The Rebirth Among the Sacred Trees: Trees in Himalayan Iconography (Part 1)

The Rebirth Among the Sacred Trees: Trees in Himalayan Iconography (Part 1)


That wise heart is like a big tree independent of the world
One of the 84 great achievers
Saraha Rinpoche(ས་ར་ཧ་)


 "Sermon of the Buddha", Swat Museum, No. 788
Note the mango tree in the background (ཙུ་ཏའི་ཤིང་)
This incident relates to the Buddha subduing an outsider.


"Samsara Wheel of Life" 19th century, Rubin Museum of Art, New York


Local: The dispute between gods and asuras over the longevity tree


"Lifecycles of the Six Realms",18th century, Rubin Museum of Art, New York


Local: The tree of contention between the two parties grows on the Asura path but blooms and bears fruit on the Deva path.


"The Great Achievers: Sarahah the Wise and Others"
19th Century, New York Ruben Museum


Close-up: The monkey looks down at the practitioners from the tree.
This is a classic combination symbolizing the forest of practice.


"The Venerable Medzuba", 19th century, private collection

Local: Marba Translator
He is a student of Mezhi Ba.


Local: The tree symbolizing the Dharma seal behind the statue of Saraswati.


Local: Symbolizing the peach tree of the Marpa translator
The peach tree is attached to the big tree (transmission of the teachings)


"The Medicine Master's Forum City," 20th century, American Museum of Natural History
Typically used as the first image in a mandala (medical thangka)


Local: Medicinal trees in the medicinal herb forest


Six-armed Mahakala, 19th century, Rubin Museum of Art, New York
Attributed to the founder of the Shambhala tradition, Chögyam Trungpa
(ཁྱུང་པོ་རྣལ་འབྱོར་;1002-1064), brought to Tibet


Local: The sandalwood tree behind Mahakala(ཙན་སྡོང་)
The sandalwood tree is associated with Mahakala's South Asian origins.



Holy Mark

With branches dense and leaves lush reaching into the sky, the tree's large roots extend deep into the Dragon Palace. I believe that even in places with sparse vegetation, the shared memories of trees among people will not diminish, especially on the snowy plateau where natural and mythological trees grow together. When we talk about trees in Tibetan cultural imagery, there are generally three expressions of intent: as a forest for dwelling (ཤིང་ནགས་/ནགས་), as a symbol of life, and as a sacred tree favored by heavenly beings (ལྷ་ཤིང་).

If we consider a tree as a composite entity, its roots could be seen as the symbol of truth in philosophical discourse, its leaves as the material for spreading classics and doctrines, its flowers as the source of fragrance mixed with compassion and love, and its fruits as the most tangible treasure of nectar. In the following text, I will try to write about the natural landscapes in the imagery history of the Himalayas and Tibet.

In this natural landscape, the mountains, rivers, lakes, trees, and land each have their own significance. In the image, colors express order, and space reveals meaning. In every corner of nature that humans have depicted, we will find that heavenly paradise where we can reside. Do not forget that nature is a whole, and do not forget that we are sheltered by it.


"Birth of Buddha", Baisaw Museum, No. 2725


"Nirvana of Buddha", Taksila Museum, exhibit number 6


Although in the biography of Buddha, each important moment (twelve in total) has a corresponding sacred tree, the most iconic ones are the Bodhi tree where Buddha was born without worry, the Bodhi tree where Buddha attained enlightenment, and the Sala tree under which Buddha entered Nirvana.

In early Buddhist iconography, the absence of idols was the most important feature, with the sacred tree being one of the symbols commonly used as a substitute for the image of the Buddha. It is important to note that this practice of linking the sacred tree with the sacred person is a form of "tree worship" in South Asia. Apart from the sacred tree associated with the Buddha, the sacred trees in the Buddhist system are more or less related to their fruits and flowers, which we will discuss in the section on flowers and fruits.


"The Birth of Buddha", 13th century, private recording
This event took place in Lumbini Garden.


Local: The Tree of No Worries
The mother of the Buddha, Queen Maya, is seen touching a tree branch with her right hand
The Buddha is emerging from her right side


Local: Right side of the Buddha's ribs
Seven lotus flowers represent the seven lotus flowers that appeared when the Buddha was born.


"The Buddha Descending", 20th century, Rubin Museum of Art, New York.


Locale: Worry-free tree
In the later style of Tibetan areas, the appearance of the worry-free tree becomes more stylized. The previous one fits the true appearance of the worry-free tree better.


"Vajrayogini" by Kundun Danba, 20th century
The Vajrayogini depicted by Kundun Danba
Restores the face of a young girl
The wish-fulfilling tree branch in her hand symbolizes the power to dispel darkness.


"Surrender of Mara's Army", 18th century, Rubin Museum of Art, New York
Generally considered as a step in the "Enlightenment of Buddha"
The scene is set at the holy Buddhist site of Bodh Gaya


Local: Great Bodhi Tree
The six Buddhas before Buddha also have their own Bodhi trees
The Bodhi tree is still being worshiped by followers in Bodh Gaya


Today's great Bodhi tree


"Submission of the Devil's Horde", 19th century, Rubin Museum of Art, New York


Locale: The Great Bodhi Tree


"Nirvana of Buddha",19th century, Boston Museum of Fine Arts
This scene takes place by the river in Kusinara (Kushinagar), amidst a grove of Sal trees.


Local:Sarangheya Forest


"Jataka Tales of the Buddha", 14th century, private collection.


Partial: Buddha lying in between two Sal trees in Parinirvana
Lying on his right side, with his left foot placed over his right foot


"Maitreya Buddha", 19th century, Norton Simon Museum


Local:Liquidambar tree(ཀླུ་ཤིང་)

The tree planted next to the Palace of Maitreya Buddha is a kind of mango tree that gives off a sweet fragrance.


"Maitreya Buddha", 18th century, Rubin Museum of Art in New York.
This is a classic style of the Karma Gadri painting school.
Situ Rinpoche refers to it as the "Youthful Bodhisattva Appearance".


Local: Pine tree (གསོམ་ཤིང་)
The pine tree embodies the description of "Maitreya is present" (བྱམས་པ་བདེ་སྣང་)
It is also one of the sacred trees commonly used in the Karma Gadri painting tradition


In the next article, I will focus on the concept of the Tree of Life as a sacred tree and as a background element in art. Additionally, we will analyze the requirements for depicting trees in Tibetan art and explore the profound insights of the Karma Gadri school in capturing the beauty of nature. Stay tuned!


The trees provide us shelter,
It is the sunlight that shines through their branches.


This article is translated from Sorang Wangqing's blog.

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