The main image in this thangka is the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, who is also the primary patron deity of Tibet. It is widely believed that the line of Dalai Lama incarnations (as well as Karmapa incarnations) are emanations of Chenrezig.
In this particular depiction, Chenrezig is white in colour and has four arms representing the Four Immeasurables, which are loving kindness, joy, equanimity, and compassion. Just like one’s limbs are a part of one’s body, Chenrezig has become one with the realisation of these qualities that he uses to benefit sentient beings.
He has two hands folded in prayer while holding a brilliant sky-blue wish-fulfilling jewel at his heart. This represents that he holds Bodhicitta or altruistic love for all sentient beings close to his heart. His other right hand gently holds aloft a crystal mala (Buddhist prayer beads), while his other left hand holds a pristine lotus. This reminds us of his promise to manifest continuously in a multitude of ways to benefit sentient beings, like the steady momentum of counting prayer beads.
Skilfully appearing in ordinary guises throughout the various realms of existence in order to benefit others, he is not just unstained by worldly matters but, in fact, thrives in such surroundings, like a pristine lotus growing from muddy waters. This unstained Bodhisattva is royally attired with six jewelled ornaments consisting of a crown, earrings, bracelets, necklace, belt and anklets. Like the jewelled ornaments which beautify his body outwardly, on the inside he has mastered the Six Perfections or Six Paramitas, inspiring practitioners to practise them too. These are the qualities of generosity, morality, patience, joyful endeavour, meditation and wisdom. All of these are necessary to become truly beautiful from the inside out.
Chenrezig’s Mantra: OM MANI PEME HUNG
What is a Bodhisattva?
A Bodhisattva is someone who has abandoned selfishness and seeks only liberation for all sentient beings. The Bodhisattva understands the fact that, as long as he or she remains within the cycle of birth and death known as samsara, it would be impossible to save others from suffering due to their own attachments and negative conduct. Therefore, out of their strong concern for the welfare of all sentient beings, a Bodhisattva takes on and pursues the spiritual path to Enlightenment, which involves:
- The Perfection of Generosity: Giving to others with the pure motivation to benefit sentient beings
- The Perfection of Morality: Avoiding harmful actions towards others and only engaging in activities to help others
- The Perfection of Patience: Never allowing anger to take over one’s emotions and accepting the harm caused by others
- The Perfection of Effort: Always persevering to engage in virtuous activities that benefit sentient beings
- The Perfection of Concentration: Training of the mind to focus and maintain calm and clarity free from all distractions
- The Perfection of Wisdom: Seeing things for what they truly are without dualistic and conceptual perceptions
Bodhisattvas can emanate in various forms — a person (either human or divine), an animal, a formless being and even an inanimate object.
What are “Peaceful” and “Wrathful” Deities?
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas usually manifest in accordance with the karma of practitioners. For those who seek spiritual and mundane assistance, most of the time the deities appear in peaceful and benevolent forms. However, for those whose motivations are negative and who engage in activities that harm others, the deities will generally manifest in wrathful forms in order to subdue these beings and lead them onto the correct path.
From a psychological point of view, wrathful deities represent the powerful processes of Buddhist meditation that can eliminate the underlying causes of all suffering including ignorance, hatred, greed, jealousy, desire and many other negative qualities.
Who Are the Other Deities in the Painting?
At the lower left corner of the painting is Manjushri , who is known as the Buddha of Wisdom. He is orange in colour and in his right hand he wields a flaming sword, which represents the sharpness of prajna or wisdom that cuts through the root cause of suffering and the net of wrong views which binds us to the three lower realms. The flames on his sword signify the dispelling of the darkness of ignorance by the light of wisdom. In his left hand, he holds a magnificent blue lotus flower in full bloom, on which rests the Prajnaparamita Sutra (Perfection of Wisdom Sutra). The lotus in full bloom represents Manjushri’s promise that we can rise from the mud of delusions and afflictive emotions if we follow the Buddha’s teachings. He sits on a lotus throne with a moon cushion.
For those with children, a picture or icon of Manjushri in a child’s bedroom or study room has the effect of quicker and better understanding in their studies. In China, his holy mountain is Wu Tai Shan in the province of Shanxi. It is written in the sutras how Buddha predicted that Manjushri would reside in the mountain of Wu Tai Shan. Thus, the people of China regard this mountain as the sacred abode of Manjushri and the Chinese have built many temples there for the worship of Lord Manjushri.
Manjushri Mantra: OM AH RA BA TSA NA DHI
At the lower right corner of the thangka is Vajrapani , who is in a wrathful form. He is deep blue in colour with three bulging eyes, sharp fangs, and hair standing on end that appears to be ablaze. His right hand is raised in a threatening gesture and in it he holds a vajra, which gives him his name, Vajrapani (vajra in hand). In his left hand, he holds a lasso that binds demons. He dances ecstatically within a magnificent, blazing transformative fire, exorcising the ugly demons of greed with a threatening gesture. He also transforms hatred into wisdom through his diamond vajra that symbolises the indestructibility of awareness that is beyond concepts.
Vajrapani is one of the great protectors of Buddhism; his ferocity comforts practitioners and terrifies demons whose intention is to harm others and interfere with their path towards liberation. He is an emanation of the Buddha Akshobya and, historically, he was a great patron of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings. It was Vajrapani who requested the Buddha to teach many of the Tantras that are still practised today. Vajrapani is also part of the triple deity practice of Trakpo Sumtril, the other two deities being Hayagriva and King Garuda. Vajrapani will also be the last of the Buddhas to manifest complete enlightenment during this fortunate aeon, which is an indication of how immensely fortunate we are to make a connection with Lama Tsongkhapa, the embodiment of Chenrezig, Manjushri and Vajrapani.
Vajrapani Mantra: OM BENZAPANI HUNG
The three deities together, Chenrezig, Vajrapani and Manjushri are known as the Three Great Protectors of Tibetan Buddhism (Wylie: rigs gsum mgon po), and they represent compassion, sacred power and wisdom respectively.
Green and White Tara
Sitting above Chenrezig are the goddesses of compassion and long-life, Green Tara  and White Tara . Green Tara made the vow to always return in human form as a female Bodhisattva. She is resplendent in her aura of emerald green, splendid in the swiftness that the colour represents. She is radiant with the attainment of all the Six Perfections and bright with her ever-compassionate care for all sentient beings. She wears slender, bright pants, like women in ancient India used to wear, to show us that even though she is enlightened, she works through samsaric conventions to help us overcome our sufferings.
Because of her strong karmic connection to all sentient beings in samsara, the Buddha Green Tara tilts towards us in her great compassion. She listens to our prayers, grants us our virtuous wishes and protects us as a mother would protect her child. Her ability to come to our assistance as we invoke her presence is instant — we need only think of her to have her compassionate heart with us. Interestingly, Green Tara does not sit in meditative pose; instead her right leg extends outwards, to show us that she is ready to step forward to help us in our time of need.
Green Tara Mantra: OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SOHA
White Tara has eyes of watchful compassion on her forehead, the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet, watching over us like a mother over her child. Her right hand is in the mudra of unconditional giving, while her left holds a blue utpala flower, blessing her children with fearlessness. Her divine body’s radiance is like that of a full moon on an autumn night, cooling, calming and soothing, and the moonbeams of her love shine forth to every aspect of our lives. Her all-forgiving and soft smiling eyes invoke instant faith and the deepest trust.
Throughout India, Tibet, China and Japan, Lady White Tara is famous for granting long-life and averting life-threatening situations. This special quality can be attained through the recitation of her sacred mantra — her spiritual energy in the form of sound that helps to transform our mind.
White Tara Mantra: OM TARE TUTTARE TURE MAMA AYUH PUNYA JANA PUTRIM KURUYE SOHA
Both Taras hold the stems of lotuses that blossom above their shoulders, and their right hands are lowered with the palm upward in a gesture of bestowing boons and gifts. They are both popular objects of prayer and veneration because of their ability to bestow merits, wisdom, protection, longevity, and spiritual attainments. Both Taras too have some historical significance. It is said that the two princesses — Bhrikuti from Nepal and Wen Cheng from China whom the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo married are the manifestations of Green and White Tara. These two princesses helped to bring Buddhism to Tibet and it was Bhrikuti who introduced the practice of Tara to Tibet.
Lama Tsongkhapa and Sons
At the top of the thangka, sitting above Green and White Tara are Lama Tsongkhapa (middle)  and his two heart sons, Khedrup Je (right)  and Gyaltsab Je (left) . Lama Tsongkhapa plays an extremely important role in Tibetan Buddhism; he was the founder of the Gelug lineage and also established the three main monasteries of Gaden, Drepung and Sera where, to this day, many attained masters uphold his enlightened tradition and share it with the world. He is also the author of many texts unsurpassed in depth and clarity, most famously his work “The Stages on the Path to Enlightenment”.
Hailed as the second Buddha by contemporary Buddhist masters of his time, Lama Tsongkhapa came from the mystical Land of Snows, Tibet. He is an incomparable and pure monk, scholar and great teacher to thousands then and millions now. His image is well known to have a calming effect on aggressive minds and those with destructive emotions. Making offerings to him and engaging in his meditations and practices allows us to cultivate the inner qualities of wisdom, compassion and strength. His presence in this thangka indicates that this work belongs to the Gelugpa order.
Lama Tsongkhapa Mantra:
MIG MEY TZE WEY TER CHEN CHENREZIG
DRI MEY KHYEN PI WANG PO JAMPAL YANG
DU PUNG MA LU JOM DZEY SANG WEY DAG
GANG CHEN KE PEY TSUG GYEN TSONGKHAPA
LO SANG TRAG PEY SHAB LA SOL WA DEB
The Offerings Below the Main Image
The five objects below the main image  are known as the Offering of Five Senses:
- The mirror represents sight
- The silk beneath represents touch
- The fruit represents taste
- The perfumed conch shell represents smell
- The pair of cymbals represents sound
This is a common offering presented to peaceful deities. For wrathful deities however, a different set of offerings is usually presented consisting of a skull cup heaped with eyeballs, nose, ears, tongue and a heart of demons.