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Tsongkhapa

Tibeto-Chinese, 18th century

Gilt bronze

Our object of the month for April is a highlight from our first online exhibition ‘Image, Identity, Belonging’. The exhibition explores highlights of the collections at Chiddingstone Castle and their meaning to the people who originally owned and used them. This statue of Tsongkhapa is included in the exhibition as it reflects the identity of its original owner as a follower or member of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, which Tsongkhapa founded.

Tsongkhapa Lobzang Dragpa was born in 1357 in Amdo, Tibet, and became one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist teachers. His importance as a historical figure means that there are legends and stories about his birth, and his birthplace was honoured by the building of Kumbum Monastery by the Third Dalai Lama in 1583. Tsongkhapa took Buddhist vows at the age of three and studied under various Buddhist teachers. He wrote important texts and became known all over Tibet and China as a teacher and writer. He was identified with the bodhisattva of wisdom Manjusri. A bodhisattva is Buddhist deity who has dedicated themselves to helping others achieve enlightenment, or an escape from all suffering and the cycle of rebirth. He established the Ganden Monastery in 1410 which became the home of the Gelug school of Buddhism.

Ganden Monastery, Tibet, 1921, Sir Charles Alfred Bell, The Tibet Album, The Pitt Rivers Museum

This statue of Tsongkhapa was made from gilt bronze. The most common way of making a Buddhist statue in bronze is the lost wax method. A wax model is made of the statue, and is then covered in clay. The clay is heated so that it hardens and the wax melts and drains out. The molten metal is then poured into the space left, creating the final bronze version of the statue. Parts of the statue, such as the head and hands, are sometimes made separately and added together once the bronze has been cast. Gold leaf or gold powder is then applied to the surface, in particular to the skin of the Buddhist deities, emphasising that they are sacred. The gold and paint used to decorate the face, arms, and feet of this Tsongkhapa statue has partly worn away but is still visible.

Statue of Tsongkhapa, Chiddingstone Castle collection, object number 01.1554

The statue depicts Tsongkhapa wearing the tall pointed yellow hat associated with the Gelug tradition. He is wearing robes with embroidered borders and there are two lotus flowers either side of him – lotuses are a symbol of enlightenment. On the left lotus there is a sword, the symbol of the bodhisattva Manjusri, and on the right is a Buddhist text. His hands are held in a gesture which represents the ‘turning of the wheel of the dharma’ or the Buddha’s teachings. He is seated in meditation posture on a lotus throne. A thangka (Tibetan painting) in the castle’s collection depicts Tsongkhapa in the same posture.

Thangka of Tsongkhapa (central figure), paint on cotton with silk brocade surround, 18th – 19th century, Chiddingstone Castle collection, object number 01.2940

Statues of teachers or Lamas are included in Tibetan shrines both in temple and monastery settings and in the home. Statues of Tsongkhapa are a reminder of the lineage of the Gelug school and the teachings of the Buddha and are treated with great respect. The Dalai Lama is the head of the Gelug school today, as the first Dalai Lama was a disciple of Tsongkhapa. The passing on of knowledge and teachings from teacher to pupil is a key element of Tibetan Buddhism. The teachings of the Buddha were not written down until hundreds of years after his death in India around 400 BC. Instead, the teachings were recited and memorised by generations of his followers. The relationships between teacher and pupil is very important in Tibetan Buddhism, and statues and portraits are commissioned of teachers in their honour to build merit.

Lama conducting a ritual, thangka painting, 17th century, Rubin Museum of Art, By Unknown author at Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain

This object is just one of the many objects that form part of Denys Eyre Bower’s five impressive collections which include Ancient Egyptian, Japanese, Buddhist, Stuart and Jacobite, and Books. For more information on these objects, review our Object of the Month series, visit the Historic House and Collections or contact our Curator, Naomi Collick by email or by calling 01892 870347.

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