In the west, Buddhism isn’t usually associated with politics, warfare, or sorcery. But as seen in this fascinating exhibition, Buddhism—particularly the esoteric form of the religion that developed in Tibet after its introduction there in the 7th century—played a major role in the power dynamics of premodern North Asia. Spanning the 8th to the 19th centuries and comprising approximately 60 exceptional works from the Rubin’s own collection of Himalayan art and from the Asian collections of such institutions as the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Musée Guimet in Paris, the show demonstrates how Tibet’s model of sacral rulership, its unique use of avowed reincarnation as a means to establish succession, and its tantric Buddhist rituals offered successive empires a path to claiming and keeping power.

“Faith and Empire: Art and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism”

The Rubin Museum of Art in
New York City

A vital concept in Indian Buddhist scripture as it related to politics in the Tibetan empire (608–866) was the idea of the cakravartin (a benevolent and universal king), a sacred ruler who gains sanction to expand his empire by governing in accordance with Buddhist principles. When Tibet adopted Buddhism as its official religion in 779, it embraced this model of kingship.

Artworks served both as ritual objects and propaganda tools. The tantric Buddhism imported into Tibet from India brought with it the image of the sacral empire as a mandala with a buddha at its center. It also supplied the Tibetans with a cosmology in which protector deities such as Vajrapani, seen in the exhibition in a beautiful 8th-century bronze from Kashmir, helped the practitioner overcome not only spiritual obstacles but also real-life foes.

Related: Himalayan Buddhist Art 101

By the late 8th century, the Tibetan emperor was being equated with the celestial buddha Vairocana—an 11th-century Tibetan bronze statue on view shows the deity in Tibetan royal robes—further eliding the distinction between worldly and otherworldly might. In subsequent centuries, King Songtsen Gampo (ca. 605–650) who founded the Tibetan empire and is traditionally credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet, later came to be regarded as an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of com-passion. He appears as that deity in a 13th-century painting seen at the gallery.

Following the collapse of the Tibetan empire, local tantric masters assumed their own authority; one such pretender was Lama Zhang Tsondru Drakpa, who in the 12th century established his own territory, sent his students into battle, and famously employed the aid of protector deities such as Mahakala to destroy his enemies. In a wonderful 14th-century bronze statuette, the lama is depicted as a jolly-looking but nevertheless implacable figure.

Tibetan tantric masters’ reputed power to ensure military success through magical warfare did not escape the notice of would-be rulers across Asia. Beginning around the turn of the first millennium, not coincidentally, it became a tradition for Chinese imperial courts to employ a Tibetan Buddhist monk as imperial preceptor.

The first to do so was the Tangut court of Xixia, a small kingdom (1038–1227) on the Silk Road, whose imperial preceptor was one of Lama Shang’s Tangut students. Like the Tibetan emperors before them, the Tangut emperors styled themselves as cakravartin rulers, and as their route to legitimization, Buddhism came in for lavish royal patronage. Two of the most beautiful works in the show are images of a lovely, citrine-hued Green Tara and a wrathful Achala, both rendered in the luxurious Central Asian technique of cut-silk tapestry.

Worship of the protector deity Mahakala was an important aspect of Tangut imperial Buddhism. And when in 1209 the Mongols, led by Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, laid siege to the Tangut capital, Yinchuan, it was said to have been Mahakala—summoned by the imperial preceptor—who flooded the Mongol camp, forcing Genghis to withdraw. (In spite of this, the Tangut emperor surrendered in 1210.)

For the non-Chinese Mongols, the Tibetan system of succession through reincarnation rather than blood relationship had undeniable appeal. In pursuit of legitimacy, the rulers of the Mongol empire (1206–1368), the largest contiguous empire in history, continued the tradition of having a Tibetan Buddhist as imperial preceptor.

When founding the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), Chinggis’s grandson Qubilai Khan, a devout Buddhist, installed his own imperial preceptor, Phagpa, as its highest religious authority. A painting on view attributed to the 15th-century Tibetan artist Khyentse Chenmo depicts that ceremony. Tellingly, below Phagpa is his disciple Dampa, a Mahakala ritual specialist. Credited with helping the Mongols subdue the Song kingdom to the south, the fanged, potbellied deity is represented in this part of the exhibition by a charming 14th-century Tibetan sculpture in painted stone.

Thangka of Protector Deity
Protector deity Panjaranatha Mahakala, late 15th century (Ming Dynasty), China; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Ming dynasty rulers who came to power in China following the collapse of the Mongol empire, though ethnically Chinese, continued to use Buddhism to solidify their rule. Having a tenuous claim to power, the third (so-called Yongle) emperor (r. 1403–1424) took particular pains to establish relations with Tibetan Karmapas, heads of the Tibetan Buddhist Kagyu lineage. An embroidered Hevajra scroll painting, or thangka, given by the emperor to the Tibetan lama Shakya Yeshe is far more than a breathtakingly beautiful object; it is a testament, as its inscription shows, that the emperor has received multiple Hevajra initiations—a rite of investiture for Mongol emperors—and is thereby proof of his entitlement to sacral rule.

In 1642, through Mongol military force, the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, became the first theocratic ruler of Tibet. As part of his claim to power, he declared himself to be, like Songtsen Gampo, a reincarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. A painted woodblock print, one of a set depicting previous lives of the “Great Fifth,” shows him as the Tibetan empire’s founder; woodblock prints such as these were easily and widely disseminated, and with them the idea of the Fifth’s divine authority.

The show ends with a section devoted to the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Like the Mongols, the Manchus were non-Chinese invaders from the north. Reinstating Tibetan Buddhism as China’s official religion, they declared themselves reincarnations of the Mongol ruler Qubilai Khan

Photo of Buddha Statue
A late 18th-century sculpture of Songtsen Gampo (ca. 605–650), founder of the Tibetan empire; Pritzker Collection

A spectacular 19th-century Qing woodblock print, hand-colored and of extraordinary size and detail, depicts Mount Wutai in Shanxi Province, China. Believed to be the earthly abode of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom and a deity closely associated with Qubilai, Mount Wutai was extensively promoted by the Manchus as a pilgrimage site. The print depicts travelers arriving on camels as a farmer tends his cow, hunters kill a tiger, and what looks like a yeti gestures from a hillside.

As curator Karl Debreczeny writes in his introduction to the exhibition’s catalog, Central Asian empires’ use of Buddhist ideas and imagery to establish political legitimacy was not always at odds with genuine faith. Nor were they the only means by which conquering dynasties established power. But by placing Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhist art in a larger global context, this excellent show argues for an expanded view of their role in the region’s history.

Faith and Empire: Art and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism is on display at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City until July 15, 2019.

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