Thuenpa Puenzhi

Thuenpa Puenzhi: the four harmonious friends

Untitled-1The painting of the four harmonious friends is found in most Bhutanese homes, Lhakhangs, monasteries, and dzongs in the form of wall painting or Thangka. It is believed that that the painting symbolizes harmony and unity in family or society; it has a world of meaning contrary to its commonplace perception as an obvious symbolism of harmony.

According to a Bhutanese scholar, Dasho Lam Sanga, the Puen Zhi can be traced back to various life cycles Lord Buddha attained before his enlightenment. It is in the context of the teachings of Lord Buddha. It symbolizes interdependence despite the difference in size and strength of the animals. It is an epitome of friendship, cooperation, good relation without considering hierarchy, strength, power or even size. It depicts the virtues of Buddhist morals. At a single glance one will know that the four different species of animals are united in harmony.

He explains that the animals are representations of Lord Buddha himself and his close advocates: the bird is Buddha himself, the rabbit is Sheribu (Shari Putra), the monkey Mou-Gelgi-Bu (Mugyalyana), and the elephant Kingau (Ananda). The painting teaches most of the Bhutanese values of etiquette like respect for elders, cooperation, and generosity. ‘You need not become a monk or a nun to practice religion, the four animals can be an example’, said Dasho Lam Sanga.

In modern Bhutan, the concept of the Puen Zhi can also be interpreted as the basis of His Majesty’s concept of Gross National Happiness, according to the scholar. To achieve Gross National Happiness we need harmony and unity among the people. ‘The four animals can be compared to the four pillars of GNH’, he says.

The principal of Institute of Language and Cultural Studies, Lopon Lungten Gaytso, says the painting of the Puen Zhi, like many other Buddhist paintings, depicts Buddhist morals. It depicts harmony, unity, and integrity despite their sizes and strength. It can be interpreted as the need of unity in the country despite having different races. People paint the four friends at home with a belief that there will be no separation, discord, and partition within the family.

Although the origin of the painting is difficult to trace, scholars like Lam Sanga trace the origin to the forests in present day Varanasi in India. It is a Buddhist concept because no Hindu epics say anything about it although the story took place in India. The story of the four friends was an account Lord Buddha narrated to his disciples. The story goes thus: Once in a forest in Varanasi, four animals, an elephant, a rabbit, a monkey, and a bird (partridge) disputed about the ownership of a tree where all of them happened to come to feed on. The elephant claimed it was his because he saw it first. The monkey said that it was his because he had been feeding on the fruits of the tree. The rabbit claimed that he had been feeding on the leaves of the tree when it was a small sapling. The partridge who had been watching the argument said that the tree belonged to it because the tree wouldn’t have grown if it had not spit out the seed from the fruit it had eaten. The elephant, monkey, and rabbit, all then bowed to the partridge and regarded it as their bigger brother. The four animals became friends and decided to share the tree together in peaceful harmony enjoying the beauty of the tree’s fragrance, the nourishment of the tree’s fruits, and the bounty of the tree’s shade.

Other animals in the forest often saw them together with the partridge on top of the rabbit who was held up by the monkey who rode on top of the elephant. Henceforth, they were called, the four harmonious brothers. The four animals were looked upon as role models and peace and prosperity shined in the forest kingdom.

According to another account, in one of the Buddha’s previous lifetimes, in the forest of Kashika, there lived four noble beings – a bird, a monkey, a rabbit, and an elephant. The four, who drank at the same spring, soon became friends. One day they decided that it would be proper to show the greatest respect for the eldest among them. To determine their respective ages, each one recalled the height of a nearby banyan tree when he had first seen it.

The four then showed each other respect accordingly. The elephant placed the bird on the crown of his head, the rabbit on his neck, and the monkey on his back. The bird was said to have suggested that from then on they must keep the five basic disciplines throughout their lives. This they did, and to ensure that all other beings did the same, the bird initiated all those with wings, the elephant initiated all those with fangs, the rabbit initiated all those with paws, and the monkey initiated all those with fur. Thus, these animals are depicted in Buddhist art as a portrait of harmony.

There are about five different versions to the story, but according to Dasho Lam Sanga, they all have the same moral – respect to elders, love and affection to live in harmony. None of the animals were primarily concerned with themselves, he said. Each of the animals was concerned with trying to help the others rather than being dominated by selfish concern.

According to a former Dzongkha lopon, wherever a picture of the four brothers is displayed, the ten virtues will prosper and the minds of all will become harmonious. The painting is an example of cooperation, unity and harmony. While the story of the painting originated from the forests in India, nobody knows who painted the first Puen Zhi or where it was done.

Bhutan’s renowned painter, 73-year old Lhadip Ugen Lhundup says that the paintings could have originated in Tibet and must have come to Bhutan when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal brought along Lhadips (painter) with him in 1616.

Story Courtesy: Ugyen Penjore, Kuensel Issue Aug 2, 2005.