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The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

Enlarge this image. The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, 1800–1900.  Tibet. Thangka; colors on cotton. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Gift of the Friends of Richard Davis, 1988.34.

Who is the central figure in this painting?

The main image in this painting is Avalokiteshvara (1), the Bodhisattva of Compassion. He is the principle patron deity of Tibet. He sits on a lotus throne upon a lunar disc. This god takes many forms, such as the Dalai Lamas of Tibet, to bring salvation to the living beings of the world. In this painting he has four arms and is white in color. His upper hands hold prayer beads and a lotus; the lower ones, poised in a hand gesture of prayer, clasp the wish-fulfilling jewel at his heart. This jewel embodies the bodhicitta—the altruistic aspiration to attain highest Enlightenment in order to thereby save all beings from misery and establish them in perfect happiness.

What is a bodhisattva?

A bodhisattva is a person, either human or divine (occasionally animal) who has abandoned all selfish concern and seeks only the ultimate liberation and happiness of all living beings. The bodhisattva understands that as long as he or she remains trapped in the cycle of birth and death (samsara) because of greed, anger and ignorance, there is no way that others can truly be helped. Therefore, driven by concern for the welfare of others, a bodhisattva pursues the spiritual path to Buddhahood, which involves:
  • the perfection of generosity—giving to others with the pure motivation to help them
  • the perfection of morality—avoiding all harm to others, and engaging in activities that benefit others
  • the perfection of patience—never giving way to anger, and accepting the harm perpetrated by others
  • the perfection of effort—persevering with enthusiastic efforts in all virtuous activities
  • the perfection of concentration—training the mind to hold its objects with a calm, clear mind free of all distraction
  • the perfection of wisdom/the realization of ultimate reality—seeing things as they actual are without the overlay of dualistic conceptual processes.
In Buddhist art, a bodhisattva may appear in divine form wearing crowns and jewels, as an ordinary human, or even as a animal. Avalokiteshvara is one of the most popular of the hundreds of bodhisattvas commonly depicted in Buddhist art. Many, like Avalokiteshvara, appear in a variety of distinct forms.

Vajrapani (4) detail from The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, 1800–1900. Tibet. Thangka; colors on cotton. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Gift of the Friends of Richard Davis, 1988.34.
What are “peaceful” and “wrathful” deities?
To those who seek help, both spiritual and mundane, Buddhas and bodhisattvas typically appear in peaceful, benevolent forms. To those beings whose minds are set on evil, who stubbornly engage in actions that harm others, the Buddhas and bodhisattvas appear in powerful, wrathful forms to subdue them and lead them to virtue. On a psychological level, the wrathful deities represent the powerful, dynamic processes of Buddhist meditation that can destroy the underlying causes of all misery—greed, hatred, and delusion, etc.
The Bodhisattva of Compassion is a peaceful deity. He emanates beauty and benevolence. However, in the lower right of the painting is Vajrapani (4), a wrathful deity, who embodies the sacred power of the Buddhas. Vajrapani
Manjushri (5) detail from The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, 1800–1900. Tibet. Thangka; colors on cotton. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Gift of the Friends of Richard Davis, 1988.34.
              is deep blue in color, has bulging eyes, sharp fangs, fiery hair standing on end, and stands on a golden sun disc. His right hand shoots out in a threatening gesture and wields a vajra. This attribute gives him his name meaning “vajra in hand.” Vajrapani is a great protector of Buddhism. His ferocity is a comfort to believers and terrifying to demons who seek to harm living beings and destroy their paths to salvation.
In the lower left of the painting sits Manjushri (5), the God of Supreme Wisdom. He holds the Book of Wisdom and the flaming sword that cuts the roots of ignorance, and severs the sprouts of misery. He is a semi-peaceful deity and sits on a lotus throne on a lunar disc. The three deities togethe —Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, and Vajrapani—are the Three Great Protectors (Tibetan: rig sum gonpo) representing Wisdom, Compassion, and Sacred Power respectively.

White Tara (3) detail from The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, 1800–1900. Tibet. Thangka; colors on cotton. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Gift of the Friends of Richard Davis, 1988.34.
Who are the Green and White Taras?
Above Avalokiteshvara are the Green and White Taras (3), goddesses of compassion and wisdom. White Tara has a third eye in the forehead as well as eyes on her palms and feet. Green Tara, extends her right leg downward. Both Taras hold the stems of lotuses that blossoms above their shoulders. Their right hands are lowered with the palm upward in the gesture of bestowing boons and gifts. The Taras are both the objects of prayer and veneration because of their ability to bestow such things as longevity, merit, wisdom, protections from every fear, and spiritual attainments, from the mundane up to supreme enlightenment.
The two goddesses have historical significance also. Songtsen Gampo, the Tibetan king who was the first royal patron of Buddhism in Tibet in the seventh century, married two princesses—Bhrikuti, from Nepal, and Wen Cheng from China. These two women helped bring Buddhism to Tibet, and the Nepalese princess introduced the practice of Tara to Tibet. The two queens are worshiped as manifestations of the Green and White Taras.

Tsongkhapa (6)  detail from The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, 1800–1900. Tibet. Thangka; colors on cotton. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Gift of the Friends of Richard Davis, 1988.34.
Who is pictured at the top of this painting?
Above the Green and White Taras are three seated lamas. The central one is Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) (6), the founder of the Gelukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. Tsongkhapa is a human disciple of Manjushri, and like the God of Wisdom pictured below, he has a sword and book supported by lotus blossoms at shoulder level. He is accompanied by his two chief disciples—Gyal Tsab on his right and Khedrup on his left. Tsongkhapa’s presence in the painting indicates this work belongs to the Gelukpa order.

What are the objects below the main image?

The group of five objects below the main image is known as the Offering of the Five Senses: the mirror stands for sight, the silk beneath it for touch, the fruit for taste, the conch shell for smell, and the pair of cymbals for sound. This is a typical offering presented to peaceful deities. For wrathful deities, the offering consists of a skullcap heaped with ears, eyeballs, nose, tongue and a heart of demons. Paintings like this may have been hung behind the altar in a temple in the home or monastery. Real offerings of tea, fruit, flowers, pure water, butter and barley sculptures called torma would be made as well.

How is a traditional Tibetan thangka mounted?

A tangka is a painting of a Buddhist deity, done for religious purposes and made according to strict codes of iconography. A thangka must be framed in silk brocade and consecrated in a ceremony by a qualified Lama. It has a pole running across the bottom edge and a cord to hang it at the top. There is usually a yellow silk covering that is hung over the front to provide the deities with privacy. This is folded and draped at the top when on view.
This format allows tangkas to be rolled up to be carried from place to place or to be rotated according to annual rituals or festivals. Paintings like this traveled easily with traders, itinerant monks, and nomads.
Learn more on the Asian Art Museum's education website.

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