About the Artwork

This beautiful painting by Sunlal Ratna Tamang depicts the main events in the life of the Buddha, which in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition are usually divided into the 'Twelve Great Deeds of Shakyamuni Buddha'. In various listings these deeds generally include: 1. His descent as a bodhisattva from Tushita Heaven. 2. His entry into his mother's womb. 3. His birth at Lumbini. 4. His youthful studies and pleasures. 5. His four excursions from the palace. 6. His renunciation. 7. His six-year period of practicing austerities. 8. His attainment of enlightenment at the vajra-seat in Bodh Gaya. 9. His teaching or Turning the Wheel of Dharma. 10. His descent from Trayatrimsha Heaven. 11. His performance of miracles. 12. His Parinirvana. Shakyamuni, the 'Sage of the Shakya Clan', sits in vajra-posture upon a moon disc, lotus and golden throne at the center of this composition, with his left hand resting in his lap as he holds his blue alms-bowl, and his right hand making the earth-witness gesture. Flanking the Buddha are his two principle disciples, Sariputra and Maudgalyayana, who both stand upon lotus pedestals and hold the attributes of an alms-bowl and a mendicants staff (khakkhara). Amidst clouds in the upper left corner of this thangka sits the Bodhisattva Svetaketu, who is shown here in the heavenly realm of Tushita teaching the gods, including Brahma and Sakra. Beneath their cloud-borne palaces appears the earthly palace of King Shuddodhana and Queen Mayadevi. Mayadevi is shown sleeping on her right side on a full-moon night in July, while she has a vivid dream. In this dream she was transported to a heavenly realm where a magnificence white bull elephant with six tusks first circumambulated her three times, then painlessly entered her womb through her right side. This great white elephant, which was the form in which the Bodhisattva Svetaketu chose to enter Mayadevi's womb, is shown amidst the dragon-borne clouds above, bearing the precious wish-granting gem upon the silk saddle blanket that covers his back.

The scene of the Bodhisattva's birth is shown on the upper right of this painting, where Mayadevi has just given birth, while her sister Prajapati kneels adoringly before the radiant newborn child. Simultaneously two celestial gods appear above to bathe the child with streams of pure water, while the gods Brahma and Sakra come to worship the child and offer him their attributes of a golden wheel and a white conch. Then the child took seven steps, at each of which a lotus miraculously appeared to support his feet, as he declared: "For enlightenment was I born, and for the good of all that lives. This is the last time I will take rebirth into this world of becoming." The child was named Siddhartha Gautama, and King Shuddodhana determined that his son must become the great chakrarvartin that should rightfully succeed him. So he firmly resolved to shield Siddhartha from the harsh realities of life by confining him to the luxuries and sensual pleasures of his opulent palace with its beautiful grounds. His father selected an unstained noble maiden named Yasodhara to be his wife, and Siddhartha's youth continued to pass like a heavenly dream, with beautiful girls, musicians, fragrant food, and all the fineries of life always at hand. These scenes are depicted in the left central area of the painting, where Siddhartha is shown wearing garments of the finest Benares silks whilst he is entertained by dancing girls and musicians. He was also taught by the finest tutors and became very skillful in the physical and martial arts, and to illustrate this he is shown below practicing archery.

In the pavilion at the center right Prince Siddhartha is shown being told by three women about the wide world that exists beyond the palace gates, and to accommodate the prince's increasing desire to see this world his father arranged several royal excursions. But first the king made sure that all the poor, infirm and elderly common people would not appear on the intended route. The gilded horse-drawn chariots that transported the prince are shown in front of the pavilion, and below are a group of five silk-clad maidens who are waiting to distract the prince by playing musical instruments. However, on his first encounter with the outside world Siddhartha sees an old man, and upon being told about the process of aging by his charioteer, the prince returns swiftly to his palace in dismay. A similar encounter occurs on his second trip when he sees a diseased or infirm man, and on his third trip when he sees a corpse, and then subsequently learns about the terrifying realities of sickness and death from his charioteer. The small images of these three encounters - an old man with a stick, an infirm man, and a corpse being carried on a bier - are shown beneath the horse drawn chariots. Then finally on his fourth excursion from the palace he encountered a wandering ascetic, whose serenely detached countenance and insightful words greatly impresses Siddhartha.

Thus it was that at the age of twenty-nine Siddhartha became disenchanted with the fleeting pleasures of this world and decided to renounce his kingdom. This coincided with the birth of his son Rahula, and the fact that his father had decided to abdicate the throne in favor of his son. Siddhartha saw both of these events as ties that would bind him forever to the world of becoming, so with the help of Chandaka, his trusted charioteer, he secretly left the palace at night and rode forth on his horse far from the palace until they reached a hermitage. Here Siddhartha exchanged his silk garments for the rags of a beggar, removed all of his golden ornaments and gave them to Chandaka, then after shaving his long hair-locks with his sword he dismissed his charioteer with a poignant message of farewell to his father and his wife. This scene of Siddhartha's renunciation appears in front of the white stupa to the lower left of center, which was later built to commemorate this event.

For the next six years Siddhartha practiced meditation under the guidance of several of the most accomplished teachers of his time. Yet after having attained mastery of their methods and techniques he still failed to come to terms with the dilemma of suffering. So along with a group of five other ascetics he decided to practice extreme austerities, until his body grew so weak that only his skin and bones remained. In this pitiable condition of self-torture he realized that his life could only continue if he felt stronger, this implied nourishment, so he decided to avoid all extremes and take the 'middle way'. Thus it was that the daughter of a cowherd came with a bowl of milk-rice and offered it to the starving ascetic, and thus fortified Siddhartha made his way to the roots of a sacred fig or bodhi tree where he resolved to sit and not move until he had attained enlightenment. And it also so happened that a grass-cutter came by and provided Siddhartha with a bundle of kusha-grass for his seat. The scene of the ascetic Siddhartha seated upon his 'vajra-seat' beneath the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya appears on the lower right of this painting, with the grass-cutter and cowherd's daughter making their offerings of kusha-grass and the bowl of milk-rice below him.

The scene in the lower left corners depicts Siddhartha's defeat of the ten divisions of Mara's army and his subsequent awakening to enlightenment as a Buddha beneath the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya. Mara, the 'tempter', represents the forces of delusion that inhibit spiritual awakening, which symbolically appear here as seven divisions of demonic entities who hurtle various lethal weapons at Siddhartha amidst a maelstrom of wind and fire. Mara's three other divisions are his 'three daughters' - Tanha (desire), Arati (discontent), and Raga (craving) - who simultaneously appear before the Buddha and attempt to distract him with their seductive powers. But Siddhartha remains serenely impassive while he transmutes all Mara's weapons into flowers.

The scene in the lower right corner depicts Shakyamuni Buddha transmitting the 'Three Turnings the Wheel of Dharma', which he taught at different times and places. Shakyamuni was first petitioned to teach by Brahma and Sakra, who appear here on either side of the Buddha's golden throne, along with the five ascetics disciples who first received his teachings in Sarnath. Surrounding Shakyamuni are eleven Buddhas, who represent the Buddhas of the center and ten directions.

The next scene appears in the upper right corner and records the time when the Buddha ascended to Indra's celestial heaven in order to teach Abhidharma to the gods and his mother, Mayadevi, who had taken rebirth here. The Buddha spent three months teaching in this paradise realm before descending again to this world at Sankasya, and he is shown here being accompanied by Brahma and Sakra, three of his monastic disciples, and two other celestial gods.

The scene at the lower left of center depicts the great miracles the Buddha performed at Shravasti when he was fifty-seven years old. These arose because the proponents of India's six main philosophical schools had challenged Shakyamuni to a contest of miracles, which he repeatedly appeared to avoid. However, this contest finally took place over a fifteen-day period in the city of Shravasti, where King Prasenjit had built a hall with seven thrones especially for this occasion. For the first seven days the Buddha manifested the most phenomenal miracles. Then on the eighth day he completely defeated his opponents by pressing his right hand on his lion-throne, which created a thunderous earthquake from whence Vajrapani and four of his yaksha-deity attendants emerged. These wrathful deities swiftly destroyed the thrones of the Buddha's six jealous opponents, and they are depicted beneath the Buddha's throne in this painting. The six opponents were later ordained by the Buddha and appear here at the sides of his throne, along with Brahma and Sakra. The Buddha is encircled by a radiant golden aura in which fourteen smaller Buddhas manifest, representing the miracles performed by the Buddha on the other fourteen days of this miracle contest.

The final scene at the lower right of center depicts the Buddha's passing into parinirvana, the final-nirvana or passing beyond suffering that the Buddha manifested at the age of eighty in the town of Kushinagara. Here the Buddha asked his disciple Ananda to prepare a couch for him between two great flowering sal trees, upon which the Buddha laid down on his right side with his head resting upon his right hand. The Buddha then spoke his final words to Ananda, and three times asked his assembled disciples if they had any questions, but none asked. Finally he said, "All things are subject to decay; therefore be mindful and vigilant." Then he serenely passed into parinirvana.

© text by Robert Beer

Popular Images

About Our Prints


PEM Custom Prints offers exclusive custom reproductions of artworks in the collections of the Peabody Essex Museum. Hand-made in the USA using gallery-quality materials, we create prints as true to the original work as possible, using strict color management protocols and state-of-the-art printing technology.


Many of the works offered through this store are exclusive and not available anywhere else. We are continually adding new artworks to our offering, so be sure to check back regularly as you build your own gallery. A variety of molding styles means our custom framed prints can match any type of decor.

Member Discounts

PEM Members receive their 10% discount for all PEM Custom Prints purchases. Simply enter your valid member number into the form at checkout and the discount will be applied to the items in your cart. Member discounts cannot be combined with other offers.