Rubin Museum: A Place for Buddhism - by Susan L. Yung
On October 2, 2004, there was an opening on 17th Street & 7th Ave for the Himalayan Arts at Rubin Museum of Art, formerly the chic Barneys department store in the heart of Chelsea. The museum is very impressive with 6 floors adding up to 70,000 square feet (notice the numerical correlations of the sevens), displaying many mandalas, artifacts and thankas arranged in historical sequence depicting the various goddesses and deities according to Buddhist traditions. There is a modern Art Deco black and white marble spiral staircase in the center of the lobby where all the floors are designed mandala-like around the staircase. Of course, this can be overwhelming to non-practitioners.
After my Saturday's Taiko practice, I decided to drop in the Rubin Museum of Art for its free admission and have a quick look-see before going to a prearranged film shoot at A Gathering of the Tribes, a non-profit diverse cultural arts organization. There was a 15 minute wait and I was about to walk away until I spotted Bonnie Finberg, a poet who just came back from Paris, standing in front of the line. She allowed me to join her and nobody admonished me. Upon entering the Milton Glaser designed foyer trimmed with American walnut and mahogany, I passed the "Cloud Wall" made of formed aluminum with a copper leaf finish. Bonnie espied one of the musicians who had just finished performing. He was playing an accordian like instrument called a harmonium. She introduced me to Christian who owns an Indian music shop called Keshav on East 4th St. in the Lower East Side. He sells special Indian musical instruments from India. I mentioned I had visited India twice especially north India, and presently I'm learning Japanese drumming. We talked about music for awhile and he gave me his business card and said, "Drop by."
My last visit to India was videoing and attending Sakyditha, a women's Buddhist Conference in Leh, Ladakh, India often referred to as "Little Tibet." At this conference, I learned that its purpose is to spiritually empower women since the Buddhist religion is modeled on the principals of womanhood. However, it became dominated by monasteries operated by powerful monks. Thus in this remote area of "little Tibet," a feudalistic society exists there. It has an agrarian culture which thrives under Buddhist doctrines. The faithful Buddhists support the doctrines of the local monasteries by offering tributes and sending at least one son to a monastery so he can be an "educated" monk. Meanwhile, if a woman wanted to be spiritually enlightened, and since she is unmarried, she must work on the family's farm from 6am-6pm and then, afterwards she can tend to her spiritual duties at a nunnery which are kept in very poor conditions due to lack of maintenance time. Ironically, the monasteries were maintained 24 hours by the monk boys and their teachers.
Ten years later, with this knowledge and my inability to find funding for putting together my videos in NYC, I am amazed at this new museum's large collection (comprising over 1,500 artifacts) dedicated to the Himalayan arts culture in order to educate westerners. In other words, this ancient Buddhist culture has become a new cult to be tapped by westerners with its rare abundances of artifacts, thankas, mandalas and Buddhist statuaries, some even decorated with semi-precious gems. Accordingly, these are the tools for practitioners to focus on good and evil, life and death, suffering and happiness, gaining wealth via material achievements in compassionate and karmic ways. So it seems important to be at this opening to celebrate a small progressive movement in the western arts, especially when Buddhism can be obliterated by the Muslim's war with western Christian countries. A big example is the destruction of the largest stone carving of Buddha in Afghanistan.
Getting back to Bonnie and me, Bonnie decided that she wanted to view the exhibit along by climbing up the spiral staircase which leads up to an oval skylight and is the central focus in the museum's lobby. The exhibition is designed to move timely upward presenting the various levels of achieving nirvanas. I however like the Guggenheim Museum wanted to start from the top and go down, so I entered the elevator. Before I could press the up button, I saw my Tibetan teacher, Jumspel about to leave the museum. I quickly dashed over to him and gave him my respects. I had studied the Tibetan language for five years and thought it much easier than learning Chinese which is my ethnicity. Jumspel received me stiffly and introduced me to the two monks from Tikse and Spituk monasteries in Leh, Ladakh, India. However, none were wearing their saffron/maroon robes. They were dressed in western clothes. We formally talked and wished each other a better life.
Finally, I was able to view the exhibit from the top to the bottom. The museum was modestly crowded where one can individually view the strategically placed 1,500-piece collection embracing the Himalayan regions of Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, India and China dating from the 12th to 19th centuries. It was mind boggling to try to absorb the whole collection within one visit. It seems one has to be a Buddhist practitioner to fully appreciate and understand the full scope of this museum's proselytizing where all the pictorial information are presented as conduits towards meditation and enlightenment.
It is a formal introduction to an "obscure" culture rarely known in the western world especially the Buddhist art and its history whose sole purposes are depicting "stories for teaching" the illiterates. This museum in NYC gives the viewer an opportunistic exposure to its intricate connections and spiritual benefits of Asian cultures. Once revealed, would there eventually be a Museum of Hindi or Muslim art across the street for other religious practitioners as souvenirs for invading and salvaging artifacts in their homelands? This makes property ownership worth the investment in the upcoming years during America's economic recession for the lower class society to share and appreciate such accumulations by going to public facilities.
This museum becomes a landmark of a secret trend that has gone officially public since the Beat generation had adopted the doctrines of Buddhism. It also marks the achievements for the baby boomer generation since the owners; Shelly and Donald Rubin had successfully founded MultiPlan, a health-care company some 25 years ago and spent $60 million transforming this trendy store into a museum. It is 70,000 square foot divided by 6 floors containing gallery spaces, a state-of-the-art theater, a classroom, a library and research facilities, a café and a gift shop.
During the 60s, Allen Ginsberg and his entourage with Jack Kerouac had indoctrinated themselves with the Buddha practices where Bohemian lifestyle became a cultural revolution of writing haikus, collecting New Guiana art, gettin' drunk and high. They were reactionaries to the industrial commercial world and practiced meditations to achieve higher forms of creativity. To some it may seem unorthodox cal behaviors, in other words, behavior unsuitable in mainstream American society.
(Gauging my interests in mysticisms, the coincidental connections made through my life ... the parallelisms that explain the direction I had fallen into. Certain beliefs in an era when war & protest songs meant a lot to keep the peace in a war mongering country. For a while peace has been ruling until presently America is embattled with oil barons fighting in foreign land over the price of black gold.)
Getting back to the Rubin Museum, I quickly went up to the 6th floor and quickly browsed through the thankas, statuaries and mandalas floor by floor, stopping once in a while to inspect the mandala's details and admiring the border with the many single lined figures. Eventually, I got out of the door and felt overwhelmed that I would have to return.
The Second Visit
The next visit, I went with Marilyln Perez, a Cuban-American filmmaker. We walked through the museum starting from the top again entitled "Methods of Transcendence." The first Mandela that attracted us is the Mandala of the Secret Assembly which is the "1st Indian trantric texts to be translated into Tibetan in the 11th century during the Second dissemination of Buddhism from India." This mandala was painted by Nepalese artisans with dominating deep reds and blues in stylistic decorative features depicting rounded faces with exaggerated chins. Such an act of painting fine details can be very mind boggling and so Marilyn and I tried not to stay too long. We spent a few minutes with the provided magnifying glasses admiring the perfect detailed tiny minute dancing figures bordering the mandalas. Another exceptional mandala is "The One with the Melodious Voice" where in the center sits a Bodhisattva of Wisdom. Every inch of the background space is filled with different patterns and yet the overall effect is harmonious. We spent about two hours in the museum before we decided that was enough information for one visit.
My Third Visit
In the Himalayans like throughout the world, lives of revered figures are imbedded in the collective memory through stories told generation after generation.
Finally, I felt it necessary to view the Museum along and complete this review. This time I started from the bottom up as it was designed to ascend to the top. On the lower level is a photo exhibit of Kenzo Izu who lugged a 300 lb. large format view camera throughout the various Buddhist countries. My only interest is his photos of North India. However, I found one mistake. He had misspelled the Lamayaru monastery which is one of the oldest monasteries in the area. I can only surmise it as a cultural mistake since he called the monastery Ramayaru. Then I went up to the second floor entitled "Sacred History: Sages and Stories" which focuses on the sacred beginnings of Buddhism and Bon religions. Bon practice precludes Buddha and was widely practiced in the Himalayan Mountains. Its founder, Tonpa Shenrab believed to live 8,000 years ago in the land of Tazik, west of the Himalayans was probably a shaman. Like Buddhism, Bon is a living religion which venerates a founding sage, has monastic tradition and the spiritual goal of liberation from the cycle of suffering and rebirth. Buddhism incorporated Bon's belief that beings are born, die and are reborn in endless cycles with prior actions determining (quantative merits earned in lifetime), affecting the next rebirth. The two religions culminated in enlightenment as the sources for inspiration, instruction and setting examples. It encompasses Taoism with animism and their primal forms of worship with various deities and demons as in Greek mythology. Buddhism adopted many aspects of Bon that it becomes a fine blur to distinguish between the two religions. The lifetime experiences of Buddha Shakymuni and Tonpa Shenrab both emphasize essential spiritual qualities of practicing Compassion, Wisdom, Honesty and channeling up to the majestic form. Through repetitious rebirths, they become iconic levels of faith.
Tonpa Shenrab (Life Story)
The Buddha Shakyuma renounced his princely life at the age of 29 in Nepal to seek the understanding of the nature of existence. At the age of 35, he reached enlightenment 2,500 years ago in India. The founding sage, Buddha Shakyamuni (translated as "the Awakened One, Sage of the Shakya clan") is visually depicted in many sentient forms, animal, plant, insect, or fish. Tales of previous lives of great teachers as animals and people enlarge the repertory to mythic scope. Rabbits, tigers, elephants, magic necklaces and flying monks help teach lessons of misguided actions and compassionate wisdom. There are 108 morality tales which were teaching stories passed down by disciples until a written language occurred with the Hindi and Buddha combined.
A little bit of information: The Swastika symbol is an ancient Indian symbol of good luck and prosperity, and even linked to the hammer of Thor in Northern European. Prior to the existence of Nazism, the "lucky swastika" was widely used in America advertising medicinal remedies.
The most fundamental art piece that I favor is "Buddha Shakyumin Teaching Five Disciples." It dates during the Gandhara period, ca 3C. It is a stone carving in bas relief showing the Buddha "turning the wheel" which is synonymous to teaching. Usually, the images of Buddha are rarely depicted around this period. Prior, he was represented as an empty space with a wheel. He is light itself and the only way his image was drawn was from his reflection in the water where his garments are depicted with folds flowing like ripples in water. Gandharan art (presently Afghanistan and Pakistan) produced the earliest depictions of Buddha. In 4th C BCE, Alexander the Great conquered Gandhara where the artists absorbed and transformed the many conventions of Greek and Roman art. These influences caused realistic renditions of a "muscular" bearded figure standing behind Buddha, who is in the foreground, holding a thunderbolt or varja which has references to Hercules of ancient Greek mythology. It also represents the strongman Vajrapani, the Blue God of Anger.
This small bas-relief amazed me because it was carved during Alexander's time and is a transition period for Byzantine and early Constantine art. The most amazing was how this small sculpture had no protective covering. It had a sign reading "Do Not Touch." And it was hard to resist. Only the eye could touch.
Looking around the second floor, I see all the other statuaries are encased in glass. I would assume this bas-relief should also due to its historic significance in art history. I started to read and notated the informations correlating the text to the thankas and mandalas from Tibet and southern Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia/China, Kashmir, Bhutan hanging on the walls. It becomes an exploration of the soul and self. In a nutshell, in Buddhism, there are 3 characteristics of human form: body, speech and mind which become metaphors for perfection through enlightened actions. Through meditation one achieves enlightenment, practice good karma whereby one does not have to be reborn again, thus achieving nirvana.
Mandala of Hevajra
Central Tibet, 1700-1799
This leads the viewer to the third floor which is entitled "Perfected Beings, Pure Realms." There are more illustrations and explanations for achieving compassion, wisdom and perfection. This floor focuses on the peaceful deities with few images suggesting wrathful forms. Their functions are to provide protection from danger and removal of obstacles as well as provide long life, wealth and health. The purpose of Himalayan art is to enlist the power of beauty; to release us from our "limited" selves. In practicing these arts through truth, good and beauty, these entities become one.
Again the viewer gets more written information that accompanies the arts where mandalas are explained to be meditative tools to envision a mazelike structure which leads to the center and where a deity resides. The represented deity depends what the worshiper is meditating on: Good Health, Wealth, Protection, Compassion and so on. Upon reflection, it measures the levels of one's faith and to overcome obstacles and develop an ideal society on earth.
There is a side room with slide show presentations called "Explore Art" which explains the ways to perceive the Himalayan arts though the observations of stories, portraits and its various metaphors. It also explains how to look at the art of recognizing Buddha's features: his elongated ear lobes, the topknot, the gaze of approaching enlightenment and hand gestures.
13.75 x 9.25 inches
The fourth floor is entitled "Demonic Divine in Himalayan Art and Beyond." Here it shows demonic figures with garlands of skulls, bikini tiger shorts or many armed deities in various colors of red, blue, green or yellow. They are interpreted as protectors of the individual, a place, monastery or a community. The "wrathful deities symbolize one's own inner powers to overcome obstacles." There are three sections: The Dangerous Protectors; Enlightened Protectors and Wrathful Buddhas. This floor also includes other expressions of the demonic divine from Asia, Africa, Europe and Central America. There are African masks, Paper Mache Skeletons from Mexico, Iconic triptychs from Europe and warrior gods from Asia illustrating worldwide commonalities and parallelism of human beliefs. It reveals a universality of a collective consciousness in different communities.
The fifth floor entitled "Portraits of Transmission" comprises portraits from 7th to modern centuries of Kings (religious rulers) and Priests (Scholars) that help shaped the Himalayan and especially Tibetan recorded history. It historically relates the earlier influences of statesmen expanding Buddhism, importing artistic traditions from India to the Mongolian courts of Kublai Khan in the 11-13th Century. The 14th-16th Century is considered the Period of Great Monasteries where dual developments of multiple political states of religious proliferation and diversity created a unique Himalayan artistic tradition. Monasteries, libraries and universities became architectural structures to be maintained and encourage pilgrimages. The 17th-20th century solidifies the expansion of Buddhism in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkhim, and Southeast Asian countries.
15.75 x 13 inches
There is a side room dedicated to "How and Why" these paintings were made. We are shown how the painting tools are made and how the canvas is stretched. There are explanations detailing how the image has to specifically be measured with grid lines to exactly depict Buddha. It demonstrates how the pigments are derived from grounded minerals and semi-precious stones to get the particular brilliant colors. There are similarities of preparing the European frescoes to the Tibetan wall murals during the Middle Ages.
Finally, we ascend the last flight of the marbleized spiral staircase entitled "Methods of Transcendence." This is a collection of objects representing the Tantric, the system of philosophy that developed in India by the 6th century. "Tantra offers an alternate and quicker path to reach an enlightened condition and in the process release from the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth ... embracing by the religious practices of Buddhism, Hinduism, Bon and Jainism." Thus, the Museum's presentation of the Himalayan arts gives a general overview. Tantras are texts that describe rituals and various types of yogas (sexual positions for couples) and meditations for a practitioner to embody the divine in a single lifetime.
With more time, one can sit down in a side room and surf the web or view short films about Making a Thanka painting; Tibetan Painting and Monastic Life; Celebration of Tibetan Music and Dance; Lost Treasures of Tibet and the Lama Man.
It took me seven hours to thoroughly go through the museum and get an overview of its purpose. It visually represents the eastern arts and its development, disseminating pertinent information whenever necessary. For me, having been educated in the western arts, I look for the painterly styles of the individual artists and if there are any influences between Western and Eastern arts. Unfortunately, the Eastern artists remain anonymous and rarely are their names attributed with the mandalas or thankas. The eras of Buddhism holds many comparisons to Westerners. The Rubin Museum opens a new field for the public to delve, search and explore alternate forms of spirituality, especially to speculate other religions and their inspirational influences on Eastern arts.