Photo and Text courtesy of Exotic Indian Art
This kind of thangka is called a guruparampara, a "Line of Teachers." It shows a family tree, as it were, and its function is to indicate a line of descent. The idea is that the presentation should be seen as a refuge for believers. It creates a kind of structure in the chaotic number of deities and teachers in whom believers take refuge, because they will help believers in the course of their spiritual development. All the portrayed personages have been brought together in and around a tree that sprouts forth from a body of water. Originally, this manner of portrayal stems from the Nyingma Order, and finds a parallel there in the way in which Padmasambhava was born, namely on a lotus that was growing in a lake. The Gelugpa adopted this idea.
The tree stands in the waters. The tree is an ancient symbol having its roots in the life-giving primal waters, and which rises up by way of earth into the higher layers of air, its crown extending into the universe. In cosmic thought, the concepts "tree" and "mountain" are interchangeable. The cosmic mountain, Mount Meru, where the gods live. is also located in the cosmic ocean.
Located in the center of the presentation sits Tsongkhapa [founder of the Gelug Order], who is the believer's guru on the spiritual path. He bears a small Buddha figure on his chest which, in turn, also bears a depiction of the Adi Buddha on his chest. This represents the spiritual ascension of nirmankaya by way of sambhogkaya to the shunyata realm of dharmakaya.
From the central figure of Tsongkhapa, two rays of light emanate and end in congregations of venerable masters who represent the Madhyamika and the Yogacara schools.
On the bottom row of the tree are rendered the four lokpalas, the guardians of the four directions. Above them are dharampalas, followed by dakinis. The thirty-five confessional Buddhas make up the next two rows. Above them are four rows, made up of the important group of deities from the four Tantra categories, who point the way to liberation. Yidams, personal guardian deities that are associated with specific Tantras, namely Yamantaka, Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, and Hevajra, make up the next four rows, and are depicted below the central figure's throne.
Above the central figure of Tsongkhapa, a series of bodhisattvas and tulkus [enlightened incarnations of religious predecessors] extends up into the sky where, to the right, Shakyamuni sits. In the upper left, in Tushita heaven, sits Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, who will come to earth 5,000 years after the Buddha, when the teachings will have dwindled to nothing, and hunger, illness, murder, and mayhem prevail everywhere.
The cosmic dimension is also revealed by the presence of the god Indra, in the lower left. Indra is the king of the Heaven of the thirty-three Gods who live on Mount Meru. At the lower right, a monk has been depicted to represent the relationship of the believer to the arboreal congregation. The monk is making a symbolic offering of the universe in the form of a mandala.
This presentation is not only a collection of deities and saints, but is also a concentration aid for the believer who can approach the presentation as a mandala, and penetrate to the essence of veneration by way of the various groups of deities and teachers. This type of thangka is often used to give religious instruction to laypersons.
This particular type of tree portrayal often renders a religious tradition that starts off with the founder of a monastic order, for instance, an abbot or a guru, who in this particular case is Tsongkhapa. Because believers take refuge in those who are portrayed on the branches of the tree, with their teacher or church father as the central figure, a portrayal of this kind is also sometimes called a Tree of Refuge.
Gurus are expected to follow an unbroken line that goes back to Shakyamuni. So each guru transmits the Dharma after having received the teachings and an explanation of them from the his own guru. This is portrayed as many offshoots on a branch, and many branches on a trunk, while the trunk finally goes back to the root of the teachings.