Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment
, is a new exhibit at the Asian Art Museum laid out amusingly as 12 steps to enlightenment rather than an art history survey.
The exhibit begins with an excerpt from the movie Koyaanisqtsi
which means that Philip Glass's score is the soundtrack for the first room of objects. The 2016 Luxation I
by Tsherin Sherpa, a Nepalese immigrant living in California, is the opening artwork, referencing dislocation and displacement after the 2015 Nepal earthquake.
The exhibit combines works from the two largest collections of Tibetan art in the United States, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. There are sculptures of the Buddha from different centuries and countries, including the 9th century Gautama Buddha
above from Kashmir.
The signage is refreshingly void of art-speak and relates some fabulously outrageous stories. The 17th century cloth painting from Central Tibet picturing the Buddhist adept Virupa is accompanied by this description: "His extraordinary appearance in this work refers symbolically to his enlightened understanding of normal reality as nothing but a convention itself. Virupa's distinctive gesture, finger raised upward, refers to a time when, on an epic drinking spree, he agreed with the tavern's proprietor to settle the bill at sunset. Intent on continuing his binge, however, he used his great meditative powers to stop the golden orb in its course, ransoming it until the local ruler, fearful of scorched fields, paid his tab. As with his appearance, this incident represents symbolically Virupa's ability to transcend and influence ordinary experience."
History is also explored, as in this 18th century bronze sculpture of The lama Tsongkhapa
(from the Phoenix Art Museum) which depicts the most influential scholar in Tibetan history from the 14th century.
The 18th century Tibetan Mandala of Vajrabhairava
is a three-dimensional version of the mandala map the exhibit is using to lead museumgoers into possible enlightenment.
A 19th century painted door "once safeguarded the entrance to a monastery's gonkang, a shrine housing wrathful protector deities and a precinct accessible only to the most advanced practitioners. Its flaming skulls and weapons would have warded off evil spirits, intruders, and those not properly initiated to enter its sanctum."
Be warned there are quite a few human skulls in this exhibit, such as the 18th century Tibetan Flaming trident
. The wall description tells us: "This striking ritual implement resembles both Varna Dharmaraja's skull-headed club and his consort Chaumundi's trident. Within its toothy, grinning skull is an object that rattles when the scepter is hand led. Its most intriguing aspect, though, is the form of the skull's reverse side. Unmistakably phallic, it is a reminder that sex and death are inextricably conjoined. Sex defeats death through reproduction, which in turn ensures death's triumph."
The most imposing object in the exhibit is a large wooden sculpture of The Buddhist deity Vajrabhairava,
"the Lightning Terror, who personifies the victory of spiritual wisdom over death. Ferocious and commanding, he tramples a host of figures symbolizing our delusions and attachments."
The final room, entitled Being the Buddha
, contains a pair of remarkable Chinese bronze statues of lovers representing the concept of nonduality. The deities Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi
, above, is described thus: "This yab-yum
deity's origin is traced to a time when the Hindu gods Shiva and Parvati threatened world order through immoral behavior, namely gratuitous violence and sex. To subjugate them, the Primordial Buddha manifested as Chakrasamvara: the mirror image of the unruly Hindu divinities...This yab-yum deity's origin is traced to a time when the Hindu gods Shiva and Parvati threatened world order through immoral behavior, namely gratuitous violence and sex. To subjugate them, the Primordial Buddha manifested as Chakrasamvara: the mirror image of the unruly Hindu divinities."
The deity Guhayasamaja and consort Sparshavajra
, a 15th century bronze statue, depicts a "Secret Union, indicating the joining of apparent opposites: of male and female like these yab-yum
figures, but also of the wisdom and techniques that lead to Vajrayana Buddhism's swift awakening."
"Accordingly, this sublimely sculpted pair constitutes a cosmic mandala embodied."