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Art and Buddhism

Vajrayana is the most visually intense form of Buddhism, claiming one of the world's most colorful and dramatic artistic traditions. The art is a subtle teaching and guidance vehicle that serves to express both conceptual and nonconceptual realizations.

While looking at the art of Tibetan Buddhism, one can see a wide variety of details, unique layouts, the style of representation of deities, the bright palette, human figures, symbols, and ornaments. Painting imagery occupies a big part of Tibetan Buddhism, where vision is essential in perceiving the "art."

Bodhisattvas are an important subject in Buddhist art. In art, bodhisattvas have attributes that can help us to tell them apart. These enlightened beings can wear jewelry, diadem, earrings, necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and anklets.

Avalokitesvara is the bodhisattva of compassion and the most universally acknowledged bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism. Bodhisattva of compassion can take any form that enables the deity to alleviate suffering. In Chinese Buddhism Bodhisattva of compassion is Guanyin. In Japan, followers know him/her as Kannon.

Sometimes, Avalokiteshvara can have a thousand hands and eyes. The deity has this form because Avalokiteshvara had vowed to save all sentient beings. Artists sometimes depict Avalokiteshvara with eleven heads and many arms. Usually, the hands have eyes inscribed on the palm.


Vajrayana is the most visually intense form of Buddhism, claiming one of the world's most colorful and dramatic artistic traditions.


Guanyin holds one of several ribbon-like scarves, while his left hand points downward. Attributes of Guanyin: Vase, often in left hand, often upright though may be shown pouring water; Robes sometimes loose or open at chest; Willow branch, often in right hand, sometimes in the vase.

Maitreya is a bodhisattva who will appear on earth in the future, achieve complete enlightenment, and preach pure dharma or religious righteousness.

Maitreya’s other main attribute was the eight-spoke dharma wheel that symbolizes the teachings of the path to enlightenment. His right hand is in the gesture of teaching or dharmachakra mudra. He holds his left hand in the gesture of meditation or dhyana mudra showing that purification arises out of the meditative state.

Maitreya’s third eye represents his transcended wisdom.

Manjusri is a bodhisattva associated with prajna or transcendent wisdom. This bodhisattva often rides a lion and wields a sword, which he uses to cut through delusion. Manjushri is also adorned with jewelry and has a formal posture. This bodhisattva is seated in the vajra position. His knees are firmly on the ground and the ankles crossed, the back perfectly straight, and the head titled slightly to the left. He holds his hands in the teaching gesture or dharmachakra mudra.

Vajrapani is protector of Gautama Buddha and rose to symbolize the Buddha’s power. His is the Holder of the Vajra. The vajra symbolizes the potent indestructibility of Buddhist teachings. He stands among all the serene, meditative bodhisattvas, wreathed in flame with a fierce pose and face. In fact, he is one of the earliest bodhisattvas in the Mahayana tradition. In one of the stories, the Buddhas tried to hide poison from evil demons who were going to destroy humankind. While they searched for the antidote, the Buddhas asked Vajrapani to guard the poison. Nevertheless, a demon stole the poison from him. Afterwards the gods punished Vajrapani by making him drink water contaminated with the poison, which turned him blue.

❗️Hinayana Buddhism recognizes only Maitreya.


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