Medicine Buddha with 51 Images 12’ x 8’, 14th century Tangkha in the Tohgeno collection, 47-1 Sanjo-doori,Takakura nishi-hairu, Kyoto, Japan. Rescued during the destruction of the Samye Monastery in 1967, a pious monk hand-carried this splendid work of art, by night, at the height of the cultural revolution, first by foot to Lhasa, then to Chamdo, Dege’ and finally to Chengdu, where after careful inquiries, a place and owner were found outside of China for safe keeping. It was taken via Hong Kong to the Tohgendo collection in Kyoto, in 1972, for proper care and respect filled preservation.
Since then, from 1972 until 2008, this rare and precious work of art, unique for its size, and style of painting (from Kham, East Tibet), has inspired scholars, and monks’ to attempt an analysis. During the fall of 2008, under the guidance of the Tohgendo Museum’s director, Morimoto Yasuyoshi, a painstaking period of research, on a daily, exhaustive basis, has identified the symbols and images of this rare and ancient treasure.
The central figure is unmistakably that of the Medicine Buddha, Bhaishajya Guru, in one of his eight manifestations. Bhaishajya Guru holds a bowl with the myrobalan (arura) plant in his left hand, with his right hand touching the earth, calling on Prvithi – mother earth goddess — to witness his enlightened power to heal, and bring Dzogchen monks who become “rainbow body” into the Eastern Heavens of Aksobya (wisdom), rather than passing through the 49 day Bardo to the Western Heavens of Amida (compassion).
The Tangkha contains multiple Buddha figures, identifying it as a “Medicine Buddha with 51 images,” painted in unfading mineral colors on goache (cotton) canvas. Scholars have written about this form of Tangkha, related to Dzoghen meditation and monk practitioners who have attained “rainbow body.” Its name comes from the fact that there are 22 Buddhas on either side of the main Medicine Buddha in the center (44 in all), which with the six Buddhas at the top center, and Medicine Buddha himself, make a total of 51 images.
This unique Tangkha, painted in the style of monk-artists from east Tibet or Kham, was commissioned to commemorate the attainment of the “rainbow body” by Longchen Rabjam , (1306-1364-9), the great abbot of Samye monastery, who wrote the definitive treatise on the “Nyingtik” form of Dzogchen meditation practice. His image appears in the top left hand corner of the Tangkha, the traditional place for representing the monk or holy person in whose honor the Tangkha is painted. The masters and transmitters of the Dzogchen tradition appear along the top row of the Tangkha, to either side of five central Buddha figures. The image of Samantha Badra, as the highest Ati Yoga Buddha, is seen here as Dorje Chang (both hands crossed, holding 2 vajra). Directly beneath the central top figure is Avalokitesvara (Chenrezi), with Manjusri and Green Tara to the left (the viewer’s rt), and Vajrasattva (Sambhoga-kaya form of Samanta Bhadra), with Maitreya, to the rt (viewer’s lt), images frequently seen in Dzogchen tangkha paintings.
The 44 Buddhas, 22 on each side of Bhaishajya gurue, are named separately. Directly beneath the Buddha figures are the 16 + 2 arhats, including the Chinese Hvasheng figure, sometimes called Mahakasyapa, to the right, and the Maitreya arhat on the left. The 18 arhat names are: Pindola, Kanakavatsa, Kanakabharajaja, Subinda, Nakula, Bhadra, Kalika, Vajraputra, Jivaka, Mahakassapa, Panthaka, Rahula, Nagasena, Angaja, Vanavasin, Ajita, Cudapanthaka, Maitreya, The Tiger Taming Arhat (17): Mahakasyapa, or “Huasheng”, the Dragon Subduing Arhat (18): (also named Kasyapa) He is best known for the Buddha’s famous “Flower Sermon.” It is said that on that occasion, the Buddha simply held up a flower, and said nothing. Only Kasyapa signified-by a wordless look-that he understood the Buddha’s teaching: enlightenment is without words. Some trace Zen/Ch’an back to this moment, which, with Tibetan Dzogchen, guarantees enlightenment in this existence.
Below the main figure of Medicine Buddha, to his left and right, are Sariputra and Maudgalyayana, who are famous for their intellectual and mystical powers respectively. Sariputra is to the right (wisdom, east), and Maudgalyayana to the Tangkha’s left (west). Slightly above and behind each disciples are Suryaprabha (Sun Buddha) to the left, seen as a male figure with red features and three heads, holding a gankyil or ‘wheel of joy’, similar in form to the ancient Chinese yin-yang symbol; its swirling central hub is composed of three, instead of two sections. The “wheel of joy” depicted with three swirls, represents the “Three Jewels” (The Buddha, his Dharma teachings, and the community of practitioners) and victory over the three poisons (pride, hatred, lust), as well as special Dzogchen meanings, including the base (void of form and judgment), path (dzogchen meditation), and fruit (the Rainbow Body, i.e., going as rainbow body to Medicine Buddha’s eastern Heaven at death). Chandraprabha (female Moon Buddha) is seen to the right, in the lower segment of the Tangkha, holding a white conch, symbol of the special wisdom (female) elements in Dzogchen practice. These two images always appear with the Medicine Buddha, and in this case Lord Buddha as the 4th of Medicine Buddha’s 8 images.
The very bottom of the Tangkha holds some of the most interesting and, unfortunately, badly damaged segments of the painting. The two bottom central figures are (left) the Sacred King and Queen, two of the seven precious gifts offered to Lord Buddha (seen arising in the clouds of incense seen beneath the main figure. Padma Sambhava, who always appears at the bottom of “Medicine Buddha with 51 Buddhas,” offers Puja and thanks to Medicine Buddha for enlightening the monk whom the Tangkha commemorates. In this case, the “Buddha Protector King” is dressed in a fashion similar to Padmakara, with the diamond-scepter of enlightened compassion in his right hand and the yogi’s skull-bowl of clear wisdom in his left. He wears on his head a Nepalese cloth crown, stylistically designed to remind one of the shape of a lotus flower. Thus he is represented as he appears in the “7 Precious Gifts” Dege woodblock collection #. To his right is a female figure, the “Precious Queen”, 2nd of the seven precious gifts, and the “Precious General” slightly behind to the left. . Of interest also is the monk standing above and behind The Queen figure, offering incense, and a book, taken to be Longchempa’s Dzogchen teachings of sudden enlightenment, to Medicine Buddha. This splendid Tangkha painting, one of many in the extensive Tohgendo collection, holds many more symbols and imagery, yet to be more fully plumbed and understood through careful research. Visiting scholars and guests come daily to view more than 60 Tangkha paintings, Buddhist bronze and wood statuary, pre-Shang jade and green bronze pieces, and classical furniture on display. To accommodate them, Tohgendo has announced a new lecture and study program for this purpose, so that its extensive collections of Chinese, Korean, Tibetan, and Japanese art is made available for the general public, as well as interested scholars, for “hands-on,” tangible and contemplative appreciation.

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