Himalayan tsakli and miniature thangkas
Tsak(a)li can convey their meanings directly without the absolute necessity for words. However, similarly to the Western ‘emblematic’ tradition, certain mantras, instructions or names recorded on the reverse of tsakli cards help to clarify and provide extra information. I have been collected and studied both Oriental and Occidental mystical visual art (emblemata in particular) designed to “liberate on seeing” by using various means to by-pass the everyday mind to see reality in other ways.
The art of visualising is used to its optimum in Vajrayana, or tantra, the most profound and rapid means of reaching enlightenment. The practices of this path involve identifying oneself completely, body and mind, with an enlightened being and seeing one' s environment as a pure realm. The ordinary, mistaken perceptions of oneself and all other phenomena are thus gradually abandoned as one's potential for enlightenment is allowed to express itself.
The meditational deities visualised in Vajrayana practice, such as Tara and Avalokiteshvara, are symbols of the enlightened state. Each is a manifestation of a specific quality - Avalokiteshvara, for example is the Buddha of Compassion - and each also represents the total experience of enlightenment. The details of the visualisation, such as colours, implements, hand gestures, posture and so forth, symbolise different aspects of the path to spiritual fulfilment. http://www.buddhasvillage.com/teachings/km_visualising.htm
Scholar and translator Francesca Fremantle wrote that a yidam is not an external being. "The real meaning of yidam is entirely internal and psychological; the yidam is the expression of one's own basic nature, visualised as a divine form in order to relate with it and express its full potentiality." (Francesca Fremantle and Chogyam Trungpa, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, 1975, p. xvi)
Deity yoga (Tibetan: lha'i rnal 'byor; Sanskrit: Devata-yoga) is the fundamental Vajrayana practice, generally involving a sadhana practice in which the practitioner visualizes themselves as the meditation Buddha or yidam of the sadhana. The purpose of Deity yoga is to bring the meditator to the realization that the deity and the practitioner are in essence the same, non-dual. The yidam generally appears in a mandala and the practitioner visualizes themself and their environment as the yidam and mandala of their Deity Yoga practice. This visualization method undermines a habitual belief that views of reality and self are solid and fixed, enabling the practitioner to purify spiritual obscurations (Sanskrit: klesha) and to practice compassion and wisdom simultaneously. Robert Beer describes the process:
Deity Yoga employs highly refined techniques of creative imagination, visualisation, and photism in order to self-identify with the divine form and qualities of a particular deity as the union of method or skilful means and wisdom. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, "In brief, the body of a Buddha is attained through meditating on it". Beer, Robert (2004). The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. Serindia Publications, ISBN 1932476105. p.142.
Representations of the deity, such as tsaklis, statues or mandalas, are often employed as an aid to visualization in both the Generation Stage (Tibetan: Kye-rim) and the Completion Stage (Tibetan: Dzog-rim) of Anuttarayoga Tantra. The mandalas are symbolic representations of sacred enclosures, sacred architecture that house and contain the uncontainable essence of a yidam. In The World of Tibetan Buddhism, the current Dalai Lama describes a mandala: “This is the celestial mansion, the pure residence of the deity.”