Beyond its most basic tenets, Buddhism is not simple. It contains complicated psychological and metaphysical theories that are difficult to understand, except after long study. This posed a problem for monks bringing the religion to communities that had no previous experience with Buddhism's Indic background. In Tibet, propagation of the religion relied, therefore, on stories of the Buddha and his past lives, a form of literature called the jataka. Another method of propagating Buddhism was through art. In the 10th century, when Buddhism was experiencing a renaissance in Tibet, the Indian tradition paintings, called thangkas, representing buddhas and bodhisattvas were used as a teaching aids to convey complicated ideas and to serve as objects upon which one could focus one's mind in meditation. They were easily transported and could serve to set up a portable alter.
Ben Meulenbeld's Buddhist Symbolism in Tibetan Thangkas provides a fine introduction to the thangka and its common subjects. Moreover, it is a beautiful book with 37 colorful plates reproducing thangkas of a large private collection of modern works painted in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. The first chapter provides an introduction to the purpose and creation of thangkas, from their design through their painting and ultimately to their framing. The second chapter provides a brief description of the religious background of thangkas, particularly a recounting of the life of Siddhartha Buddha. It is illustrated with four thangkas. The third chapter is an extremely brief account of Theravada Buddhism. This is a Buddhist tradition that survives in Sri Lanka and in parts of Southeast Asia. As Tibet is not heir to this tradition, the chapter is brief and illustrated with only one thangka of the historical Buddha. Instead, Buddhism was brought to Tibet by Mahayana Buddhists. So the fourth chapter, on the Mahayana tradition is much longer and illustrated wigh 13 plates. This tradition laid great emphasis on the bodhisattva, an enlightened figure who forswears liberation in nirvana to help all other sentient beings attain enlightenment. Many of the thangkas in this chapter depict legendary buddhas and important bodhisattvas that make up a kind of pantheon of Buddhist personalities. The fifth and longest chapter deals with the Vajrayana tradition. It is illustrated with 18 thangkas. The Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism is now the dominant tradition in Tibet. The thangkas here depicted actual figures in the history of Tibetan Buddhism along with several other miscellaneous subjects including, the Wheel of Life, a Yogini, a Gathering of Saints, Kalachakras, Herukas, the Mandala of Yama, and two Kalachakra mandalas. The final chapter deals with paubas. These are like thangkas, but include with Hindu themes. It is short and is illustrated with only one pauba.
Most all of the thangkas follow a very standard rather symmetric design with figures seemingly placed on a two dimensional surface, usually in a cross-legged position facing forward. They hold or are accompanied by items that indicate their identity. In the case of the historical figures in the fifth chapter, the image is much more naturalistic. The figures do not face directly forward, but sit facing obliquely amid a naturalistic background.
The two greatest strengths of Meulenbeld's work are first, the explanations of the various legendary buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other beings in the Buddhist "pantheon." One is given a good understanding of their primary features and the symbolic objects and hand gestures that are characteristic of the being. Second, are the illustrations themselves. They are simply exquisite. Unfortunately, despite the folio format of the book, seeing the details of the illustrations requires strong lighting and a magnifying glass, and the reproductions are not as sharps as one would like. However, rectifying this shortcoming would involve printing the work in an over sized format using much more expensive reproduction technology. Consequently, having the work in a more manageable format is a compensating virtue.