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Buddhadharma : Winter 2009
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly winter 2 0 09 74 Inside Art with Denise Leidy This engaging portrait of a monk, or lama, was painted on cotton with vibrant colors and is characterized by jewel-like details seen, for example, in the throne upon which the monk is seated, the columns and archway that surround him, and the patterns in his clothing. The scrolls in the background appear to be composed of leaves or fronds and typify paintings produced in monasteries in Central Tibet associated with the Sakya tradition, one of the four main lineages in Tibetan Buddhism. The inscription written in gold at the bottom of the painting identifies the primary figure as the monk Mawai Senge and indicates that he was a member of the Ngorpa Path and Fruition practice lineage that focused on the Supreme Bliss Daka Ocean Tantra. This painting, known as a thangka in Tibetan, is one of at least seven from a set preserved in public or private collections. There were originally many more in the set, which would have included portraits of other masters from the Ngorpa Path and Fruition lineage. Some of the missing thangkas may still be in Tibet. The Sakya tradition hosts hundreds of practice lineages, and produced numerous sets depicting them. It’s likely that paintings such as this were primarily created to record and celebrate a specific lineage, and to be used in initiations into that lineage, rather than as devotional works intended as the focal point for one’s personal practice. Mawai Senge, also known as Rongton, lived from 1367 to 1499. He is credited with establishing the Nalendra monastery, and for his work on the Perfection of Wisdom Texts (Prajnaparamita). This posthumous portrait shows him as relatively youthful with a round face, though he seems to have gray hair. He sits in meditation, and holds his right hand in the gesture of discern- ment. His left hand, resting on his lap, holds a vase with white flowers used in initiations. He wears the standard clothing of a Tibetan monk, featuring a thick orange and gold shawl. His face-on position at the center of the painting indicates that he was an advanced practitioner and had become a Buddha, or was close to achieving that goal. A tiny figure of Buddha Amitayus is to the left of Mawai Senge’s head, and the famed Sakya Pandita (1182–1251) is to the right. The other figures in the borders represent additional members of the Ngorpa Path and Fruition lineage. These include Buddhas such as Vajradhara (detail, top left), as well as great Indian adepts, or mahasiddhas, such as Tilopa (detail, middle), and Naropa, holding a flayed human skin (detail, bottom). Additional mahasiddhas are shown at the upper right, and there are several small representations of the Buddha Amitabha, or Amitayus, in the upper rows. Portrait of a Practice Lineage Denise LeiDy is a curator of Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in new york and the author of The Art of Buddhism.