The tradition of Himalayan tantric art evolved over more than a thousand years into a form notable for its iconographic complexity and stunning beauty. In December, Tricycle visited New York City’s Rubin Museum of Art, home of one of the West’s richest collections of Himalayan art. In this interview RMA curator Jeff Watt pulls back the curtain on this potent Buddhist art form.

What role can art play in conveying the Buddhist teachings?
Buddhists are always talking about tools to use on the path to liberation. Often we are accused of living in our heads, of being too abstract. Buddhist art—and more specifically, tantric art—gives us the opportunity to come down to earth and look at how Buddhism represents itself visually. How is the Buddha represented? How are his teachings and followers represented?

Mandala of Avalokiteshvara, Tibet 1500-1599, ground mineral pigment on cotton, 26 × 24.75 inches; courtesy of the collection of the Rubin Museum of Art.
Mandala of Avalokiteshvara, Tibet 1500-1599, ground mineral pigment on cotton, 26 × 24.75 inches; courtesy of the collection of the Rubin Museum of Art.

Can you say something about tantra itself, and tantric art?
Tantra is simply a method to reach enlightenment quickly, in one lifetime. It belongs to Northern Buddhism, the Mahayana school, although it once pervaded much of Buddhist Asia, including Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. Tantric paintings are the visual representations of tantric texts, which outline expedient practices. The texts themselves are primarily understood as revelation, and are said to be the words of the Buddha in his divine or transcendent aspect. Most tantric texts were written down between the fourth and tenth centuries C.E., and tantric art developed alongside of the texts.

And how does tantric art represent the teachings in tantric texts? The deities in the paintings are personifications of the texts and the systems of practice they teach. Tantric art actually compresses all of the important points of the Buddhist teachings into a very tight visual package of symbols.

Are the deities thought to actually exist? Deities in the tantric system don’t exist as external entities. They’re expressions of Buddhahood, they are emanations of a particular Buddhist teaching. These deities are peaceful, fearsome, and wrathful; they’re multiheaded and multiarmed, each one suited to the temperament of an individual tantric practitioner. Although the images are visually arresting, they are merely mnemonic devices. For instance, often a deity will have, say, four faces, symbolizing the four Brahma-viharas, the Four Immeasurables—love, compassion, joy, and equanimity—fundamental principles in all Buddhist practice. The four-faced deity is only one very basic example of tantric iconography. The symbols are complex and many, and a single image can contain within it all of the essential Buddhist teachings, including the teachings of the Pali canon and the Mahayana sutras. And each image will often contain a central metaphor. In the case of the Kalachakra painting, for instance, the metaphor is time. The central metaphor, whether it’s death, beauty, fierceness, royalty, or the like, serves as the thematic matrix out of which the symbols emerge. It’s a means of bundling the iconography up into a single motif.

We often see male and female figures locked in embrace, as in the Kalachakra painting. What do they represent? When you have a male and a female locked in embrace, usually the male represents the phenomenal world of appearance, existence as we know it—what we hear, smell, taste, and so on. The female represents the Buddhist concept of emptiness, shunyata, the essentially void nature of phenomena. From a Buddhist point of view, nothing can come into existence unless you have emptiness, the purely contingent nature of phenomena. Emptiness is the template out which phenomena appear and into which they disappear. With the deities embracing we have a union of the two, a representation of nonduality. The male-female union is also a representation of the union of compassion (or method) and wisdom. This is a basic example of how a fundamental Buddhist principle is contained and expressed in tantric art. Understanding the relationship between appearance and emptiness is central to tantric Buddhism, and actually experiencing it, rather than simply knowing it intellectually, is key.

How does the art help us to actually experience this principle?
In tantric practice, there are two types of meditation: the “generation stage” and the “perfection stage.” The generation stage is essentially a visualization practice, using the images depicted in the art as subjects. The deities are visualized in a formal meditation session done one, two, three, or six times a day, for anywhere from five minutes to an hour or more. The meditation can be thought of as a rehearsal of the stages of the path to enlightenment: all the key points are brought to mind, all the steps required are there—the mental states to be accomplished and the negative emotional states to be overcome. Also, throughout the course of one’s day, there are activities that may relate to a specific deity that need to be reflected on, whether one is at work or at leisure.

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