About the Artwork

This thangka, painted by Chewang Dorje in 2003, depicts the Nyingma Refuge Tree or Merit Field assembly that is visualized in the 'Preliminary Practices' (ngondro) of the Dudjom Tersar or 'New Treasures (tersar) of Dudjom' tradition, which were revealed relatively recently by Dudjom Lingpa (1835–1904) and his successor Dudjom Rinpoche. Padmasambhava is said to have composed this concise practice, along with other related practices in the early ninth century, before concealing them as hidden treasures (terma) that would be revealed in a more degenerate time when people had less time to practice the Dharma.

The Refuge Tree arises from the waters of Lake Danakosha, the sacred lake where Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, the 'Precious Guru who overwhelms the Three Worlds with his splendor', was miraculously born in the form of an eight-year-old child upon a miraculous lotus. Padmasambhava appears at the top of the tree seated upon a lotus and lion-throne, and wearing his characteristic lotus-hat and the three robes that represent his mastery of the three Buddhist yanas or 'vehicles' of the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions. His radiant aura is encircled with lotus flowers and a rainbow, and behind his lion-throne are stacks of silk-covered Buddhist texts that represent the Dharma.

Directly in front of Padmasambhava are the eight wrathful yidam or Heruka deities of the orally transmitted Mahayoga Tantra traditions, who are known as the 'Eight Accomplishing Ones' (sgrub pa bka' brgyad). They are extremely fierce, and each has three heads, four legs, and six arms. In alidha posture they stand in sexual union with their consorts, trampling upon a cushion of demons above a sun disc and lotus seat. They each hold specific attributes and wear the 'ten attires of the charnel grounds', which are: the marks or unguents of human ashes, blood and fat on the 'three bulges' of their foreheads, cheeks and chin; the flayed skins of an elephant, a man, and a tiger; their 'revolting ornaments' of hissing snakes; their ornaments of skulls and severed heads; their mighty vajra-wings, and the blazing mass of awareness fire that surrounds them.

On the large lotus-branch that extends to Padmasambhava's left is a rainbow circle that encloses the central form of Shakyamuni Buddha seated at the centre of twenty-four other Buddhas, who collectively represent the thousand Buddha's of our era. Below the Buddha assembly is the standing white form of Vidyadhara Heruka, who embraces his consort with his arms crossed in vajrahumkara-mudra as he holds his vajra and bell, while his light-red consort holds a skull-cup and makes the threatening tarjani gesture. And on the lotus-branch that extends to Padmasambhava's right is another rainbow containing an inner circle of the eight great bodhisattvas with white Avalokiteshvara at its centre. Upon the large branch of lotus petals that encompass the bottom of the tree is an assembly of the principal male and female dharmapalas or protector deities of the Nyinga tradition, which are known as 'The Assembly of Haughty or Arrogant Deities that are Oath-bound to the Three Inner Tantras.'

© text by Robert Beer

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