Whence the Five Fingers?

A philological investigation of Laghukālacakratantra 5.171‒173ab as quoted in sMan bla don grub’s Yid bzhin nor bu

  • Luo Hong Sichuan University


The disagreement regarding the correct size of a Buddha image between the Kālacakra tradition (Dus ’khor lugs) and the Saṃvarodaya tradition (sDom ’byung lugs) is a significant and recurring theme in the history of Tibetan Thangka painting. While the latter specifies 120 fingers as the correct height of a Buddha image, the former claims that it should be 5 fingers more. Taking as a departure point two and a half verses from the Laghukālacakratantra that are quoted by sMan bla don grub (15th century), arguably one of the most prominent trailblazers of Tibetan styles of Thangka painting, we observe: firstly, that in his De gshegs yid nor (a revised and more developed version of bDe gshegs yid nor) sMan bla don grub quotes verses 5.171‒173ab of the Laghukālacakratantra; secondly, Laghukālacakratantra 5.172a as attested in De gshegs yid nor may have been quoted from the new Jo nang translation of the Laghukālacakratantra, although this particular pāda offers the philologically insupportable and hermeneutically inconsistent reading of 125 fingers; and thirdly, in India, the divergent iconometric systems found in the Laghukālacakratantra and the Saṃvarodayatantra had already reached a compromise, and so the discrepancy between the Kālacakra tradition and the Saṃvarodaya tradition as reflected in the Tibetan materials may in fact have been introduced by the new Jo nang translation of LKCT 5.172a, presumably, in much the same way as the gzhan stong versus rang stong controversy was motivated by the new religious term (chos skad) gzhan stong.