The central figure in each of these five paintings represents a manifestation of one of the five tathagata buddhas or ‘departed ones’. The figures can be immediately identified by the color of their bodies and the animal vehicles embedded in the thrones below them. Vairochana (white) of the central direction sits atop lions; Akshobhya (blue) of the East sits atop elephants; Ratnasambahva (yellow) of the South sits atop horses; Amoghasiddhi (green) of the North sits atop garudas; Amitabha (red) of the West sits atop peacocks. These buddhas emerge from the dharmakaya, an abstract and all-pervasive reality, to which they return after their dissolution. They are depicted in the Mahayana Buddhist context as figures that more closely resemble the historical buddha Shakyamuni, who is a nirmanakaya form, or one born from the ‘Dimension of Ceaseless Manifestation’. In the Mahayana context, each of the tathagata is understood as an aspect of the historical buddha of our kalpa or eon, Shakyamuni.
The present forms of these tathagata buddhas are distinguished as Tantric manifestations by their appearance. They do not display their typical gestures or mudras, are adorned with silks and jewels, and are shown in sexual embrace with their female counterparts. These manifestations do not exist in the Mahayana Buddhist context, as they originate within later Vajrayana literature born out of Northeastern India and Tibet from the eighth century onward. In the Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhist context they are known as the Five Symbolic Buddhas and remain associated with cardinal directions, though they serve much more complex soteriological means. The aureoles of rainbow light surrounding these figures, as well as the peaceful and wrathful retinue figures that surround them, are all features to be internalized by the mind’s eye for the purpose of a transformative meditation practice.
The teachings associated with this particular set of paintings, as evidenced by the inclusion of a number of human figures whose appearance identifies them as ‘treasure revealers,’ originate in the Nyingma tradition of Vajrayana in Tibet. While many Nyingma practices were absorbed into the later, more regimented, schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Kagyu, Sakya, Gelug, etc.), the omission of human lineage holders from any of these other traditions confirms the sectarian association of this commission.
Nyingma teachers are depicted within the compositions of Vairochana and Akshobya, in each four corners. There are two additional teachers at the bottom center of the Ratnasambhava painting and there is one siddha or accomplished tantric practitioner depicted at the bottom of the Amitayus painting. Nine out of the eleven teachers depicted in these compositions don lotus-style hats, particular to Nyingma convention. Padmasambhava, one of the original progenitors of Vajrayana in Tibet, and Yeshe Tsogyel, considered the Mother of Tibetan Buddhism, are depicted in the upper right and bottom left corners of the Vairochana composition (Padmasambhava is identified by the vulture feather atop his hat and Yeshe Tsogyel, merely by her female identity). The two other Nyingma teachers depicted herein hold vessels that indicate their status as treasure revealers: the figure in the upper right holds a vessel in the Akshobhya composition and one of the figures along the bottom register holds one within the painting of Ratnasambhava.
The teachings depicted here are, therefore, a 'discovered treasure' or terma. Terma, some of which were literally said to have been buried in the ground, were discovered by the most advanced teachers. Many are believed to have been buried by Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyel in an effort to protect the Dharma for posterity. Each terma text recounts the history of its discovery. While some are found in physical form, others are discovered or directly transmitted to advanced practitioners in a state of meditation. The terma may also be held in the mind of the terton, only to be revealed by a future incarnation or trul-ku.
It is, therefore, likely that the meditation script associated with the present five images is embedded somewhere within the great compendium of Nyingma teachings known as the Rinchen Terdzo. The invaluable compendium contains thousands of teachings, mostly terma, passed down by Nyingma teachers over the course of centuries. Tibetan polymath Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye (1813-1899) assembled the collection near the end of the 19th century. Figures depicted in the compositions of Ratnasambhava, Amoghasiddhi, and Amitayus—such as the muni or sages in the upper corners, the offering goddesses and bodhisattvas floating within their rainbow aureoles, and the wrathful protectors along the bottom register—can be found within existing sets of initiation cards for the Rinchen Terdzo, by which practitioners are introduced to all of the aspects of the tantras and meditation manuals within.