The Key Tibetan and Sanskrit Terms for Tibetan Buddhist Art A Glossary



Where possible the major words or terms will be identified by (T) for Tibetan and (Sk) for Sanskrit. Any idiosyncrasies in the spellings are entirely the personal responsibility of the author. As some of the words are so difficult to read and pronounce, he has opted for the most straightforward version.

Tantra  (Sk)

"An unbroken stream, flowing from ignorance to enlightenment ." Tantra is the Buddha 's secret teachings and practises. It is also a reference to the literature that expounds these doctrines. Although originally Hindu , the much changed Buddhist tantras follow the course of symbolising, in painting and sculpture, the basic duality of manifestation in the figures portrayed. In Buddhist tantric  ritual sexual imagery is used to explain the sacred union of wisdom and compassion . The tantras also explain the many aspects of ritual, such as where, and how to play music, arrange the offerings on a shrine, and how to use the Damaru  and the Phurba , and much, much more.



Tara  (Sk)

"She Who Liberates". Tara is the supreme goddess of mercy and the embodiment of all the Buddha 's actions. She possesses the wisdom and compassion  of Avalokitesvara . After being converted to Buddhism  in the seventh century AD by his two wives, King Srontsengampo of Tibet  decreed that his two queens be worshipped as the White Tara and the Green Tara. Since that time, three further Taras have been added. The Yellow, the Blue and the Red Tara . The five forms are again subdivided to incorporate the tantric  aspects. In a book of this size we shall have to content ourselves with the most popular forms. Both Taras wear Bodhissatva  ornament and often reveal naked voluptuous breasts. (See Photos 25, 27-28.)



Tarjani-mudra  (Sk)

"Threatening". Except for the index finger, all fingers and thumb are folded into a fist.




Tarpana  (Sk)

Gesture of homage.





Decorative brass, copper  or bronze  teapots were used in ritual ceremonies in which buttered-tea is brewed. Some of these objects are works of art. Read the Arts of Tibet  section. (See Photo 13.)




See Amulets  and read the Arts of Tibet  section.



Thokde  (T)

"Sky-stone". Magical stones and objects regarded by the Tibetans as very powerful prophylactics against evil. These objects were found in fields and in and around river-beds. The objects show strong archaeological links with the pre-historic world of Central Asia  or even Persia . The objects, except for the stones are made in cast bronze  and depict weird creatures and mysterious unknown shapes. (See Photo 4.)



Thangka  (T)

Temple banner or paintings  of deities , produced to a rigid design. Found in temples, shrine and in people 's homes, they were used as aids for meditation . See illustrations and read the Arts of Tibet  section. (See Photos 22-23.)



Thighbone Trumpet

A trumpet made from the thighbone (femur) or a man and sometimes covered in yak or even human skin. It is said by visitors to Tibet , early this century, that in the preparation of these femurs the bones of murderers were preferred, or those who have died by violence! When the bone trumpet is consecrated, it is said that the Lama  eats a portion of the skin around the bone, otherwise it would not be powerful enough to communicate with spirits. Sometimes the bones of young children were used. See illustrations and read the Sky Burial section.




See Vajra .




See Trisula .



Trikona  (Sk)

"Triangle". All figures in Dhyanasana  form a triangle.




Tri-murti  (Sk)

"Triad". One figure containing the three aspects of Avalokitesvara , Manjusri  and Vajrapani .



Tri-ratna  (Sk)

"Three Jewels". The three symbolic jewels are the Buddha , Buddhist law and Buddhist community. See Trikona .




Trisula  (Sk)

"Three Points". A three-pronged fork. A Buddhist and a Hindu  symbol.




Tsong-Khapa  (T)

"The Man from the Land of Onions ", (1355-1417 AD). One of the most famous names in Tibetan  Buddhism . He founded the Gelugpa sect , wrote many books and was deified. He is usually seated in Dhyanasana  on a lotus base or cushion. His hands are in Dharmacakra-mudra. On each shoulder atop sprigs of lotus sits the Khadga and the Pustaka . He always wears a conical hat. For further information on Tsong-Khapa read the Tibet  and its History section.



Tshog-shing   (T)

A Thangka with Tsong-khapa as its central deity. (See Photo 22.)



Tulku  (T)

"Emanational Body of a Buddha ". The appearance on earth of the body of a Buddha who has refused to accept Nirvana , and who has arrived to assist mankind in his search for inner peace and realisation. The Tulku is a reincarnation, not necessarily a powerful one, but nevertheless an outstanding contributor to man's eternal search. The Dalai Lama  and the Panchen Lama are also manifestations of this doctrine.



Utpala  (Sk)

Blue Lotus . A symbol.




Urna  (Sk)

"The Third Eye". The flaming pearl (Cintamani ) in the centre of the forehead, between the eyes, symbolises unity, harmony, transcendent wisdom, spiritual insight, crystallising light and deliverance from duality.



Usnisa  (Sk)

The protuberance on the skull of the Buddha  image. Some sources state that this is the area of the Buddha's highly advanced intellectual faculties, others say that the Usnisa represents the flame of Nirvana .



Usnisavijaya  (Sk)

A feminine bodhissatva. (See Photo 31.)



Uttarabodhi  (Sk)

See Ksepana.




Vahana  (Sk)

A support. Supports for the many deities  come in many shapes and sizes too numerous to include here. However, here are some of the more popular examples: lotus throne, lion throne, demons , corpses, garudas, nagas, peacocks, bulls, a live male or female mortal, elephants, birds, dragons, horses, pigs and cushions.



Vairocana  (Sk)

"Radiant Light". One of the five Dhyani Buddhas. He sits in Dhyanasana  on a lotus base. His hands are in Dharmacakra-mudra or Dhyani-mudra and when in the former mudra, he holds a cakra.



Vajra  (Sk)

Dorje  (T) Originally the thunderbolt of the Indian god Indra, with which he dispersed the clouds of ignorance, the vajra became the symbol of the "method" in the tantric  form of Buddhism  which was introduced into Tibet  by the eighth century guru, Padmasambhava . It was closely associated in Lamaist ritual with the Ghanta  (prayer  bell) which symbolised the "doctrine". In form, the vajra resembled two claws set opposite each other on a short rod: each claw had a central nail which was straight, surrounded by four or eight others which curved in towards it. (See Photo 7.) A common misunderstanding is, that the vajra represents penis and the ghanta represents the vagina, however, I cannot find any scholarly corroboration of this.




Vajradhara  (Sk)

"Holder of the Thunderbolt ". The Adi- Buddha . Has several popular forms. He sits in Dhyanasana  on a lotus base, his hands are in Vajrahumkara-mudra , holding a ghanta and a vajra. Another popular in is Yab-yum  with his Sakti .




Vajrahumkara-mudra  (Sk)

"Eternal Buddha ". A posture. Hands are crossed at the chest level, usually holding a ghanta and a vajra. Symbols of Vajradhara .



Vajrapani  (Sk)

"Bearer of the Thunderbolt ". One of the five Dhyanibodhissatvas . This deity has many forms - too numerous to include here. The following is one of the most popular examples: Vajrapani steps to the right, holds a vajra in his uplifted right hand, his left hand is in vitarka-mudra. The tantric forms have multiple heads, arms and legs and are often in yab-yum with their Sakti . (See Photo 47.)



Vajrasana  (Sk)

"Thunderbolt  Throne". See Dhyanasana .



Vajrasattva  (Sk)

"Essence of the Thunderbolt ". The Adi-Buddha . He sits in dhyanasana or lalitasana. His right hand at chest level holding a vajra, his left hand in dhyani-mudra and holds a ghanta. There is a standing form in which he balances a vajra on his open right palm at chest level, while his left hand holds a ghanta against his thigh. (See Photos 29-30.)



Vajrayana  (Sk)

A tantric   school of Tibetan  Buddhism  with distinct emphasis on the practice of magic .



 Vajrayogini (Sk)

A dakini who among her other duties guards the dead.



Vajrakilaya  (Sk)

A meditational deity. See Phurba .



Vara-mudra  (Sk)

Same as Varada-mudra .



Varada-mudra  (Sk)

The posture of giving charity. Arms down, palm outwards, fingers all extended downward. Classic mudra of the Medicine Buddha , White Tara  and Green Tara.




Vasudhara  (Sk)

"Plenty". One of the feminine Bodhissatva , much loved and worshipped in Nepal . Often portrayed in peaceful aspect. A popular form of Vasudhara is her sitting in lalitasana on a lotus base with her right hand holding a kalasa, her left hand holds a sheaf of wheat or a large seed. She, like Tara , has large voluptuous bosoms.



Vina  (Sk)

A lute.




Visvapani  (Sk)

"Double Thunderbolt  Bearer". One of the five Dhyani Bodhissatvas . Standing or sitting, he holds a cruciform double vajra.



Visvavajra  (Sk)

"Double Thunderbolt ". Fixed together in the middle this cruciform shape resembles the letter X.




Vitarka-mudra  (Sk)

"Argument Posture". The arm is bent and all the fingers extend upwards, except the index finger, or the ring finger which touches the tip of the thumb. Mudra of Maitreya and others.




Votive plaques

These objects are used as offerings to Buddha  and the many other deities . Kept on the family altar or inside amulet boxes worn around the neck. They are usually sold by itinerant Lamas to pilgrims or villagers. Rarely larger than five or six centimetres in height, one side contains a pressed or carved figure of a deity, while the reverse side is often engraved with the deity's name and even sometimes, the date. They are made of clay , stone, bronze , copper , iron, silver and gold. See Amulets .




For use against evil forces or spirits. See Capa, Khadga, Phurba  and Sara, etc.



Wheel of Life

See Wheel of Life section.




Cakra . See Vairocana .




Yab-yum  (T)

"Father, Mother". The sexual union of a male deity with his female energy (Sakti ). This sexual symbolism , originating from the Hindu  pantheon, is not a form of erotica to the Tibetan  Buddhists. The female aspect, in the posture of explicit sexual union, provides her consort with spiritual wisdom. He provides her with spiritual compassion . Together their power is whole and complete. See Tantra . (See Photo 48.)



Yama  (Sk)

"Lord of Death". One of the Dharmapala . He is always standing and clad in garments of fire. His aspect is very fierce. A human face with a fanged rictal-grimace or a bull's head. He stands on a bull or a naked woman, or both. He can have multiple arms and legs and holds a variety of Buddhist symbols, such as the cakra, kapala, karttrka, skeleton-topped pole and a pasa. (See Photos 55-56.)



Yamantaka  (Sk)

Gshinrje (T) "Defeater of Death". One of the Dharmapala . An example of the powerful forces of cause and effect. Terrifying and monstrous, he always stands on demons , animals, birds, elephants and humans. (Usually symbolic of Hindu  deities. ) Yamantaka can have one or nine heads, two arms or hundreds! The same applies to the number of legs. He wears a hideous grin on his slavering bull's head, and two frontal horns curl wickedly upward from his temple . With or without a Sakti  this is the stuff of nightmares. His symbols are Kapala , Karrtrka, Damaru , Khadga and flayed cloak of human skin, replete with scalp. (See Photos 55-56.)




See Mandala .



Yellow Hats

See Gelugpas .




A missing-link type creature that is supposed to roam Tibet . It has no serious role in Buddhism . See Chapter 3 Truth and Fiction.



Yi-Dam  (T)

"Protective Gods". In Tibet  each person picks a protective god or has one picked for him (or her), this god is with them for life! When the Dhyani Buddhas are in Yab-yum , they also belong to the Yi-Dam group. Heruka  and Jambhala .



Yonzdzin  (T)

A teacher of philosophy  to a high ranking Lama  or a Dalai Lama.



Zhangzhung  (T)

The birthplace of Bon . Located somewhere in Western Tibet . Many scholars disagree, claiming that the roots of Bon came from outside Tibet !