Wrathful Guardians: Iconography of Tibetan Buddhism

A magical walk in Sikkim

Traveling to Sikkim in India, I came across loads of images of fiery demons in intricate and colorful paintings and mandalas. We spent our days in Sikkim walking many miles on narrow roads in the ethereal Himalayan mist to visit the various monasteries, where this art form was at its spectacular peak.

There are many ‘wrathful deities’, some of which are called ‘dharmapalas’ which is Sanskrit for “defender of the dharma.”  They may be off-putting at first glace, especially to the Western eyeball. Worship of the dharmapalas began in the 8th century when the holy Padmasambhava is believed to have conquered the demons in Tibet and forced them to protect Buddhists and path of Buddhism from that point on. The demons were transformed, and became agents of the divine. They represent the kind of fierceness we should have against obstacles of the spiritual path. We are meant to be warriors, the protectors of our own path, defending against the inner and outer enemies.

A key group of wrathful deities are the eight dharampalas of Vajrayana (the diamond thunderbolt vehicle) Buddhism:

  • Yama, the God of Death;
  • Mahakala, the Great Black One;
  • Yamantaka, the Conqueror of Death;
  • Kubera or Vaisravana, the God of Wealth;
  • Hayagriva, the Horse-necked one;
  • Palden Lhamo, The Goddess;
  • Tshangs Pa or ‘White Brahma’;
  • Begtse, the God of War.

For more pictures and descriptions of myths surrounding each ‘wrathful deity,’ click here.

A great exhibit on the Tibetan Book of the Dead from University of Virginia.

Full text of Tibetan Book of the Dead online

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Science and Art

1) Voss-Andreae’s Quantum Physics-Inspired Art: “What I want is to increase the audience’s capacity to intuit the deeper nature of reality by sensually experiencing the works.”

Symmetry Breaking, a Fermilab blog, describes how Voss Andreae “infuses the classical representations of quantum objects with some philosophical interpretation….His piece “Night Path,” interprets Richard Feynman’s technique to measure all possible paths that a particle could take by “slicing up” segments of space-time and creating all possible paths. The result is a stunning work of art in which a divided up black box holds taut gold threat that collectively trace a curved path. Voss-Andreae says the path “connects the idea of the quantum mechanical path to the image of a meteor, a rock falling through the dark of the night, often believed to be connected to a meaningful event.”

2) Caleb Charland: Scientific Curiosity as an Art

3) SEED Magazine has a great article “The Future of Science is….Art.” Here are some excerpts but I would definitely suggest reading the entire article:

“In this sense, the arts are an incredibly rich data set, providing science with a glimpse into its blind spots…the surreal nature of physics is precisely why it needs the help of artists. The science has progressed beyond our ability to understand it, at least in any literal sense. As Richard Feynman put it, “Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.” It’s a brute fact of psychology that the human mind cannot comprehend the double-digit dimensions of string theory, or the possibility of parallel universes. Our mind evolved in a simplified world, where matter is certain, time flows forward and there are only three dimensions. When we venture beyond these innate intuitions, we are forced to resort to metaphor. This is the irony of modern physics: It seeks reality in its most fundamental form, and yet we are utterly incapable of comprehending these fundaments beyond the math we use to represent them. The only way to know the universe is through analogy.

As a result, the history of physics is littered with metaphorical leaps. Einstein grasped relativity while thinking about moving trains. Arthur Eddington compared the expansion of the universe to an inflated balloon. James Clerk Maxwell thought of magnetic fields as little whirlpools in space, which he called vortices. The Big Bang was just a cosmic firecracker. Schrödinger’s cat, trapped in a cosmic purgatory, helped illustrate the paradoxes of quantum mechanics. It’s hard to imagine string theory without its garden hose.”

4) “What is Art?” Excerpts, by Leo Tolstoy

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