Use of the Thangkas in a Ritual Space

DSC_0879Thangka is a Himalayan Buddhist scroll painting on cotton normally depicting deities, teachers, mandalas, and so on. It is decorated with silk with neatly stitched  strips at the four sides called Juru Merser and a rectangular piece at the bottom of the image called Thong. The significance of Juru Merser and Thong is not known. However, if one tries to understand it from the significance of the design of title pages of the Buddhist text, the title of a text is always inside a double lined box. This four sided, double lined box refers to the four beams of a house, which signify the mandala of that particular text. Similarly, the Juru Merser seems to serves same purpose and the Thong can be the mattress of the throne that we always see on the paintings.

All the thangkas are consecrated by writing the particular deity’s mantra at the back side and a brief or elaborate consecration rite. To provide an example of a use of thangkas in the ritual space, I briefly explain how Sumthrang monastery uses it’s valued Vajrakīla thangkas every year. Sumthrang monastery has a set of  Vajrakīla thangka that are taken out only once a year during the annual festival. They do an elaborate Vajrakīla ritual annually. The main thangka with the central figure is hung in the middle or center facing the Lama and the other ten are unfurled according to their own direction. The thangkas are all veiled. It is unveiled only at the time of invitation rite (spyan ‘dren) and is veiled once again at the completion rite (bsdu rim) towards the evening. When the thangka is unveiled, the deities are meant to be present among the devotees in the temple and when it is veiled in the evening, they are supposed to be returning back to their abode. Therefore,  although people normally stay in and around the monastery during this ritual, they make sure to prostrate while the invitation rite is in process, as deities are believed to descend to the ritual.

Such thangkas are used as an object for veneration for the devotees, reference for practitioners and monks during the ritual, and body support (sku rten) for the monastery. More importantly, it is used by the head lama and the monks while doing the ritual to visualize the deity. Moreover, it aids practitioners in realization through the visualization and understanding the meanings of the figure’s color, implement, posture, and so on that are represented in the thangka. The practitioner use the image at the time of generation stage to to help visualize vivid points of the deity and at the end whole thing is deconstructed into an emptiness. These two are known as generation and completion stages (skyes rim, rdzogs rim).

This process of practice is key to every tantric or Vajrayana system of practice to attain the ultimate realization through such a course. This follows the general Buddhist system of emptiness. It is based on the understanding of the obscurational  and ultimate truth that everything in obscurational truth are a case of psychological construction. Anything that is psychologically constructed is ultimately empty of its reality, thus, deconstructed into emptiness in the end.

According to Khenpo Tsultirm Lodre of Larung Gar in Tibet the generation stage has several phases. Generation stage is to undo the self-inclination through generation of self into the form of the deity. As the practitioner takes the form of the deity, every inclination, pride and ego of this ordinary form has to be undone by replacing it with the pride of the deity, which has the ultimate realization therefore purifying the ordinary being is the ultimate essence of the self generation stage according to the tantra visualization system (sngags rim). The nature of self is considered as the base of the practice. Depending on a visualized form of the deity, for example if it is  the Vajrakīla, the self is generated to the level of Vajrakīla. Thus, the self becomes the base or the dependent. The practitioner has to then generate through this process by transforming self into the deity of ultimate realization abandoning the composition of the ordinary self.

The perfection stage is the ultimate stage of the practice where the practitioner has to have a realization of the ultimate truth at the end or at least should have attained a better realization then before. The psychological construction of the self and the deity is transformed into oneness inseparable from each other and it is further deconstructed into emptiness. This is because it is the formation through interdependence and nothing is existent in itself. The slightest inclination of self or even to the deity is abolished that the relation of conventional and ultimate truth is realized. Therefore every system of tantra practice is the means to attain the truth of emptiness but in a more complicated way, yet it is known to be the swift path to realization. Therefore, the image or the thangkas aids as a point for the practice or visualization in the ritual space.



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