In the visual language of Tibetan Buddhism, fearsome images are often metaphors for transformation. A lucid reading of a few such images was provided in “Rugs and Ritual in Tibetan Buddhism,” a small but revelatory exhibition of Tibetan ritual art organized by John Guy, curator of south and southeast asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
At the center of the show, which ran through June of this year, was a group of unusual 19th-century Tibetan carpets portraying flayed animals and people, severed heads, and demonic figures. Accompanying them was a modest grouping of sculptures, ritual implements, and paintings. All of the objects were once used by Vajrayana Buddhist practitioners in rituals associated with the worship of wrathful protective deities.
An esoteric form of Buddhism, Vajrayana emerged as a school around the middle of the first millennium C.E. and reached its highest expression in Tibet between the 8th and the 20th centuries. It is characterized by the extensive use of ritual activities—among them the initiation of the practitioner by an authorized master, the visualization of oneself as a deity, the recitation of mantras, and the making of offerings—all designed to remove obstacles on the path to enlightenment.
The exhibition at the Met opened with a photograph, taken in 1921, of a Tibetan lama performing invocations. Around him can be seen examples of some of the implements included in the show. They are rather alarming objects. Although Tantric Buddhism evolved out of the altruistic bodhisattva path of Mahayana Buddhism, its iconography is drawn from the realms of the battlefield and the cremation ground (a favored meditation spot for early tantric yogis), as well as from Tibet’s pre-Buddhist religion, Bon, which is heavily influenced by shamanism.
Works on the gallery’s walls (fittingly painted blood-red) included an extraordinary 16th-century cloth painting depicting offering bowls full of brains, eyeballs, and tongues. Display cases held utensils such as a cup in the form of the top half of a human skull and choppers for the symbolic cutting up of flesh. Potent images of bodily dissolution, they represent the annihilation of the self-cherishing ego and its five poisons—ignorance, desire, hatred, pride, and jealousy—that is the aim of advanced Buddhist practice.
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