Articles About Tibetan Thangka Painting - index:

An Introduction to Tibetan Thangka Painting

What is a Thangka?

Female Deities In Tibetan Buddhism

Green Tara and the Twenty-one Taras

The Mandala And Its Symbolism

Wrathful Deities of the Tibetan Buddhist Pantheon

The Wheel Of Life

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Female Deities In Tibetan Buddhism

There are many female deities in the Buddhist pantheon, as well as the innumerable male figures, ranging from 'mother' figures to offering goddesses and historical figures. They fall into seven main groups, which are:

1. Mother figures - including Green Tara 'The Incomparable Saviour' who embodies the perfect qualities of all the buddhas, removes hindrances and acts swiftly to help all sentient beings. She is often depicted with the assembly of 21 Taras, who are emanations of her own being acting in specific circumstances to free beings from suffering, Green Tara grants freedom from the Eight Great Fears.  Also in this group are Prajnaparamita the 'mother of all buddhas'; White Tara is often depicted with Ushnisha Vijaya and Namgyalma forming a 'healing trinity' of long-life goddesses.

2. Deities like Tara are invoked to promote long life, wisdom, awareness and compassion.

3. Female Buddhas - such as Kurukulla (the 'enticer'), Ushnisha Sitapatatra and Marichi.

4. Consorts of male deities (Yums) - such as Vajrayogini, the white Samantabhadri, and Vishvamata.

5. Vajradakinis - such as Troma Nakpo Sukhasiddhi and Vajravarahi the 'diamond sow' (the pig or sow represents ignorance in Buddhism and she appears in a dancing posture with the severed head of a sow, symbolising the end of ego-led existence or samsara).

6. Female Protectors - such as Palden Lhamo, etc.

7. Historical Figures - such as Laksmi Bhiksuni, Ghantapa and Dompipa.

There are also several different groups of Offering Goddesses, often depicted in paintings holding precious objects or items of sensory delight. Each figure that appears in the art and practice of Tibetan Buddhism has a specific quality and can be seen as the fulfillment of an aspect of human consciousness. All schools of Buddhism acknowledge the existence of magical powers or siddhis and although they are not the goal of Buddhist practice the experience of them helps the practitioner to form an understanding of the potential for human enlightenment.  Often the siddhi of clairvoyance forms an integral part of the story of a deity - many times a figure appears in a vision in answer to a specific or urgent need and as a result helps an individual to broaden their perception of reality. I have chosen to paint the goddess Vajrayogini and since she is the subject of widespread practice I will describe in detail some of the symbolism and background of the image:

Vajrayogini (Tibetan Dorje Naljorma, meaning "sky-dancer of Naropa") is the queen of the Dakini paradise and most notably appeared in a vision to the 11th century mahasiddha Naropa as an old hag (perhaps reflecting his over-scholarly attitude and neglect of the life-giving new inspiration which the dakinis represent). More commonly Vajrayogini appears as a sixteen-year-old maiden. In the painting, she stands atop a lotus flower (symbol of a correct moral code) and interlocking red triangles, which represent the creation of the universe (these are visualised as a three-dimensional tunnel extending from the centre of the Earth to infinite space). On this symbol are painted four "bliss" swirls, representing the four stages of energy movement up and down in the human body as part of the specific "inner heat" yoga practice. Vajrayogini stands upon an image of herself, symbolising transcendence of form, and an image of the Hindu god Kalarati, who presides over the realm of desire. She brandishes a ritual knife to cut away attachment to the physical world and a skull-cup filled with blood symbolising blissful, clear consciousness. On her shoulder lies a staff representing her male consort Chakrasamvara. Her body, which itself represents the sixth perfection of wisdom, is brilliant red. Red is the colour of passionate emotion and life force, which are transformed by her blissful dance in the emptiness of space. She is naked, showing her freedom from ordinary appearances, except for bone ornaments (her crown, belt, apron, necklace and bracelets symbolising the other five perfections: patience, generosity, discipline, effort and meditative concentration). Around her neck hangs a garland of 50 human skulls (symbolising pure speech and the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet) which are bleached dry by the "inner heat" generated by the yoga practice associated with her; this practice has spread to many parts of the world and is one of the more popular Buddhist practices. In India some ascetics go through a five-year retreat in search of a vision of Vajrayogini, in which they remain in a cave reciting the mantra, after which if they fail they will start the retreat again. Painted in front of the deity is a skull-cup containing the human sense organs with flames coming from them, this symbolises how the limitations of our attachment to physical desires can be transformed by understanding the emptiness of all phenomena.

There are eight other forms of the goddess in Tibetan Buddhist art and practice; these include one dancing, one jumping and others with various body colours and numbers of arms. Overall Vajrayogini symbolises the transformation of base human emotion as passion into compassion for all beings through the understanding of the inseparability of bliss and emptiness.

by Peter "Zotec" Newman, Cumbria, England ©2002-2009


Weber, A. & Landaw, J. - "Images of Enlightenment", Tibetan Art in Practice. (Snow Lion) [pp.139 - 144]

Vessantara - "Meeting the Buddhas". (Windhorse Publications) [pp.264, 265, 279 - 282]

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