The Four Harmonious Friends, Essence of Bhutanese Culture

The Buddhist Channel, 17 July 2023

Timphu, Bhutan -- As you journey through enchanting Bhutan, from the humble abodes to the sacred monasteries and majestic dzongs, you will encounter a common and recurring symbol - the painting of the "Four Harmonious Friends". Whether adorning the walls of a home or gracing the intricate fabric of a Thangka, this image, known as Thunpa Puen Zhi, offers a glimpse into the heart of Bhutanese culture. However, behind its ubiquity lies a deeper meaning that often goes unnoticed.

The Thunpa Puen Zhi as viewed at
Punakha dzong (Pungthang Dewa chhenbi Phodrang)

While many perceive the painting as a representation of harmony and unity within families or society, its true connotations transcend the surface-level symbolism. According to Bhutanese scholar Dasho Lam Sanga, the Puen Zhi can be traced back to the various life cycles the Buddha experienced before his enlightenment. "The Puen Zhi is created in the context of the teachings of rebirth in Buddhism," explains Dasho Lam Sanga.

"The painting symbolizes interdependence despite the differences in size and strength among the animals. It epitomizes friendship, cooperation and harmonious relationships, without regard to hierarchy, power, or even physical stature. It embodies the virtues of Buddhist morality. At a single glance, one can discern the unity and harmony among four distinct species."

The animals portrayed in the painting are representations of Buddha himself and his closest disciples: the bird symbolizes Buddha, the rabbit represents Sheribu (Śāriputra), the monkey embodies Mou-Gelgi-Bu (Maudgalyayana), and the elephant personifies Kingau (Ananda). Dasho Lam Sanga emphasizes that the "... painting imparts many cherished Bhutanese values, such as respect for elders, cooperation and generosity. It illustrates that one need not become a monk or a nun to practice religion — the four animals serve as exemplars."

In modern Bhutan, the concept of Puen Zhi also resonates with His Majesty's vision of Gross National Happiness (GNH). Dasho Lam Sanga posits that "... to achieve Gross National Happiness, we require harmony and unity among the people. The four animals can be compared to the four pillars of GNH."

Lopon Lungten Gaytso, the principal of the Institute of Language and Cultural Studies, further explains that the painting of Puen Zhi, like many other Buddhist artworks, depicts Buddhist ethics. "It represents harmony, unity and integrity, transcending differences in size and strength," he explains. "It can be interpreted as the need for unity within a country, regardless of its diverse races. People paint the Four Friends in their homes, believing it will foster familial unity, prevent discord, and avert division."

Although the precise origin of the painting is difficult to trace, scholars like Lam Sanga suggest that it can be traced back to the forests of present-day Varanasi in India. "It is a Buddhist concept, as no Hindu epics mention it, despite the story taking place in India," he clarifies.

The tale of the Four Friends was narrated by Buddha to his disciples. It unfolds in a forest in Varanasi, where an elephant, a rabbit, a monkey, and a bird (partridge) engaged in a dispute over the ownership of a tree where they had all gathered to feed. The elephant claimed ownership by virtue of being the first to spot the tree, while the monkey argued that he had been enjoying its fruits. The rabbit maintained that he had nourished himself with the tree's leaves since it was but a small sapling. Observing the argument, the partridge interjected, asserting that the tree belonged to it since it had grown from the seed it had expelled after consuming its fruit.

Upon hearing this, the elephant, monkey, and rabbit bowed to the partridge, acknowledging it as their elder brother. They formed a bond of friendship and decided to share the tree, living together in peaceful harmony, enjoying the tree's fragrance, the nourishment of its fruits and the shelter of its shade.

Other animals in the forest witnessed this unity, often seeing the partridge atop the rabbit, carried by the monkey, who rode on the back of the elephant. Consequently, they came to be known as "the four harmonious brothers," and peace was restored in the forest.

Another account suggests that, in a previous lifetime, the Buddha and three noble beings — a bird, a monkey, and an elephant — resided in the Kashika forest. Drinking from the same spring, they formed a close bond. To demonstrate their reverence for the eldest among them, they recalled the height of a nearby banyan tree when they first encountered it. Each animal then paid homage to the others accordingly. The bird perched on the elephant's crown, the rabbit settled on its neck, and the monkey found a place on its back. The bird then proclaimed, "We must uphold the five basic disciplines throughout our lives."

Following this decree, the bird initiated all beings with wings, the elephant initiated those with fangs, the rabbit initiated those with paws, and the monkey initiated those with fur. Henceforth, these animals have been depicted in Buddhist art as a symbol of harmony.

While there exist various versions of the story, they all convey the same moral message: respect for elders and the importance of love and affection in living harmoniously. "None of the animals were primarily concerned with themselves," Dasho Lam Sanga affirms. "Each animal was more focused on helping the others, rather than being driven by selfish concerns."

According to a former Dzongkha Lopön (Bhutanese for spiritual degree given in Tibetan Buddhism), wherever a picture of the Four Harmonious Friends is displayed, the ten virtues are amplified, and minds are imbued with harmony. "The painting is an embodiment of cooperation, unity and harmony, which is why it is commonly found in places like lhakhangs, where people gather," shares Thinley Wangchuk.

While the story behind the painting originated in the forests of India, the identity of the artist who first painted Puen Zhi remains unknown. Local sources suggest that Tibetan families employed images of the painting as a form of advice for families undergoing challenging times. This Buddhist legend of the four harmonious animals has lineage to the Vinayavastu that constitute the first few sections of the Kangyur (“translated words” of the Buddha), under the canon of Tibetan Buddhism. It is here that the Four Friends are often cited as an example of how families should stay together and support one another.

Renowned Bhutanese painter, Lharip (a Bhutanese title for "master painter") Ugen Lhundup (1932- ), speculates that the origins of these paintings could be traced to Tibet and were brought to Bhutan when Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal brought lharips with him in 1616. Ugen Lhundup, who began his artistic journey in 1950, asserts that Puen Zhi paintings were present on the frescoes of dzongs and monasteries. He posits that "... these paintings may have originated during the era of Gyelse Tenzin Rabgye, who spearheaded the renovation and reconstruction of many dzongs and lhakhangs in Bhutan. The themes of these paintings may have derived from the Kangyur and the Tenyur (Tibetan collection of commentaries to the Buddhist teachings)."

Unlike Western art, Bhutanese art, especially paintings, is challenging to trace due to its purpose as an act of devotion. The co-founder and tutor of Bhutan's only art studio, Volunteer Artist Studio of Thimphu (VAST), Kama Wangdi, confirms this notion.

According to Kama Wangdi, traditional Bhutanese artists never signed their completed works because it was incongruent with their artistic ethos. "Traditional artists were regarded as religious icons. Their personal perspective held little importance, as long as their work served religious purposes," he elaborates.

One potential reason for the absence of signatures on their artwork is that most painters were commissioned to create pieces. Kama Wangdi explains, "When a painting or Thangka is commissioned, the artist considers it a gewa — a virtuous act. Signing it would diminish the work's significance. The artist's value diminishes once they complete their work. After the painting or Thangka is consecrated, its artistic value wanes."
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