The life of the Buddha Śākyamuni. Distemper painting by a Tibetan painter.

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The life of the Buddha Śākyamuni. Distemper painting by a Tibetan painter. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark. Source: Wellcome Collection.

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About this work


In the centre is the Buddha Śākyamuni, forming the earth-touching gesture with his right hand and holding a black begging bowl in his left. His hair is dressed in a topknot, his ear-lobes are long, he is wearing monastic robes, and he is seated in the meditation posture. At the top of the painting the sun and moon can be seen

The Buddha is flanked by his two disciples Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana. In the top centre the Buddha is shown in the Tuṣita Heaven before being born as Gautama, the future Buddha. Accompanied by attendants, he is stepping down into the world of men. The Buddha is also often represented as stepping down from the Heaven of the Thirty -three Gods, accompanied by Indra and Brahmā, where he had been teaching the Doctrine to his mother who had been reborn there. This is a possible alternative interpretation of the scene here depicted

The next scene below is that of the Buddha's mother Māyā telling her attendants of a dream she had about a white elephant entering her right side. The next picture is that of Queen Māyā giving birth while holding on to a tree. Her baby is caught by the female attendants in a hammock-like swaddling cloth. Next the child stands up and walks forward immediately exclaiming: "This is my last birth, and I shall put an end to the sufferings of birth, disease, old age and death". Next, the young Gautama is riding out in a chariot and sees a man killed by warriors and another man drowning pursued by archers. He witnesses sickness and old age. Then he is betrothed to his future wife

To the right Prince Gautama cuts off his hair with a sword in order to become a mendicant who would find out how to end suffering. Watched by Brahmā and Indra near a stūpa (a charming anachronism though an Indian cetiya may well have stood in its place) he concludes that Brahmanism which engages in ritual sacrifice does not teach him the end of suffering. Then, under a tree, he is gaining Enlightenment and declares this with the preaching gesture. Above this scene, he is seen preaching to the five ascetics who had been practising austerities with him

On the right, the daughters of Māra are trying to tempt him without success. Above this, the Buddha tames a wild elephant with thoughts of compassion. Above this again, a monkey offers him a bowl of honey, and is so happy when the Buddha accepts it that it throws itself down a well. To the left of this, the Buddha is preaching his last sermon. Above this scene, the Buddha, lying on his right hand side, prepares for death and entry into Parinirvāṇa, the final Nirvāṇa. Above this, the Buddha's relics have been divided into eight parts and are preserved in eight stūpas in eight holy places



Physical description

1 painting : distemper on linen ; distemper 56.5 x 38.5 cm

References note

Marianne Winder, Catalogue of Tibetan manuscripts and xylographs, and catalogue of thankas, banners and other paintings and drawings in the Library of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London 1989, pp. 86-87, thankas banners and paintings no. 23


Wellcome Collection 47094i

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