When Norbulingka was formally inaugurated in 1995, we had already been painting thangkas for six years. We hired our Master Painter, Temba Chophel, in 1989 and with his team, he took part in the decorating of the Institute’s first buildings and painted special order thangkas. We began with his purchasing all the necessary mineral and vegetable colors and painting simple deities in color, gradually working our way up to extremely complex pieces such as the Merit Field, with hundreds of tiny figures. Techo la, as we called him, had a deep knowledge of Tibetan painting traditions and liked a challenge. He told me about the sertri or gold painted tradition, where the figures of the deities are painted in gold on a solid color background, sometimes adding selected areas to color. This technique had rarely been seen in exile, and we began a whole series of thangkas based on it.
In the case of a sertri, the background takes on the color of the main deity or is in pure gold, with the deity outlined in a color. In the case of the Medicine Buddha, one of our first attempts, it is a deep blue, with the outline of the Buddha in gold. This requires a very steady hand and a special skill at handling the medium, gold, and Tencho painted the first examples himself, then trained his best students to do it faultlessly.
The Medicine Buddha is the patron of doctors and an avatar of the historical Buddha Sakyamuniwho was born a prince circa 2500 BC in what is today northeast India. Moved by the plight of sentient beings, Sakyamuni abandoned his mundane existence and meditated on the cause of suffering until he attained full enlightenment. The Buddha’s aim is to alleviating the torments of all beings, and lead them on the path to liberation. To this end, he transforms himself into a multitude of forms, bodhisattvas that branch out as a multitasking force to combat suffering and its causes.
According to a universal vehicle scripture, the Buddha transformed himself into a deep blue Buddha emanating healing rays of light and taught a vast assembly of men and gods the science of medicine.Medicine became a skillful means by which bodhisattvas not only soothed the suffering of others and prolonged human life, but also improved the unique human opportunity to attain enlightenment, their ultimate goal.
The Medicine Buddha, Menlha in Tibetan, is known in Sanskrit as Bhaisajyaguru. He is said to dwell in the pure land Aidūryanirbhāsa, or “Pure Lapis Lazuli” where he is attended to by Suyaprabha and Candraprabha, two Bodhisattvas who symbolize the sun and the moon.He is depicted here seated in the lotus posture, his body the color of Lapis Lazuli,wearing the robes of a Buddhist monk. In his left hand, he bears a lapis-colored jar of medicinenectar, while his right hand rests on his knee, holding the stem of the Aruna fruit.
In this thangka, the color of Bhaisajyaguru, a deep azurite blue, is represented on the base, made from a mixture of indigo and other vegetable pigments, pounded and processed by our thangka painting team at Norbulingka and applied on cotton canvas by traditional methods. The figures are drawn in 24 KT gold, made into a paste through a method passed from master to disciple. The size of the work is 18x14 inches and the artist took three weeks to complete the work.
In Tibet, the Medicine Buddha was represented in many forms and mediums, many of which have been continued at Norbulingka: As a single figure in color or in sertri, on a gold background, as the main figure surrounded by other Buddhas, or in applique. In Medical Colleges, the Medicine Buddha was a main figure, especially prayed to in times of epidemics, times like the ones we are experiencing now.