mystic Ladakh
A travel to the spiritual roots
During this tour you are not only visiting monasteries but also special spiritual places and people like oracles, shamans and healers, who have a deep connection to their religion and important functions.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: June-October


Culture & Hiking in Sikkim
Cultural tour with dayhikes
This travel is ideal to get to know the former kingdom of Sikkim and the colonial town Darjeeling. Beautiful accomodations combines with impressive cultural sites and memorable day hikes.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: March-May & October-December



 

 




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What is a Mudra?

Mudras are symbolic hand gestures that play a major role in Hinduism and Buddhism. In addition, mudras are also present in the Indian dancing tradition, and are an important part of yoga, where they are not only symbolic, but should also have an effect on the body and mind.

Sooner or later, anyone interested in Buddhist iconography will have to deal with mudras, since they are also a big help when identifying different Buddhas, bodhisattvas and deities (see also our blogpost: The 10 most important Buddhas & Deities).

We want to introduce you here to the 10 most important mudras of Tibetan Buddhism.

 

Bhumisparsa Mudra – “Gesture of the Earth Witness“

bhumisparsa


The Bhumisparsa Mudra or Gesture of Witness plays an important role in the history of the historical Buddha. While Buddha meditated under the Bodhi tree, he was disturbed by Mara, the god of sensual desire, who tempted him by taking the form of a naked girl. But Siddhartha wouldn’t deviate from his path to enlightenment, and so he touched the earth with the fingertips of his right hand and said, “the earth shall be my witness, I will not let myself be seduced”

Depiction: The right hand touches the earth with the tips of its fingers (the palm inwards), while the legs remain in meditation posture.

This mudra represents the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama.

 


 

 

Varada Mudra – “Gesture of Generosity“

The Varada Mudra is the gesture for generosity, charity and compassion; it represents the granting of wishes, blessings or even pardon. It symbolizes the “gift of truth” (= the Buddhist teachings) of Buddha. The five fingers stand for the 5 perfections: generosity, morality, patience, diligence, and meditation.

Depiction: Unlike the Bhumisparsa Mudra, in the Varada tha palm is directed outwards and hangs down. It usually also touches the right leg. The Varada Mudra is rarely seen without another mudra used by the right hand, typically the Abhayamudra (see below).

The Varada Mudra is commonly found in representations of the green and white Tara.
.


varada

 


 

Dhyana Mudra – “Gesture of Meditation“

dhyana mudra


The Dhyana Mudra symbolizes the state of deep contemplation during meditation. Buddha meditated in this way under the Bodhi tree.

Depiction: While the legs are crossed (meditation posture / Lotus position), both hands rest loosely on the lap, with the thumbs touching each other. However, there are also some representations in which the Dhyana Mudra is seen performed with one single hand (usually the left one): this is the half Dhyana Mudra – the historical Buddha in conjunction with Bhumisparsa Mudra.

This Mudra is most commonly associated to the historical Buddha, but usually in combination with the Bhumisparsa. When both hands are used, the Dhyana Mudra can represent for example the Buddha Amithaba.

 


 

Abhaya Mudra – “Gesture of Fearlessness“

The Abhayamudra can be translated as the gesture of courage. It symbolizes protection, peace and the elimination of fear.

Depiction: The right hand is raised with the palm outward towards the viewer at chest level. One finds this gesture often in conjunction with the Varada Mudra (see above).

It is found in images of standing Buddhas and Tara. The fifth Dhyani Buddha Amogasiddhi is also represented with the Abhayamudra.


abhaya mudra

 


 

Dharmacakra Mudra – “Gesture of Teaching“

dharmacakra-mudra


The Buddhist teachings (Dharma) are often symbolized as a wheel (cakra). The Dharmacakra Mudra therefore represents the agency of the Buddhist teachings and is translated as the “Preacher” or “Teacher” gesture. The gesture reminds of one of the most important moments in the life of the Buddha, when he was in the park at Sarnath giving his five students the 4 noble truths and the eightfold path (the main pillars of Buddhism).

Depiction: In this gesture both hands are held against the chest, the left facing inward, covering the right facing outward. The index finger and the thumb of each hand touch, forming a circle that represents the wheel of dharma.

This gesture plays an important role in the representation of the Buddha Maitreya (Buddha of the future), and also Tsongkhapa (founder of the Gelugpa school), because both are said to have put the wheel of Dharma in movement again, after it had come to a stop.

 

 


 

Vitarka Mudra – “Gesture of Argument“

The Vitarka Mudra is the gesture of discussion and argument. It is characteristic of those regarded as teachers and instructors.

Depiction: The right arm is bent, the hand raised with the palm outwards. Thumb and forefinger touch and thus form the “Wheel of Dharma”.

One finds this gesture often in depictions of the Buddha, but also in pictures and sculptures of the Tara.


vitarka


Tarjani Mudra – “Gesture of Warning“

tarjani


Not only parents use the Tarjani Mudra 😉 – in Buddhism it is also an expression of warning or admonition.

Depiction: The right hand is held vertically in front of the chest and only the index finger is stretched upward while the other fingers and thumb roll into a fist.

One finds this gesture especially in wrathful deities. Note: In some sources, the Tarjani Mudra is interchanged with the Karana Mudra (see below).

 


 

Namaskara Mudra – “Gesture of Praying and Salutation”

Although this Mudra doesn’t play such an important role in Tibetan Buddhism, we wanted to mention it anyway because it is very common in India’s everyday life. The Namaskara Mudra is a gesture for greeting (Namaskar is Hindi for “good day”), but also for prayer and admiration.

Depiction: In this gesture, the hands are kept close to the chest in devotional attitude. The palms and fingers lie flat against each other and point upwards.

This Mudra is not found in Buddha representations. It is used only by monks, nuns or disciples, symbolizing the fact that they worship someone (e.g. Buddha).

 


namaskara-mudra

 


 

Karana Mudra – “Gesture to ward off the evil“

karana-mudra

The Karana Mudra is a symbolical protection to keep demons and other negative influences at bay.

Depiction: In this Mudra, the hand is outstretched vertically or horizontally and with the palm facing forward. The two middle fingers are held down under the thumb. The index and the little fingers extend upwards.

 

 


 

Uttarabodhi Mudra – “Gesture of Perfection“

The Uttarabodhi Mudra represents supreme enlightenment and should bring positive energy and vibrations. By performing this Mudra, we connect with the universal divine energy.

Depiction: Both hands are folded across the chest. The two index fingers touch each other and point upwards. The thumbs are interwoven. The remaining fingers encircle each opposite hand.


uttarabodhi-mudra

 

These tours with focus on buddhism might be interesting for you


lamayuru

Basics of Ladakh
Cultural trips with dayhikes
Our starter’s travel for those who do not know Ladakh and would like to visit the classic highlights and some insider spots within a relatively short time. Impressive dayhikes put the little extra to this marvelous tour.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: June-October


Mystic Ladakh
A travel to the spiritual roots
During this tour you are not only visiting monasteries but also special spiritual places and people like oracles, shamans and healers, who have a deep connection to their religion and important functions.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: June-October


Culture & Hiking in Sikkim
Cultural tour with dayhikes
This travel is ideal to get to know the former kingdom of Sikkim and the colonial town Darjeeling. Beautiful accomodations combines with impressive cultural sites and memorable day hikes.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: March-May & October-December