The tradition of Himalayan tantric art evolved over more than a thousand
years into a form notable for its iconographic complexity and stunning
beauty. In December, Tricycle visited New York City's Rubin Museum of
Art, home of one of the West's richest collections of Himalayan art.
In this interview RMA curator JEFF WATT pulls back the curtain on this
Buddhist art form.
What role can art play in conveying the Buddhist
teachings? Buddhists are always talking about tools to use on
the path to liberation. Often we are accused of living in our heads, of
being too abstract. Buddhist art—and more specifically, tantric
art—gives us the opportunity to come down to earth and look at how
Buddhism represents itself visually. How is the Buddha represented? How
are his teachings and followers represented?
Can you say something about tantra itself, and tantric
Tantra is simply a method to reach enlightenment quickly, in one lifetime.
It belongs to Northern Buddhism, the Mahayana school, although it once
pervaded much of Buddhist Asia, including Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.
Tantric paintings are the visual representations of tantric texts, which
outline expedient practices. The texts themselves are primarily understood
as revelation, and are said to be the words of the Buddha in his divine
or transcendent aspect. Most tantric texts were written down between the
fourth and tenth centuries C.E., and tantric art developed alongside of
And how does tantric art represent the teachings
in tantric texts?
The deities in the paintings are personifications of the texts and the
systems of practice they teach. Tantric art actually compresses all of
the important points of the Buddhist teachings into a very tight visual
package of symbols.
the deities thought to actually exist?
Deities in the tantric system don't exist as external entities. They're
expressions of Buddhahood, they are emanations of a particular Buddhist
teaching. These deities are peaceful, fearsome, and wrathful; they're
multiheaded and multiarmed, each one suited to the temperament of an individual
tantric practitioner. Although the images are visually arresting, they
are merely mnemonic devices. For instance, often a deity will have, say,
four faces, symbolizing the four Brahma-viharas, the Four Immeasurables-love,
compassion, joy, and equanimity—fundamental principles in all Buddhist
practice. The four-faced deity is only one very basic example of tantric
iconography. The symbols are complex and many, and a single image can
contain within it all of the essential Buddhist teachings, including the
teachings of the Pali canon and the Mahayana sutras. And each image will
often contain a central metaphor. In the case of the Kalachakra painting,
for instance (seepage 64}, the metaphor is rime. The central metaphor,
whether it's death, beauty, fierceness, royalty, or the like, serves as
the thematic matrix out of which the symbols emerge. It's a means of bundling
the iconography up into a single motif.
We often see male and female figures locked in embrace,
as in the Kalachakra painting. What do they represent?
When you have a male and a female locked in embrace, usually the male
represents the phenomenal world of appearance, existence as we know it—what
we hear, smell, taste, and so on. The female represents the Buddhist concept
of emptiness, shunyata, the essentially void nature of phenomena. From
a Buddhist point of view, nothing can come into existence unless you have
emptiness, the purely contingent nature of phenomena. Emptiness is the
template out of which phenomena appear and into which they disappear.
With the deities embracing we have a union of the two, a representation
of nonduality. The male-female union is also a representation of the union
of compassion (or method) and wisdom. This is a basic example of how a
fundamental Buddhist principle is contained and expressed in tantric art.
Understanding the relationship between appearance and emptiness is central
to tantric Buddhism, and actually experiencing it, rather than simply
knowing it intellectually, is key.
How does the art help us to actually experience this principle?
In tantric practice, there are two types of meditation: the "generation
stage" and the "perfection stage." The generation stage
is essentially a visualization practice, using the images depicted in
the art as subjects. The deities are visualized in a formal meditation
session done one, two, three, or six times a day, for anywhere from five
minutes to an hour or more. The meditation can be thought of as a rehearsal
of the stages of the path to enlightenment: all the key points are brought
to mind, all the steps required are there—the mental states to be
accomplished and the negative emotional states to be overcome. Also, throughout
the course of one's day, there are activities that may relate to a specific
deity that need to be reflected on, whether one is at work or at leisure.
It's worth mentioning that there are so many different subjects in Buddhist
tantric art because different metaphors and themes suit different kinds
of people. Some may have an affinity for a wrathful deity, some may be
more receptive to a peaceful one; and another, more complex mind may be
suited to, say, the multilayered symbology found in the form of the Kalachakra,
with all of its cogs and wheels representing time.
So yes, this art is a key to the practice. With perfection-stage meditation,
however, imagery is not used. This further stage of meditation, based
on a certain level of accomplishment with the generation stage, concerns
itself with direct experience with the ultimate view of Buddhist reality—Mahamudra,
Dzogchen, the Great Middle Way—without reliance upon fabricated
In the painting opposite, a theme taken from the Mahayana sutras
is used to create a deity. In the Mani Kabum, a seventh-century
text, Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, vowed to establish
all sentient beings in enlightenment. “If ever I should break
this vow,” he said, “may my head split into pieces.”
He tirelessly worked toward emptying the hells—the hungry
ghost realm, the animal realm, the human realm, and so on—but
every time he looked back, he saw that these realms were filled
with ever more sentient beings. Finally he became exhausted and
despaired of ever making progress. He decided it would be best if
he worked only for the benefit of himself. At that moment, his head
shattered into pieces. Amitabha Buddha, lord of the Pure Land, saw
this, gathered the pieces, and stacked them in sets of three, one
atop the other. The bodhisattva Vajrapani, in a wrathful form, offered
help and put his own head atop those nine. Amitabha Buddha, vowing
to be always present, then placed his own head atop all ten. The
bottom ten heads, including Vajrapani’s, are also a reference
to the ten paramitas,the virtues one must develop in order to become
enlightened: generosity, discipline, patience, courage, meditation,
wisdom, skillful means, vow, power, and know ledge. Further aiding
Avalokiteshvara in his quest to liberate all sentient beings, the
thousand buddhas of the current cosmological cycle each offered
up the symbol of an eye, which appear in the palms of the hands
of Avalokiteshvara’s thousand arms. In his upraised right
hand Avalokiteshvara holds a crystal mala (prayer beads) representing
the bringing of all beings to the state of enlightenment as the
beads are drawn toward the heart. In the upraised left is a crystal
lotus symbolizing that Avalokiteshvara is of this world but not
stained by it. The other two hands are held in the prayer gesture
at the heart, requesting all Buddhas to remain in the world and
teach. The wishfulfilling jewel held between the two hands represents
the Buddha-nature found within all beings and the wish for all beings
to reach enlightenment.
Are the mandala paintings essentially mnemonic devices?
Yes. The mandala (for an example, seepage 60} represents the totality
of the universe, and each deity resides within one. The relationship between
the deity and the mandala is the relationship between the animate and
the inanimate. The deity represents oneself and the surrounding mandala
represents the world one lives in. Typically you have a figure in a square,
representing a deity in his or her palace, with four doors. Tantra's foundation
comprises the fundamental Buddhist teachings, so different features of
the palace represent what in Buddhism are known as the "thirty-seven
factors of enlightenment"—the steps leading to enlightenment,
including and beginning with the Four Noble Truths, which the four doors
represent. It's a little bit like Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, in which
actors used architectural features to remember their lines. Likewise,
the tantric practitioner uses the different features of a mandala—a
metaphorical palace—to remember the thirty-seven factors of enlightenment.
Most tantric art contains a complete system of teachings, and the mandala
is no different. What's more, surrounding the entire mandala is an outer
ring. Much like our current Western view, the tantric Buddhist view, developed
over fifteen hundred years ago, describes the universe as a sphere, and
what this ring actually represents is the sphere of the universe. So tantric
art is meant to represent not just Buddhist teachings and cosmology, but
the world and universe as a whole.