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This beautiful painting by Sunlal 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 centre 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). The Buddha's golden aura is encircled by his enlightenment throne, which consists of symmetrically paired elephants, lions, and young gods riding upon deer who collectively support a jeweled beam covered with embroidered silks. Above this beam is a pair of makaras or 'crocodiles' with swirling golden tails, a pair of naga-serpents, and the crowning serpent devouring form of garuda, the 'king of birds'. Encircling the enlightenment throne are lotus flowers and a grove of bodhi and sal trees. Below the throne is a table bearing an alms-bowl and sense offerings, and below again is a lake adorned with blazing jewel offerings, where two naga-serpents offer gems to the Buddha. Kneeling on either side of this lake are the two great Vedic gods Brahma and Sakra (Indra), who are accompanied by five Buddhist disciples and two gods. Brahma is yellow, four-faced and offers the Buddha his golden wheel, and Sakra is white and offers his white conch shell.
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. Svetaketu, meaning 'the white banner', was the divine form in which Shakyamuni Buddha previously existed before he decided to be born into this world and symbolically 'passed his crown' to the Bodhisattva Maitreya, who now resides in Tushita and is destined to become the future Buddha of the next epoch.
Beneath the cloud-borne palaces of Tushita appears the earthly palace of King Shuddodhana and Queen Mayadevi, who resided in their capital city of Kapilavastu in the ancient North Indian kingdom of Shakya. 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.
Mayadevi carried the Bodhisattva within her womb for ten lunar months before giving birth to him on a full-moon night in May. At this time Mayadevi was traveling with her entourage to her family home for the birth of her child, when she decided to alight from her palanquin and walk amidst some beautiful flowering sal trees in a grove at Lumbini. Just as she reached up to grasp a sal branch with her right hand, her son was miraculously born from her right side. 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 seven days after his birth his mother Mayadevi died. Thus the task of raising the boy fell upon her sister Prajapati, who was also married to King Shuddodhana. Shortly after his birth a clairvoyant sage named Asita came to examine the wondrous child, and perceiving that the boy bore the thirty-two marks of a mahapurusha or 'great man', the sage pronounced that the child was destined to either become a chakravartin or 'universal monarch', or an enlightened Buddha.
On the strength of this pronouncement 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 centre 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 favour 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 centre, 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. And with his right hand he touches the ground as he calls upon Privithi, the Earth Goddess, to bear witness to his victory over Mara and to his supreme awakening as a Buddha.
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. The first turning took place at the Deer Park in Sarnath, where he taught the Four Noble Truths to his earliest disciples. The second turning took place at Vulture's Peak in Rajgriha, where he gave teachings on emptiness and compassion to an assembly of arhats and bodhisattvas. And the third turning took place in Shravasti, where he gave teachings on Buddha-nature to an assembly of bodhisattvas and Buddhas. 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 centre 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. This heaven is known as the 'thirty-three' (trayatrimsa), because it is ruled by Indra (Sakra) and his vast retinue of countless (thirty-three million) other gods. Indra appears in his palace amidst the clouds at the golden summit of Mt Meru, while the Buddha is shown descending from Indra's heaven on a triple-sectioned stairway made from gold, silver, and gemstones that was constructed by Indra's divine architect, Vishvakarman. 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 centre 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 centre 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. Prior to his passing the Buddha had decided to prolong his life for three months, and during this time he had traveled to many different places with his disciple Ananda. One evening they visited the home of a lay-disciple named Cunda, who served the Buddha a dish that he alone chose to eat. Later that night the Buddha became seriously ill, and as they traveled to Kushinagar he told Ananda not to blame Cunda for his death. Here the Buddha asked 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.
The Buddha is shown reclining on his right side upon the couch, with his head resting upon his right hand. Behind him ascend the two great trunks of the sal trees, with three heavenly gods worshipping beneath their canopies, while Ananda and five other grieving monks kneel in adoration as the Buddha passes into parinirvana. At the centre above the sal trees ascends the pyramid-like golden tower of the Mahabodhi Stupa in Bodh Gaya that was built to commemorate the Buddha's enlightenment. And behind this tower appear five golden reliquary stupas, which represent the group of eight stupas that were first constructed to enshrine the eight divisions of the Buddha's relics that remained after his body was cremated.
© text by Robert Beer