What Is Tibetan Buddhist Art and What Are Its Uses? - by Tom Savage
The Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art 138-154 West Seventeenth Street New York, NY 10011 (212)620-5000
www.rmanyc.org The Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art is the most interesting new museum to open in New York City in a long, long, time. That the art is mostly very old does not detract from this. Although the museum calls itself "Himalayan," most of the art on its six floors are thangkas, that is, Tibetan religious paintings. Other countries represented include India, Bhutan, Sikkim, Mustang, and Nepal. But the style of the art is all of apiece. Therefore, and for other good reasons, it makes sense to think of it as Tibetan art. It is the largest collection of such art to be made available for public viewing certainly in New York City and possibly anywhere. I have been to this museum's inaugural exhibit three times. It took two visits just to take in all of it. The Rubin Museum is truly a step forward in Western acquaintance with this kind of art. It is also a necessary step in what amounts to the Western preservation as well as dissemination of Tibetan culture which is being systematically eliminated from its primary home ground in what was once the independent country of Tibet but which has, since 1959, been an annexed and militarily occupied province of China. Aside from widespread torture of monks and laypeople of Tibetan origins by the Chinese, the Chinese government has, in recent years, imported large numbers of ethnic Chinese people in an attempt to eventually outnumber the Tibetans on their own home ground. Due to this suppression of their culture, it is incredibly fortunate that Tibetan Buddhism has been taken up in the West by religiously interested persons. Although the Dalai Lama remains a wise and important figure, as well as an inspiration and a symbol, who truly hopes for the eventual liberation of Tibet, unless something happens to reverse what the Chinese are doing in the region, soon, in a few generations there may be little if anything left of Tibetan culture in the region which was its primary home. Although there have been several other small Tibetan museums and galleries in the New York area devoted to this art, this is the first major museum of such a size devoted to it. It is thus welcome and interesting for many reasons.
According to a gentleman I spoke to from the Tibetan Buddhist meditation organization called Shambhala, the only major problem with the museum, at least for some persons, is that these paintings have been removed from their original mountings and turned into framed works of art whereas they were originally meant to aid and abet Tibetan Buddhist practices including meditations. When I asked an employee of the museum whether any Tibetan religious "teachings" would be given at The Rubin Museum, he said it was an art museum, not a place of worship. Nevertheless, I did notice cushions in front of some of the thangkas so that, presumably, those so inclined could use them for meditative purposes if they so chose. There is the question of whether that would be comfortable or advisable in a public place not meant for meditation, but it seems that as long as that possibility is acquiesced, it may be okay. The gentleman from Shambhala, whose name I have forgotten, said that this was a "minor" controversy but it seems important.
I should say that these kinds of paintings have been a part of my life for many years. I am a Buddhist, although a Southern or Theravadin Buddhist (India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar-Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia) rather than a Mahayana Buddhist (Tibet, China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan). Although most of the basic teachings are essentially the same, there are significant enough differences that I never found myself using this kind of art for meditative purposes, although I have, on occasions, found the images Budhistically inspiring when I encountered them, first in India where I lived for three years studying Theravada and then on isolated occasions when I visited temporary shows of this art in places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, since I returned from Asia thirty years ago.
I am discussing this odd problem of religious versus secular uses of Tibetan iconography because I have encountered similar problems in other contexts. One of the places in which I lived for a long time in India was home of the Gyuto Tantric College, a group renowned for their chanting of Tibetan texts and rituals. I used to hear them often, along with other meditators in my tradition who happened to be my neighbors, then in Dalhousie, a town in the foothills of the Himalayas, eight thousand feet above sea level. Several years ago, the Gyuto monks appeared in New York at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine under the auspices of the World Music Institute. Half of the audience was there for a religious event of deep meaning to them; the other half were there for an exotic concert. I experienced some vibrational discomfort at what appeared to be the commercial exploitation of something clearly beyond the materialism of the West and so did others. The musical tourists were blithely ignorant of what was going on except for the sonic experience. Nevertheless, the Buddha says that ignorance is the cause of all suffering, therefore...
I encountered a similar instance of religio-cultural confusion in a Christian context, also about five years ago or so. Because there had been an earthquake in the Italian region where Assisi is located, many of the saints relics believed in by some Christians but not by others, were moved for temporary safekeeping to America and put on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As I happened to be a volunteer working in the Museum at the time and a nonbeliever, I found it amusing to be looking at objects which claimed to be one of Mary Magdalene's teeth, a thorn out of Christ's final headgear, and many other such things. That Saint Francis's blood was also featured smeared inside an open box seemed a little grisly but possibly genuine since he was located in Assisi and lived and died about eight hundred years ago rather than the 2,000 tumultuous years the Christ dated objects supposedly survived to be presented to us here. Mostly, I viewed these objects with skeptical interest. One afternoon, however, I saw an attendant bring a lady in a wheelchair and press her up against the display case containing one of these objects. Clearly the old lady who requested this action believed these objects to be endowed with some kind of healing power. If these relics are often used for this purpose, as I believe they are, it could be that the collective faith of these believers does endow these objects with some kind of healing power, psychologically or possibly even physically, just by their collective faith in it, or so it occurred to me at the time. However, most of the people viewing these holy relics were just taking a break from Picasso, Mantegna, or Manet in order to see what else the museum had to offer at that time. Of course, this was not my first encounter with religious objects treated as works of art. Many altarpieces and suchlike, which now fill museums of aesthetic reasons were originally intended as aids to Christian worship. One man's Jesus could be another woman's beautifully painted man with a beard. Tibetan art, iconography, and symbology are more complex than this but there is an interesting parallel in the public display of these images which, in the case of the old Christian lady, forced her to enact something in a secular, public place which was intended to be done in a church. Of course, the fact that these objects were being displayed in America could have been her most convenient access to them, given her disability, so w not too surprising that she chose to test them out in public in the museum.
An organization called Tibet House, whose primary mission is the dissemination of Tibetan religious practices also has art exhibits from time to time. Some are "contemporary" art by living Tibetans; most are of thangkas such as those to be found in the Rubin Museum. Does that mean that the need for the meditative use of these marvelous images is covered? I don't know. That there are hundreds of them on display at the RMA would suggest as much of an encyclopedic access to this kind of art as we are likely to ever see in this country (America, that is.)It is interesting that at least in the meditative context of a true practitioner, these many Buddhist deities and figures are taken to be symbols for internal, human qualities such as equanimity and compassion rather than as external deities to be worshipped. There is no capital G God in Buddhism, no little bearded man in the sky who looks down on everything that His believers do and communicates somehow his pleasure or displeasure, with their actions. Sin and guilt are not, strictly speaking, aspects of Buddhism either. There is merely good and bad karma, which are taken to be impersonal cause and effect events. Of course, there are higher or different forms of Christianity than what is proposed by George Bush, Jerry Falwell, and the like. In one fascinating book which I read at Christmas this year called The Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous Christian British monk nearly a thousand years ago, God is taken to be "being" or "pure being" (but not necessarily "a pure being), in totality, as opposed to the idea of "being pure" which so many moralistic, hypocritical Fundamentalist Christians use to hit everyone over the psychic head who disagrees with them. How would one paint "pure being", however? Christian art mostly settles for the little guy in the sky, hoping that more intelligent followers won't take the image literally. There are many images (including some of the thangkas in the Rubin) of Siddhartha Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. I have heard that among lay believers, this image has been distorted to turn the Buddha into a kind of God to whom the faithful pray for a good marriage, successful lottery results, a good harvest, or whatever. Nevertheless, when the Buddha was asked whether or not there was/is a God, he replied that this was not an important question, what matters is how to resolve the sufferings of all sentient beings. That these beautiful images now residing, by the hundreds, in the Rubin Museum were once used by meditators in pursuit of that goal doesn't detract from their aesthetic qualities. These paintings are beautiful and inspiring on their own terms, whether you see a green Tara as a beautifully painted figure or as some kind of symbolic embodiment of compassion. The Rubin Museum is an enormous feast of these images, also including some from the Bon Religion (the religion which preceded Buddhism historically in Tibet) as well as some Hindu images from India and Nepal. That these beautiful paintings may be new aesthetic territory for most of those who will see them here only makes this Museum even more interesting and valuable.