The Way of Nature in the "Six Longevity Paintings"

The Way of Nature in the "Six Longevity Paintings"

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 "Six Longevity Paintings", 19th century, Zanabazar Fine Arts Museum


For a long period of time, artists of the classical era often focused on a question: how can we protect the sanctity of the environment, and what connection does this sanctity have with humanity. These artists were well aware that people could never be satisfied with the status quo, and this destructive desire would lead more people to neglect the beauty of nature around them. In order to address this issue in their artworks, classical artists created a more symbolic environment. This environment not only reflected the scenery of everyday life, but also showcased richer meanings in different cultural contexts. In Tibetan Buddhism, the "Six Longevity Paintings" (ཚེ་རིང་རྣམ་དྲུག་) as a traditional religious image, but the symbolism behind it transcends mere religious expectations. The images no longer just deliver preachy messages, but explore themes of survival and a path to peaceful coexistence.


"Six Longevity Woodblock Prints", 20th century, private collection


We have no way of determining when the image combination of "Six Longevity Thangka" became popular in the Tibetan area, nor can we obtain a key event about its birth through literature. Generally speaking, in the Tibetan area, the "Six Longevity Thangka" and similar images (such as "Four Friends in Harmony") are collectively referred to as "teaching images" (བསླབ་བྱའི་རི་མོ་). Teaching images, as the name suggests, refer to conveying specific ethical concepts or religious principles through images. "Six Longevity Thangka" is often painted on the walls of temples or private residences; because in the Tibetan area, a popular teaching image can not only enhance people's understanding of Buddhism, but also convey a simple vision of happiness. However, regardless of the form of teaching, the "Six Longevity Thangka" regards the harmony between nature and humans (which can also be understood as the highest state of practice) as the ultimate goal.


"Six Longevity Screens", 18th century, Rubin Museum of Art, New York


It is generally believed that the "Six Longevity Thangkas" contain elements from many other cultural regions, primarily Han China and South Asia. Common interpretations of the "Six Longevity Thangkas" stem from the Sakya scholar Cuicheng Renqing (ཞུ་ཆེན་ཚུལ་ཁྲིམས་རིན་ཆེན་; 1697-1774) and the 9th Panchen Lama Chokyi Nyima (ཆོས་ཀྱི་ཉི་མ་; 1883-1937). In their interpretations, they emphasize the possible multi-layered meanings of the symbols in the images, and how these symbols come together to form specific allegories about the "natural state".


"Cui Changren Green," 18th century, Rubin Museum of Art, New York


Cui Chengrenqing's Explanation on the "Six Longevity Pictures"


One of the most popular storylines about the "Six Longevity Icons" is set in a forest in East Asia, or possibly in a grove in South Asia, with a specific name for this space: the Great Joyful Forest (སྐྱིད་ཚལ་ཆེན་པོ་). In the Great Joyful Forest, there are six objects of longevity revered by people, namely the Longevity Mountain (རི་ཚེ་རིང་) or Longevity Rock (བྲག་ཚེ་རིང་), the Longevity Spring (ཆུ་ཚེ་རིང་), the Longevity Tree (ཤིང་ཚེ་རིང་), the Longevity Beast (རི་དྭགས་ཚེ་རིང་), the Longevity Bird (བྱ་ཚེ་རིང་), and the Longevity Elderly (མི་ཚེ་རིང་). These six objects of longevity are blessed by Amitayus Buddha and depend on each other within the Great Joyful Forest, maintaining the balance of natural forces. In some texts, such as those mentioned above, this forest is located in the Mahashina (མ་ཧ་ཙི་ན་) region. There are two interpretations of this place name: in pre-18th-century texts, it was seen as a place for practitioners in the northern mountains of South Asia (the unsurpassed Joyful Grove of Shiva); while after the 18th century, Tibetan scholars understood it as Han Chinese territory (China). Different interpretations of "ཙི་ན་" exist in various texts due to differences in word origins.


"Six Longevity Paintings", 19th century, Northern Asian style,
Ulaanbaatar, Zanabazar Museum


Changshou Mountain is like a right-turning conch shell, a sacred place bestowed with blessings by the Buddha. The imprints of the right-turning conch shell can be found on the rocks, symbolizing the ultimate victory of the dharma. In the land of Tibet, caves are the best place for Buddhist masters to practice, meditate, and write down their insights on the dharma. Therefore, in the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism, Changshou Mountain seems to emphasize a kind of focus and perseverance towards something, a manifestation of calmness and non-anger in meditation. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the mountain is the footprints of ancestors, the traces of spirits, and the homes of people living by the mountain. The mountains are imagined by people as the boundary between heaven and earth, even becoming the most important "sacred mountain worship" in Tibetan indigenous beliefs. Every mountain god in the snowy plateau has become the eternal protector of wanderers.


The Longevity Spring flowing out of Changshou Mountain is a light blue water with eight special qualities (not bitter, not boiling, not hard, not heavy, not turbid, not muddy, not harmful to the throat and not harmful to the stomach), which is the immortal nectar in the Amitayus Buddha's treasure bottle. Changshou Mountain and Longevity Spring nourish all kinds of creatures in the Great Joy Forest like parents. In the biographies of most Tibetan religious masters, encountering a clear water body means that the practice is about to be completed, or the practitioner is about to discover the great Terma (the highest secret teachings hidden in nature, according to the Nyingma tradition), which is the grace brought by persistent practice. In Tibetan culture, the water of life is also the water of wisdom, so successive classical intellectuals in Tibetan areas have regarded the protection of water sources as the most important duty of monasteries.


"Six Longevity Pictures",17th century, mixed style,

Los Angeles County Museum of Art


Local: Landscape trees


The first to be nourished by the mountains and waters in the image is the lush long-lived tree, which could be a pear tree, peach tree, or pine tree. Anyone who feels the breeze and shade under the tree will be blessed with longevity. It is generally believed that the fruits of the long-lived tree have eight miraculous effects (four health benefits and four ritual effects). The fruits symbolize all the pure food (non-meat) and healing medicines that humans can obtain from nature, which are used to please and offer to the gods. In indigenous religions, the tree of life is the gathering place of the four elements of the universe (earth, water, fire, and wind). In Buddhism, Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, and deities use trees to adorn their thrones. Practitioners observe the eternal in the midst of all changes under the tree: order and orderliness. In Tibetan medical iconography, trees are also tools that represent the true essence of health, as people have always understood that the veins of trees extend to all known and unknown places, all living places.


"Six Longevity Paintings",18th century

Collected by Robert and Lois Baylls


Local: The mountain and water underneath the Amitabha Buddha statue


"Six Longevity Woodblock Prints",20th century,

Dege style,Rubin Museum of Art, New York


The long-lived immortal, with white hair and white beard, relies on the tree of longevity. He is unaffected by the laws of life and death, having practiced for a thousand years. He is the incarnation of the Buddha of Infinite Life and embodies the concept of wisdom. The image of the long-lived old man is widespread in various parts of Asia. There are ancient Chinese gods like the South Pole Immortal and the long-lived elders of South Asia, as well as the gods of old people in North Asia and the ancestors of the Naxi people. It is said that this long-lived immortal possesses seven characteristics that ordinary people find difficult to attain: lightness towards life and death, wisdom, accumulation of merit, clarity of mind, fearlessness, ease of change, and universal love. In images, the long-lived immortal is often depicted holding beads and a staff, seemingly telling the oldest stories, from the beginning of nature to the emergence of humanity, to all love, hatred, emotions, and causes and effects.


An East Asian styled long-lived old man


A venerable old monk in the image of longevity


image of a venerable old Brahmin man


Sage Image of Longevity Old Man


The dragon-headed staff and the scripture in the hands of the Longevity Immortal


"Six Longevity Scrolls", 19th century, Buryat History Museum


The most loyal audience of the Longevity Immortal are the Longevity Beast and the Longevity Bird, who rely on the fruits of the Longevity Tree to receive nourishment from the essence of nature, and lead all beings into the Great Joyful Forest. In the image, deer (representing Lu) are used to represent the Longevity Beast, while immortal cranes, storks, swans, and peacocks (the use of immortal cranes is a result of the influence of Han elements after the 18th century) are used to represent the Longevity Bird. The Longevity Birds and Longevity Beasts in the image appear in pairs, traditionally interpreted as corresponding to the perfect union of dual cultivation in Tantric Buddhism.


"Six Longevity Icons," 18th century, private collection


Local: The long-lived bird and long-lived beast lead a variety of creatures on the right to the Great Joyful Forest.


In traditional Buddhism, birds are often used to convey messages, or their feathers are used as important decorations (signs of wisdom), so specific bird species often symbolize reverence. Deer, as animals symbolizing longevity, represent the practice of patience. In South Asian traditions, deer are seen as possessing wisdom and great mental stability, as they are able to focus on themselves without being distracted by external factors. Therefore, many yogis and Buddhist practitioners use deer skins as clothing or cushions, believing that they can absorb the supreme essence of deer and enhance their own mental stability.


Local: Longevity bird and Longevity beast


One of the most exquisite "Six Longevity Gods" comes from the Rubin Museum in New York City and is a 19th-century work. From the Sakya Five Patriarchs above the image, it can be inferred that this work is sponsored by the Sakya sect. The Longevity Immortal is seated on the back of the Longevity Beast, holding a symbol of the operation of heaven and earth and the natural rise and fall of the symbol, while a fairy on the right side offers him a fairy peach. Another woodcut print from the Rubin Museum in New York City may reveal the source of the composition framework of the previous work. In front of both works, there is a table full of countless auspicious objects, with devotees of different races kneeling on both sides of the table eager to obtain longevity: an ability that can only be obtained by understanding the path of peace.


"Six Longevity Paintings", 19th century, Rubin Museum of Art, New York


"Six Longevity Design Woodblock Prints," 19th century

Rubin Museum of Art, New York


Local: The Fifth Patriarch of the Sakya lineage and Amitayus Buddha


Local: Natural symbols (star patterns)


Locally: Caregivers gathered around the table


For us, longevity means eternity. In "The Six Longevity Symbols", the seemingly transcendent space actually still follows some kind of cycle. This cycle forces us to shift our focus from the image to the real world, where we live and where the unique space that truly grants us longevity exists.


In "Six Longevity Paintings", the connection between nature and biology, and between humans and nature, is depicted so clearly and vividly. It is thanks to the Longevity Mountain and Longevity Spring that the trees, birds, and animals are able to survive. As a symbol of humanity, the Longevity Immortal may seem like a bystander, but let us not forget: without the previous five longevity elements as the background, the Longevity Immortal would not be able to exist as the main character in the painting. If the Longevity Immortal is not seen as the writer and practitioner of natural rules, then even if this old man is removed from the image, it seems that there would be nothing inappropriate.


The longevity immortal in the Great Lelin is just like the myriad beings by the green waters and mountains, only by acknowledging the path of peace and happiness granted by nature in the cycle of cause and effect, can one reside perpetually in a realm abundant with blessings, isn't it?


To become the so-called "masters of nature" is not because of how unique we are, but because we can actively make changes to maintain the path of peace and happiness, isn't it?


"Six Longevity Charts" ,19th century, American Museum of Natural History

Though there may be changes, we are still in this joyful grove.


This article is translated from Sorang Wangqing's blog.

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