All the four sects Nyingma, Sakya, Gelugpa and Kagyi have their own refuge tree to display the spiritual lineage of their religious heritage. The Refuge tree is important to the practitioner not only for worship during prostrations and prayers, but perhaps more importantly, as an object for creative visualization and meditation from which one can draw sustenance and inspiration to assist spiritual progress.
The Refuge tree is one of the most complicated paintings, requiring an enormous amount of work due to the multitude of figures. The time taken for a good quality painting can be extraordinary. The following true legend relates a humorous account of the amount of time required. This occurred some time ago in Tsang, Central Tibet.
Once there was a great artist by the name of Phag Chag (pig droppings). He was bestowed with such a names as it was prophesied at his birth that he was a special child. It was thought that giving him such a disgusting name would clear nay obstacles awaiting him, ensuring his survival.
Phag chag was renowned as a master artist in Tsang and well known for his unusual character and exceptional sense of humor. One day he was commissioned to complete a very special Refuge tree painting. The commissioner asked the artist what payment he would require for his service. The artist replied that as it would take three years to complete he would require provisions during this time and also six dzo (female yak) as payment for the difficult work involved. The commissioner was so delighted the artist even accepted his commission that he immediately offered him twelve dzo. The artist was so pleased with this payment that he commenced the painting immediately.
It was extremely unfortunate for the artist that ten of his dzo died of disease before he completed the painting, leaving him with only two surviving dzo. Despite this he continued to work diligently to complete the painting and did so by the end of the three years. It is said that the beauty of the painting was incomparable, to much so that no ordinary being could have achieved such a result. Thus, he departed with his two dzo, happy in the knowledge that he created such beauty. Unfortunately, three months after the paintings completion, his remaining two dzo also died, hence, he was left with nothing to show for his laborious work.
Thankfully the artist had retained his sense of humour throughout his misfortune. Later he joked about the impermanence of all things and about how, after three years of painstaking work on a Refuge tree, he had nothing but suffering and the dream for his future to be fortunate one. He lamented that even though ha had suffered, at least Tsongkhapa( the main figure of the refuge tree) supplied him unfailingly with milk and butter until he finished painting him. ‘ at least he could have left me the remaining two dzo, which I deserve since I created him out of nothing. Your are not fair! He laughed.
The next day he threw all his art materials away and thinking of the impermanence of all things dedicated himself to spiritual practice. After persistent practice and meditation he became a highly attained being. Later as he recounted his tale he would say, “ Tsongkhapa made me suffer for three years, but he showed me the true path of spiritualism. Yet now, if he wants me to paint hem, I will definitely include the twelve dzo and myself in the painting as his followers.”
This particular Gelugpa Refuge tree depicts figures of refuge taken by Grlugpa practitioners. The tree itself is known as ‘ Pagsam Shing’ dpag bsam shin, or the wish fulfilling tree. The land on which it grows is said to have the qualities of the land of ‘Dewachen’. The main central deity is visualized as ones’ root Guru, only with a different look. In the case of this refuge tree bla ma mchod p I tsogs shin, it is understood that the ultimate lineage origin of ones’ root Guru is Vajradhara. In the case of Nyingam, the ultimate lineage source of ones’ root Guru is Samnamtabadhra.