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Art and Images in Psychiatry
February 2009

Bernagchen Mahakala

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009;66(2):122-123. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2008.553

If you become angry/Merely owing to an injury, Then why not be angry with anger,/Which destroys your goal of liberation?—Nagarjuna1

In 1729 Situ Panchen Chokyi Jungne moved his monastic seat to Palpung Monastery in Eastern Tibet. There he revitalized the scholarship of his religious school, excelling in the translation of early religious texts, Tibetan grammar, poetry, and painting.2His responsibilities increased when the leader of his Tibetan religious school, the 12th Karmapa (1703-1732), died in China under questionable circumstances while en route to meet the Manchu imperial family.3

Before leaving for China, the 12th Karmapa asked Situ Panchen Chokyi Jungne to update important religious texts. Not only did he do so, but also he illustrated the Buddhist teachings by preparing a series of more than 100 paintings of Avadana stories that show the life, past lives, and teachings of the Buddha. The series was dedicated to the memory of the deceased Karmapa.3

The stories illustrate the inescapable nature of karma, the moral law of cause and effect, and how Buddhist teachings may lead one to enlightenment. Prepared for lay audiences, they emphasize how good deeds are rewarded and emphasize individual responsibility. In his previous lives, the Buddha is shown as he successively perfected virtues such as generosity, courage, justice, and patience that are essential for attaining Buddhahood.

The Avadana teaching stories are told from Tibetan painted scrolls known as thangkas. Thangka paintings have religious significance and are hung in monasteries, placed in family shrines, carried in religious processions, and most importantly used in meditation. When used for meditation, the religious figures shown are not simply representations of a deity but believed to be the physical embodiment of a state of enlightenment. The mounting of the thangka too has an iconography and symbolic relationships to its contents.

The first painting in the series was that of the historical Buddha. The last thangka painting is dedicated to Situ Panchen as patron and creator of the series and contains within it a scroll acknowledging his contributions (Figure 1) (http://www.himalayanart.org/image.cfm/15135.html). These works are important in his revival of the Karma Gadri style of Tibetan painting.3This last thangka (Figure 1)4shows Situ Panchen Chokyi Jungne himself. He wears the orange Tai Situ crown adorned with 3 jewels, a crescent moon, and the sun. Lamas, monks, artists, and attendants engaged in many activities are shown in the foreground. White Tara, his meditational deity, floats above him. She is a bodhisattva of compassion and fulfills a role similar to that of a patron saint in the West. Prayers to the bodhisattva Tara are among the many texts he translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan.

Figure 1. 
Artist unknown. The Eighth Situ Panchen, Chokyi Jungne, 19th century. Eastern Tibet. Karma Gardri Painting School. Shechen Archives. Thanks to Karl Debreczeny, Jeff Watt, and E. Gene Smith for their expertise and advice.

Artist unknown. The Eighth Situ Panchen, Chokyi Jungne, 19th century. Eastern Tibet. Karma Gardri Painting School. Shechen Archives. Thanks to Karl Debreczeny, Jeff Watt, and E. Gene Smith for their expertise and advice.

Protective deities play a central role in Tibetan Buddhism. Among them, the wrathful Bernagchen Mahakala (Black-Cloaked Mahakala) is a central figure.4He protects the Buddhist teaching, the Karmapa, and the members of the order. In depicting him (Figure 2), Situ Panchen Chokyi Jungne turned to a series of historic visions of Mahakala by the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1203-1283). Karma Pakshi was an important religious teacher in Tibet and China during the time of the Mongolian Khans and a figure known to Marco Polo when he was at the Chinese imperial court.

Figure 2. 
Situ Panchen Chokyi Jungne (1700-1774), Tibetan (Karma [Kagyu] lineage).
Bernag Chen, Vajra Mahakala(the Great Black-Cloak Vajra Mahakala). Ground mineral pigment, black background on silk, 22.50 × 13.75 in (57.15 × 34.93 cm). Collection of Rubin Museum of Art (item No. 65083; acc. No. C2002.8.4) (http://www.himalayanart.org/image.cfm/65083.html)

Situ Panchen Chokyi Jungne (1700-1774), Tibetan (Karma [Kagyu] lineage). Bernag Chen, Vajra Mahakala(the Great Black-Cloak Vajra Mahakala). Ground mineral pigment, black background on silk, 22.50 × 13.75 in (57.15 × 34.93 cm). Collection of Rubin Museum of Art (item No. 65083; acc. No. C2002.8.4) (http://www.himalayanart.org/image.cfm/65083.html)

When Karma Pakshi incurred the displeasure of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, he called for protection from his protector deity, Mahakala, who appeared to him then and in a series of other visions during his lifetime. These visions resulted in Tibetan liturgies and rituals for the visualization of Bernagchen Mahakala (written communication; Jeff Watt; December 26, 2008). Situ Panchen Chokyi Jungne's painting of Bernagchen Mahakala (Figure 2) is based on these early Tibetan liturgies (http://www.himalayanart.org/image.cfm?icode=65083&CFID=18402045&CFTOKEN=83053386). Although the thangka artist is frequently unknown, this thangka bears the inscription, “Without error [doubt] this painting of the Five Deity [Mahakala] was done by the hand of [Situ] Chokyi Jungne.”

Bernagchen Mahakala is shown with a retinue of 5 fierce attendants, 1 on each side and 3 others below him. The wrathful, black-cloaked Mahakala emerges from the clouds. He is black, with 3 round protruding eyes, an open red mouth with white fangs, a beard, large eyebrows, and hair that flows upward. He holds aloft a curved flaying knife with a vajra (spiritual implement) handle. His left hand holds a blood-filled skull cup. He wears a crown of 5 white skulls, earrings, bracelets, and a garland of freshly severed heads around his waist. His wrath is like that of a parent protecting a child from mortal harm. Fearful to fear itself, he adopts the appearance of the forms he is seeking to destroy. Each of the elements of his dress has symbolic significance in overcoming self-deception and egocentrism.1(p45)The goal is the destruction of hatred, revenge, greed, anger, and ignorance.

To the viewer's right of Mahakala is his female counterpart, Shri Devi Dudsolma, black with 1 face and 4 hands holding a vajra peg, katvanga staff, skull cup, and mirror. She rides atop a donkey. On the left stands Damchen Garwa Nagpo, the blacksmith who is bound by oath to protect the Buddhist teaching; his hands hold a blacksmith's hammer and a bellows. Below Mahakala are 3 other wrathful attendants. At the left, fearsome Trakshe stands with a female consort at his side. In the center, Tsogdag, a male naga with a hood of snakes, sits on an elephant. To the right, Shingkyong, a male attendant with the face of a lion, sits on a black horse, holding a spear in his right hand and a skull cup filled with wrathful food offerings.

Above Mahakala at the top center sits the Karmapa, the incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion, representing the personal teacher or guru. His hand raised in a teaching gesture, he reigns over the thangka. To the right of Karmapa, standing in a dancing posture, is the enlightened meditational deity Vajravarahi. She holds a curved knife in her upraised right hand and in her left hand a skull cup with a katvanga staff resting against her left shoulder. She has 3 glaring eyes; hair upswept, she wears a 5-skull crown and ring-shaped earrings. She is a principal meditational deity and the consort of Chakrasamvara; their sexual embrace symbolizes the union of compassion and wisdom.

The 2 figures directly above Mahakala are worldly protective wealth deities. The one to the left is Vaishravana, Guardian King of the Northern Direction, who swore an oath to protect the Buddha; he wears the 5-pointed crown and the armor of a king. He is both a protector and a benefactor with a round, full face with eyebrows and a moustache. He holds a conical banner and a mongoose that spews wish-fulfilling jewels in all directions. He carries a victory banner and is mounted on a snow lion. He bestows prosperity on those who focus on the spiritual path rather than on material things. On the right is the wealth deity Kalpo Nagaraja. He has a hood of snakes above his head and his lower body is in the shape of a serpent. His 2 hands hold a wish-fulfilling jewel.

An image of the protector deity is used in an initiation ceremony. Protector thangkas are commonly used for the protector shrine in a temple or a private shrine where the daily offerings are made. When used for meditation, the protector meditational deity is generated in the mind first, and at the conclusion of that meditation, an offering ritual is made to the protector; it is begun without breaking from the current meditation session. Then Mahakala is visualized along with the attendant deities, Damchen Garwa Nagpo, Shri Devi, and the others. It is not necessary to spend any significant time visualizing the retinue figures; it is enough that their descriptions are read aloud while reciting the liturgy (written communication; Jeff Watt; December 6, 2008).

Psychiatrist Carl Jung found similarities among myths and deities in various cultures, leading him to propose an archetypal depth psychology. Despite the similarities he found, Jung encouraged individuals who came to him to remain within their own spiritual tradition, warning them about the risks of adopting religious practices based in other cultures. He spoke of the archetypal anima as the portal into the spiritual life for men and proposed that the archetypal animus served the same function for women. He viewed Tibetan deity images as projections of the archetypal unconscious. Moreover, he suggested that spiritual images might arise spontaneously in dreams and visions in the process of individuation. Jung considered mandalas produced by his patients as representative of the unconscious self, noting that his patients' paintings of mandalas enabled him to identify emotional disorders and allowed him to better understand that person’s psychology. He viewed mandalas as psychological phenomena that appear spontaneously in dreams, in certain states of conflict, and in cases of schizophrenia.5(p235)

Since the time of Jung's injunction in the mid 20th century for caution in adopting Eastern spiritual practices, Buddhist practices have become more common in Western countries. Many people jointly embrace both Western and Eastern spiritual practices today. Meditation practices are being introduced into psychiatric treatment. Among them are mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and dialectical behavior therapy; both combine acceptance-based mindfulness approaches and change-based cognitive and behavioral therapies. These approaches emphasize calming the mind, improving focused attention, developing mindfulness, and regulating emotion. More recently, meditation practices that foster compassion are being studied. One study6has evaluated the effects of compassion meditation on immune, neuroendocrine, and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress and the effects of meditation practice on stress reactivity. The authors concluded that compassion meditation may reduce the stress-induced immune anti-inflammatory cytokine (IL-6) response and behavioral responses.

Situ Panchen's Palpung Monastery continued to thrive until 1959, when under communism it lost its special political and economic status. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards sought to stamp out its traditions; the monastery lost its belongings and cultural treasures. In 1998, it was listed as endangered by the World Monuments Fund. There is an ongoing effort to restore it. The main building is being rebuilt, and a new college of Buddhism has opened nearby.7By tradition, the Situ Panchen's school of Buddhism believes that the Tai Situ is the incarnation of Maitreya, the future fully enlightened Buddha who is yet to be born, the bodhisattva of loving-kindness. A large statue of Maitreya stands at the monastery. On September 1, 2007, the Chinese government's “Management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism” went into effect, giving it final approval on each new Buddhist incarnation. For Tibetans, this could permit the Chinese government to choose the next fully enlightened Buddha. The time may have come to invoke Mahakala once again.

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