Prajnaparamita in Tibetan Buddhist Art

Yellow Prajnaparamita with four hands

Prajnaparamita (Tib. sherab kyi pharol tu chinpa), the Mahayana goddess of wisdom, appears in the Perfection of Wisdom sutras as a fundamental deity in Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibet, she is known as Sherchinma or Yum Chenmo, the “Great Mother.”

Different forms of the goddess are found in Tibetan Buddhist art. Most often she is depicted white or yellow in color, with two or four hands. Her front hands are usually in the gesture of turning the wheel of Dharma (dharmachakra mudra), holding lotuses with Prajnaparmita sutras on them. Sometimes there are also images of the goddess with a vajra in the right hand and a lotus in the left hand. As a symbol of active compassion, which in combination with wisdom represents the ultimate enlightenment, the vajra is often found in the pantheon of Vajrayana Buddhism and it is one of the distinguish characteristic of the goddess’s iconography.

White Prajnaparamita with two hands

In some four-handed images, one pair of hands is in dhyana mudra and the other two hands hold vajra in the right and Prajnaparamita sutras in the left. In others images, the right hand is in the fearless gesture (abhaya mudra) and the left in the meditation gesture (dhyana mudra) holding treasure vase (nidhana kumbha), while the other hands hold vajra and sutras.

Prajnaparamita in union with Vajradhara

In Tibetan Buddhist art, Prajnaparamita is portrayed as a spiritual wife of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom. She is depicted in a smaller size comparing to her consort and on his left side, the traditional position of a woman in the Tantric tradition. Her lalitasana pose symbolizes active compassion, her right hand is in the gesture of generosity (varada mudra) and her left hand is in dharmachakra mudra. More often, Manjushri is portrayed as a single deity, but even then, Prajnaparamita is symbolically presented in the form of the texts in his hands. Prajnaparamita can be also seen a spiritual wife of the primordial Buddha Vajradhara (Dorje Chang). In Tibetan thangkas, representing their union (yab yum) she is blue or white in color.

Prajnaparamita mandala, Tibet

The image of Prajnaparamita can be found in the Tibetan art of creating a mandala (kyil khor). In the sacred diagrams, usually made from sand, the goddess is depicted in the center, surrounded by numerous buddhas and bodhisattvas, who are her manifestations and at the same time her creations as she is accepted as “the mother of all buddhas”. Her visual form, interwoven with sacred geometry, reflects her role as a constant source of enlightened beings.

Medicine Buddha mandala with Prajnaparamita in the center

The goddess that embodies the perfection of wisdom can also be found in the center of the Medicine Buddha’s mandala. This sacred diagram depicts the eight buddhas of the healing art, the sixteen bodhisattvas and the protectors of Dharma. Prajnaparamita appears in the center of this assembly because she represents the healing wisdom of all enlightened beings in the past, present, and future. According to Tibetan medicine, the cause of all diseases is rooted in the so-called “three poisons” (dug sum): desire (dochag), anger (shedag), and ignorance (marigpa). Among them, ignorance is perceived as the root cause of all diseases and, accordingly, wisdom is the antidote to all physical and mental difficulties. Thus Prajnaparamita is perceived as the supreme healer and supreme remedy by which all delusions, including those of the existence of ignorance, suffering, or death, are eliminated.

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