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The Qianlong Emperor in Buddhist Vestment

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Period: Qianlong reign (1736-1795), Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Medium: color on silk
Artist(s): Qing Imperial Household Department

Dimensions: mounting height: 169 cm; mounting width: 101 cm; painting height: 112 cm; painting width: 64 cm

Tibetan Buddhism developed the belief that the Qing emperor was a manifestation of the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī (Chinese Wenshu pusa). A total of seven extant paintings show the Qianlong Emperor (1736–1795) in Buddhist garb. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), these works were displayed in the Buddhist sanctuaries of the imperial residences. This thangka is composed as a meditative scene with gurus (shangshi), yidams (deities, benzun), buddhas (fo), bodhisattvas (pusa), and dharma protectors (hufa) orderly arranged according to proper sequence and grouping. The Qianlong Emperor wears a yellow monastic cap and red monastic vestment and presents the mudra (i.e., ritual gesture) of teaching the dharma (shuofa yin) with his right hand while holding a dharma wheel in his left. Seated in the lotus position at the center of the arrangement, the emperor rests upon a three-layered pedestal of yellow, blue, and green in an emphatic display of dignity. He is flanked by two large lotuses in full bloom with additional lotuses at his shoulders and a sword and sutra suggesting his identity as a manifestation of the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī. His throne is surrounded by a host of Indian and Tibetan gurus with the founder of the Gelug school Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa (1357–1419) directly above his head.

The uppermost tier of the thangka presents three groups of meditative deities, buddhas, and gurus in three circular aureoles with including the deities Guhyasamāja Akṣobhyavajra (Miji jin’gang), Cakrasaṃvara (Shengle jin’gang), Yamāntaka (Daweide jin’gang), and Kālacakra (Shilun jin’gang); ten buddhas; Vajrapāṇi (Jin’gang chi), various gurus and Mahasiddhas (Dachengjiuzhe); and Vairocana (Piluzhena), Amitābha (Wuliangshou fo), and dharma protectors. The second tier has a central circular aureole around the Qianlong Emperor’s guru the third Changkya Khutukhtu (1717–1786), also known by the title Preceptor of State (Guoshi), who is flanked by rows of disciples and bodhisattvas. The bottom two rows below the emperor are seventeen dharma protectors with the first row showing, from left to right, a six-armed Mahākāla (liubi Daheitian), two-armed Mahākāla (erbi daheitian), Acala (Budong jin’gang), white Mahākāla (baise Daheitian), four-armed Mahākāla (sibi Daheitian), armored dharma protector (kaijia hufa), Yama (Yanmo), and Palden Lhamo (Jixiang tianmu) and the second row with the Yellow Jambhala (Huang caishen), Śakra (Dishitian), the Heavenly King Virūpākṣa (Guangmu tianwang), the Heavenly King Dhṛtarāṣṭra (Chiguo tianwang), Śmaśāna Adhipati (Shituo linzhu), the Heavenly King Virūḍhaka (Zengzhang tianwang), the Heavenly King Vaiśravaṇa (Duowen tianwang), Mahā Brahmā (Dafan tian), and the God of Wealth dharma protector (Caibao hufa).

This magnificent spectacle of a thangka has a complex array of figures among clouds, mountains, rivers, and plants painted with exquisite detail and brilliant colors.

The Tibetan inscription on the work is an encomium on the Qianlong Emperor. In general terms, the laudatory text proclaims the wisdom of the Lord of Mañjuśrī and his conducting Buddhist affairs from the vajra pedestal (jin’gang zuo) while offering wishes for great accomplishments.

Tibetan Inscription:
jam dpal rnon po mii rje bor/ rol pai bdag chen chos kyi rgyal/ rdo rje khri la zhabs brtan cing/ bzhed don lhun grub skar pa bzang//

The thangka was created by court painters during the middle of the Qianlong reign and was originally housed at the Temple of the Fortune and Longevity of Sumeru (Xumi fushou miao) in Jehol (present-day Chengde, Hebei Province). Built in the forty-fifth year (1780) of the Qianlong reign for the visit of the sixth Panchen Lama, the Temple of the Fortune and Longevity of Sumeru was also known as the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery during the Qing dynasty.

Chinese entry by Zhang Yajing
Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign and Zhuang Ying

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