Would you spend money on a portrait of your teacher?
The Tibetans have a long history of making portraits of living or deceased Lamas, or individuals who were great religious teachers. These include Buddha Shakyamuni, as well as his followers, and important Lamas and practitioners. These images are often commissioned by the followers of the pictured Lama. In Tibet, as in many other Buddhist countries, the lineage from teacher to student is sacred—the students are empowered with the special knowledge of the teacher and may go on to be teachers themselves. They hold their teacher in the highest respect and will worship the teacher’s memory after their death. Living lamas are portrayed seated on a cushion, whereas those who are not living are portrayed seated on lotus thrones to indicate their transcendence of the world and their entrance into a pure realm. The type of hat they are shown wearing often identifies the lineage they belong to, but the identities of most lama portraits are unknown. This piece is an exception. Since Tsongkhapa was so famous, his iconography, such as his hand gesture, book and sword attributes, and hat) makes him easy to identify.
What is a lama?
The lama is honored as a spiritual teacher in the highest sense. He is the means whereby the student gains access to the realm of enlightenment. In Buddhist culture, the lama (Guru in Sanskrit) is seen as more kind than the Buddha himself to an individual student. The Buddha is the teacher of the entire world system. However the student failed to learn the Buddha’s lessons in his or her innumerable former lives on this and other planets. So now, in this life, if an individual has the fortune to meet with an authentic lama, he or she now has the chance to gain access to the Buddha and his teachings, and thereby attain the state of perfection, Buddhahood. Therefore the lama is held in the very highest esteem.
Who was Tsongkhapa?
Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) was the founder of the Gelukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism, the lineage the Dalai Lamas of Tibet belong to. Gelukpa means “Those Who Follow Virtuous Works.” Tsongkhapa is remembered as a great reformer of Buddhism. He stressed the importance of the monastic lifestyle, following vows of poverty and celibacy, the study of texts, and the discipline of debate in the education of monks. He gained many followers because he distanced himself from the political intrigues of some of the other Buddhist lineages at the time.
How do we know this is Tsongkhapa?
Tsongkhapa is traditionally shown in monk’s robes, and the yellow cap of the Gelukpa order. His attributes, which are supported by flowers over his shoulders, are the book of profound transcendence and the sword of wisdom. His hands are in the gesture of teaching the Buddhist law.
Discussion Points/Teaching Suggestions:
Portraiture: Define the term “portrait.” Compare this portrait with portraits from other portraits from the 18th century (China, Japan, Italy, England, Russia, etc.). Look at a few pictures from each culture you are comparing. Are there differences in how people are portrayed? What are the conventions (standards that most artists follow within a certain tradition)? Consider the following questions:
- Are the portraits realistic likenesses of a person or are they idealized? If so, how? How can you tell? (In Tibet, faces are not individualized, but are idealized.)
- Who are the sitters?
- Consider the pose, clothing, accessories, facial expression
- If you are looking at paintings, how does the setting and background effect the portrait?
- What were the portraits used for?
- Were they made during the life of the sitter or after (posthumously)?