Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Secrecy & Himalayan Art (Buddhism)

Buddhism Main Page

Secrecy and Himalayan Art is a topic for Religious Studies. There are strong elements of Vajrayana Buddhism represented in both painting and sculpture. Vajrayana is also known as the Guhya Mantrayana - Secret Mantra Vehicle. Buddhist Tantra is generally regarded within the tradition as secret and esoteric. So, how does this effect the viewing, understanding and appreciation of the art. Some understanding of the concept of secrecy within Tantric Buddhism is useful in understanding the opposition and criticism towards the public display of tantric imagery.

The Secret Mantra Vehicle (Vajrayana, Tantrayana, Guhya Mantrayana) relies on the Tantra text literature of India. Predominantly written in the Sanskrit language. The tantras are technical manuals for presenting and describing different techniques with the goal of reaching enlightenment. The techniques have a broad range from the simple to the highly complex involving deity yoga, mandalas, mantra and yantra devices. The tantra literature is divided into four, five or six different levels of profundity with the texts arranged accordingly. The different Tibetan traditions categorize some of these texts in different ways.

The four main tantra classifications are Kriya, Charya, Yoga and Yoganiruttara. The more complex of these systems are organized and presented in a graduated curriculum style of study and practice. Each of these have shared Tantric theory as well as unique features distinguishing the different systems. The Kalachakra mandala appearance and explanations are different from a Mahakala or Tara mandala and explanations.

Within each of these simple or complex systems and corresponding curriculum there are rules of discipline in the practice - physical, verbal and mental. These rules are called 'samaya' pledges. There are general pledges that are generic for the specific level of four tantras and there are specific pledges that may only apply to a specific system such as Kalachakra, Mahakala or Tara, for example. It is these pledges that are the source of secrecy in Tantric Buddhism.

The pledges are the secrets. The pledges only apply to tantric practitioners that have received them from a teacher during the ritual process of a Buddhist Tantric initiation. The pledges apply to the practitioner. The keeping of secrets applies to the practitioners. The pledges are not some type of information that cannot be seen or heard by others who are not Tantric Buddhists. Pledges are oaths of commitment that apply only to the initiate of a tantric initiation and the teacher. The initiation is the entrance point for beginning a curriculum of personal tantric practice.

The public display of tantric imagery extends back to India more than a thousand years in the past. In the Himalayan and Tibetan regions the public viewing of tantric themes was more muted and concealed prior to the 14th century with less concern from that time until the present. Tantric art has also been created as a commodity and for gift exchange for hundreds of years. In modern times the esoteric art fills museums and temples in both the East and West.

In Tantric Buddhism there is no inherent secrecy in ritual objects or figures of deities, painting or sculpture. The secrecy only applies to the individual pledges (samaya) maintained by those students practicing a tantric curriculum.

Jeff Watt 6-2020