Okay, deep breath.
I’m a self-admitted religion skeptic. Who isn’t these days? And for quite some time Buddhism has drawn my most potent skepticism. Consider that changed.
The Crow Collection of Asian Art opens their new show, Noble Change: Tantric Art of the High Himalaya this weekend. The exhibit contains eleven gorgeous copper Buddhist sculptures as well as one embroidered silk panel and represents work acquired by Trammell Crow last year for his private collection.
While I guarantee you’ll get lost amongst the glistening pieces, this exhibit is about much more than aesthetic pleasure. This is part of what will be over the next several years an important project for the Crow Collection; introducing Dallas museum-goers to the hyper-relevant practice of Tantric Buddhism. Spoiler alert, this is not an article about sex.
According to Crow Collection Curator Dr. Caron Smith, the principles of Tantric Buddhism have in the past been dismissed as “titillating erotica or stultifying ritual” and during the 1960’s, were appropriated by the Hippie culture as a justification for their pursuit of un-inhibited sexual pleasure. Smith states, “The time is ripe to reveal tantra for what it is truly intended to be.” And what exactly is that?
The answer isn’t simple, but if you find religion and human nature even remotely interesting, you’ll be fascinated.
The teachings of tantra are part of Vajrayana Buddhism, a form of the complex and constantly evolving teachings of the Buddha that arose in the 6th or 7th centuries and is especially prevalent in the Himalayan countries of Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia amongst others.
Like all forms of Buddhism, the base of tantric teaching lies in the four noble truths: The truth of suffering: the truth of the origin of suffering: the truth of the cessation of suffering: and the truth of the path of the cessation of suffering.
Contrary to the sound, people who practice Buddhism are not consumed by depression. Especially so in tantric Buddhism, where students or followers use suffering and other negative aspects of existence in order to achieve a higher state of being, one in which the goal is to reach a simple life through reflection and the emptying out of themselves.
Becoming a student of tantric Buddhism is reserved only to a select few, similar to a mystic Christianity or Judaism for example. Students of the official practice work with a guru and study secret texts in monastic settings. Free of worldly influences, they tame the mind through reflection, begin to question the “real world” around them and empty themselves of temporary reactions to feelings and emotions, admitting the world around them is not “real” as we tend to define it. It is only after this that man’s compassion for others can expand. (Sidenote, the Dalai Lama is a practicioner of tantric Buddhism).
Tantric Buddhism is essentially a reaction to previous forms of Buddhism through its embrace of ordinary experience and human instinct, not as ends in and of themselves, but as means to inspire change. No longer is the negative ignored, instead it is embraced, all of humanity is embraced in fact, to incorporate change not for our own self-gratification but rather to foster compassion for others.
The dualities of traditional Buddhism and Hinduism are shunned while the idea that the deities are not here to help but rather to inspire remains integral in tantric practice. Students learn that the potential for change is within themselves and our lives are fulfilled through their own, unique evolution. Tantra, in its simplest form, means continuity. Continuity of actions, impulses and desires in a constantly evolving state of being.
At least that’s my brief summary from my very brief study in an attempt to better understand these intricate and highly symbolic pieces of art that were created in the ateliers of Tibet to inspire the followers of this unique not religion per se, but rather science of the mind. A science of the mind which, might I add and assume many will agree, represents more closely than many other “religions” the psychology and mentality of modern man. In the opinion of this writer, Smith could not be more right in assuming that “the time is ripe” to expose the West to the tantric notions of openness, compassion and self-sufficiency.
Now on to the art.
When exploring the intimate gallery space at the Crow it’s vital that the viewer leave preconceptions outside. This work is highly symbolic, overtly sexual and complicated, but don’t let that intimidate you. Keeping in mind the philosophy behind this exhibit while viewing should at least make the works accessible enough to enjoy for more than aesthetic beauty, as they were intended to be.
The deities on view in the exhibit represent various Buddhas. Two Vajradharas, in other words the first Buddha, are represented here, each signifying the unity of male and female. Part of the “revisionism” of tantric Buddhism allowed for a stronger role to be played by the female in the “story,” and in these Dorje Chang (in Tibetan), there is rampant symbolism indicating male aspects in the female, and vice versa. The sexuality of the two will be obvious.
There are also two Dakinis represented amongst the scultpures. Dakinis in tantric Buddhism are the female embodiment of wisdom and energy. The Sarva Buddha Dakini, or Dakini of all the Buddhas is represented as a young female, innocent and therefore able to serve as the protector, provider of wisdom and home to all. The symbolism in the Naro Khandoma (in Tibetan) is throughout as she treads on Ignorance and Ego and drinks the defilements of all in order to liberate.
The other Dakini in the exhibit is Kurukulla or the Dakini of flowers. Using her feminine seductiveness, Kurukulla is able to subdue and pacify demons. She treads on a naked body representing her dominance over desire and the skulls surrounding her are reminders of death. A quick note on the skulls. Buddhism is stringent in its embrace of the ugly, the dirty and death as parts of life, just as the religion does not shy away from sexuality as so many others (Christianity and Islam for example). Buddhism embraces the disgusting as part of life, as it is.
One especially meaningful piece in the exhibit is the unadorned Samantabhadra, the supreme Buddha and the primordial form of Shakyamuni or the historical Buddha. The union of man and woman is honored in this gorgeous, simple sculpture.
Viewers will also encounter the Jambhala, the Buddha of wealth. He looks out for the wealth of others while seeming to greatly enjoy the corporal aspects of the flesh, yet another example of Buddhism’s rejection of the demonization of human desires. It is assumed, however, that the embrace of the wealth and sexuality of the two in union will be used to inspire the attainment of the next level of existence, as each of these pieces is intended to do.
You may not need the reminder but this is religious art, not in the sense that it is to be worshipped or even instill reverence, but rather to inspire. It is not “art for art’s sake” in the words of Smith. Dissolving duality (namely that of male and female), embracing the unity of ourselves and using our human form to achieve these aims are central tenets of tantric Buddhism. These exquisite pieces were created in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to arouse a desire to improve the world and those living in it.
Although you may not begin living your life in pursuit of Buddhist principles following an exposure to this unique and high vein of Buddhist practice, I think most viewers will recognize aspects of their psychology in this difficult but innately human “science of the mind.” Thanks to the Crow Collection, westerners have an opportunity to discover it through beautiful, artistic representation.