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The pantheon of gods in Tibetan Buddhism is derived mainly from Hinduism, Indian Buddhism and the Bon religion. In many cases characteristics of gods from all three faiths are merged into a single god. A Buddhist god, for example, may have been derived from Hinduism and given characteristics of a Bon religion spirit. Moreover, the gods are intended to show the many sides of enlightenment: a particular god may have a wrathful, vengeful side as well as a peaceful and beneficent side.

Sacred beings that appear regularly in Tibetan Buddhist art can be categorized into five groups: buddhas, bodhisattvas, dharma protectors, great masters, and arhats. Be they peaceful deities or wrathful ones, dharma protectors are the manifestation of skillful means to lead sentient beings to enlightenment. In illustrated sutras dharma protectors account for roughly half the images and female deities a quarter. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

According to the BBC: Supernatural beings are prominent in Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhas and bodhisattvas abound, gods and spirits taken from earlier Tibetan religions continue to be taken seriously. Bodhisattvas are portrayed as both benevolent godlike figures and wrathful deities. This metaphysical context has allowed Tibetan Buddhism to develop a strong artistic tradition, and paintings and other graphics are used as aids to understanding at all levels of society.

Buddhists tend to look upon gods in a different way than Westerners. Tibetan gods, one religious scholar wrote, represent "mental states evoked in meditation and ritual, a means of training the mind toward a more accurate appreciation of the human condition."

Types of Tibetan Buddhist Deities

Himalayan Buddhists recognize several thousand gods and demons, many of which, like their Hindu counterparts, take on many forms. Each village and sect has its own pantheon of gods, spirits and demons. Rivalries between different groups and sects are often based on which gods are given the greatest importance. Many monasteries contain Tara figures that are said to have miraculously materialized out of thin air.

There are many general protector gods called "dharmapalas" and personal meditation deities called "yidams" (which can either be male “herakas” or female “dakinis”). Protector deities have both wrathful and benign manifestations. Their expression of rage or passion pack a great amount of energy. High mountains are believed to be dwelling places for a number of gods. Tibetans shout "Victory to the gods" as a greeting to these deities when they are in mountains. Sometimes deities are pictured at the center of mandala representations of the worlds the inhabit.

A number of historical figures are treated with same reverence as gods. See Guru Rinpoche, Tsongkhapa, the 5th Dalai Lama. King Songtsen Gampo, King Trisong Detsen and Milarepa.

A typical deity such as Sambara has a consort, Vajravarahi, and an escort of 12 dakinis, deities who represent female wisdom. Demons are believed to be responsible for a number of ills and misfortunes. The Mustangese recognize 416 demons of land, sky, fire and water. These demons are believed to cause 1,080 known diseases and five forms of violent death.

Present, Past and Future Buddha Images

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Sakya Thukpa (Sakaymuni) is the historical Buddha, who lived in Nepal in the 5th century B.C. He has blue hair and a halo of enlightenment around his head. He is always depicted in a sitting position, with his legs crossed in the lotus position and has 32 marks on his body, including a dot between his eyes, the Wheel of Law on the soles of his feet, and bump on the top of his head. Manifesting the “witness” mudra, he holds a begging bowl in his left hand and touches the earth with his right hand. He is often flanked by two bodhisattvas. [The name before the parenthesis is Tibetan, the name in parenthesis is Sanskrit]

Marmedze (Dipamkara) is the Past Buddha. He preceded the historical Buddha and spent 100,000 years on earth. His hands are pictured in the “protection” mudra and he is often pictured with the Present and Future Buddha.

Jampa (Maitreya) is the Future Buddha. He is currently in the form of a bodhisattva and is waiting for his chance to return to earth, 4000 years after the death of Sakaymuni. He is usually seated, with a scarf around his waist, his legs hanging down and his hands by his chest in the turning of the Wheel of Law

Other Tibetan Buddha Images

Opagme (Amitabha) is the Buddha of Infinite Light. He resides in the “pure land of the west,” where he looks after people on their journey to nirvana, and is regarded as the original being from which the Panchen Lama was reincarnated. He is red. His hands are held together on his lap with a begging bowl in the “meditation” mudra.

Dhyani Buddhas, or the five Contemplation Buddhas — Amitabha (red), Vairocana, Akshobhya (white), Ratnasambhava (yellow) and Amoghasiddhi (green) “are major focuses of meditation. Also known as the five Jinas (eminent ones), or dhyani-Buddha, they control the different regions of paradise where Buddhists may be reborn. Each is a different color and has different symbols and mudras associated with it.

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Tsepame (Amitayus) is the Buddha of Longevity. Like Opagme, he is red and his hands are pictured in the “meditation” mudra, but he holds a vase containing the nectar of immortality. The Medicine Buddha (Menlha) holds a medicine bowl in his left hand and herbs in his right hand. He is often depicted in a group of eight Buddhas.

These Buddhas have different manifestations. The many-headed Hevajra is a wrathful manifestation of Akshobhya (the Imperturbable Buddha). Symbolizing the transformation of the poisons such as anger, he is often depicted in an embrace with his consort Nairatmya. Their passionate embrace represents the enlightened state that come from the union of wisdom and compassion. Hevajra is often shown stomping his own image, showing the defeat of egoism.

Chenresig (Avalokiteshvara)

Chenresig (Avalokiteshvara) is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. One of the most important Buddhist deities, he protects Tibetan monasteries from fires and earthquakes and is regarded as the reincarnation source of the Dalai Lama. His name means “he who gazes upon the world with suffering in his eyes.” He is often pictures with four arms, a white body, sitting on a lotus flower with a deer skin draped over his left shoulder and rosary beads and lotus held next to his heart.

There is a 11-headed, 1000-armed version of Chenresig. His multiple heads is the result of an explosion that occurred while trying to solve too many difficult problems. One head belongs to Opagme (Amitabha). Another belongs to the mean-spirited Chana Dorje (Vajrapani). At the end of each hand is an eye. The main arms hold a bow and arrow, lotus, rosary, vase, wheel and staff.

Chenresig can take male of female forms. In the Yellow Sect he is associated with Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, who can take 36 forms including that of a mustached man.

Other Tibetan Buddhist Bodhisattva Images

Jampelyang (Manjushri) is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. He is regarded as the first divine teacher of Buddhist thought and is sort of a patron saint for school children. In his right hand is a flaming sword that cuts ignorance. His left, in the “teaching” mudra, cradles a half-opened lotus blossom. He is often yellow and has blue hair or a crown.

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Drolma (Tara) is a female bodhisattva with 21 different manifestations. Known as the saviouress, she was born from a tear of compassion shed by Chenresig (Avalokiteshvara)and considered a female version of Chenresig and a protectress of the Tibetan people. She symbolizes purity and fertility and is believed to be able to fulfill wishes.

Drolma is often picturesdin a longevity triad with the red Tsepame (Amitayus) and the three-faced, eight-armed female Namgyelma (Vijaya). In her green manifestation Drolma sits in a half lotus position on a lotus flower. In her white manifestation she sits in a the full lotus position and has seven eyes, including ones on her forehead, both palms, and both soles of her feet.

Tibetan Protector Deities

Chokyoing (Lokpalas) are the Four Guardian Kings. Often found at the entrance hallway of monasteries and believed to be Mongolian in origin, they protect the four cardinal directions. The eastern king is white and carries a lute. The southern king is blue and carries a sword. The western king is red and carries a thunderbolt. The northern king is yellow and carries a banner of victory and a jewel-spitting mongoose. He is regarded as the god of wealth and is depicted riding a snow lion.

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Dorje Jigje (Yamantaka) is the most well-known protector of the Yellow Hat sect. Known as the destroyer of Yama, the Lord of Death, he is a blue, beastly-looking creature with eight heads, one of which is the head of a bull, and strings of skulls around his waist and neck. He holds a flaying knife and a skull cup in his eight to 36 arms. With his 16 feet he stomps on eight Hindu gods, eight mammals and eight birds. Dorje Jigje punishes evil people to a life in hell, helps guide good people to a better rebirth and crushes earthly passions that block enlightenment. Yamanataka is so horrible that no one should look at his image, especially women. Statues of him are often covered.

Nagpo Chenpo (Mahakala) is wrathful Tantric god and a manifestation of Chenresig (Avalokiteshvara). Associated with the Hindu god Shiva, he is blue and has fanged teeth, a crown fo skulls, and carries a trident and skull cup. He comes in various forms, with two to six arms and is regarded as the protector of tents by nomads. Nangpo Chenpo means the Great Black One .

Tamdrin (Hahagriva) is another wrathful manifestation of Chenresig (Avalokiteshvara). Associated with the Hindu god Vishnu, he is red with a white face on the right and green gace on the left and has a horse’s head in his hair, a crown of skulls, a tiger skin around his waist and a garland of 52 chopped off heads. On his back are the wings of Garuda. In his six hands are a lotus, club sword, skull cup, snare and ax. Under his four legs a sun disc and corpses. Tandrin in red and Dorje in blue often serve as guardian gods at the entrance of temples.

Chan Dorje (Vajrapani) is the wrathful Bodhisattva of Energy. He is blue with a tiger skin around his waist and snake around his neck. In his right hand is a thunderbolt, the symbol of the Tantric faith. Chan Dorje means “thunderbolt in hand.”

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Guardian King Dhritarastra
Demchok (Chakrasamvara) is a meditational deity with a blue body, 12 arms, four faces, and a crescent moon in his topnot. In his hands are a thunderbolt, a bell, a elephant skin, an axe, a hooked knife, a trident, a skull, a hand drum, a skull cup, a lasso and head of Brahma. He wears a tiger skin and has a garland with 52 severed heads around his neck.

Palden Lhamo (Shri devi) is the guardian of Lhasa, the Dalai Lama an the Yellow Hat sect. An angry manifestation of Tara The female counterpart of Nagpo Chenpo (Mahakala), she is blue, wears tiger skin and human skin clothes and has earrings made of a snake and a lion and carries a skull cup full of blood in her left hand and a club in her right hand. A moon is in her hair; the sun is her stomach; and a corpse is in her mouth.

Image Sources: Kalachakranet.org and Simha.com except Texts, Wason collection, and Wheel of Life, Library of Congress.

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com\=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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