Review: Learn about tantric Buddhism through exquisite artworks

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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Naga-enthroned Buddha, 1100s. Cambodia, Angkor. Bronze; 58.4 x 28 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund 1963.

“Fast food, fast cars, fast women, movie stars,” so go the Blue Oyster Cult lyrics to Divine Wind.

About 1,700 years ago, 700 years after the death of Buddha, a group of adepts tired of life in the slow lane of the Buddhist divine wind came up with a system leading to fast enlightenment, and called it tantra Buddhism.

Apparently, the old ways of achieving nirvana weren’t fast enough — they took several lifetimes. The new practice, while not fast in the contemporary sense, did speed things up to the point where an adept could hope for enlightenment in one lifetime.

Tantric practices center on visualization in yogic meditation, repetition of codified syllables called mantras, rituals, and prolific use of diagrams and images.

Through Sept. 15 the Cleveland Museum of Art presents Tantra in Buddhist Art, an exhibit that explores the concepts and features of tantra through 20 objects, including some of the earliest representations from India and works from Indonesia, Cambodia, Tibet and Japan.

These works of aesthetic excellence were created between the seventh and the 17th centuries. They introduce key elements of tantric art and show how it was used to reach the spiritual goal of enlightenment and bring an end to suffering in the world.

Tantric art and rituals are tools that require training and skill. They are based on the idea that visualization is a powerful way to control the mind. Some of these tools consist of weapons, others sex.

The use of weapons in tantric art does not subvert the pacifist teachings of the Buddha; they are used metaphorically to conquer psychological impediments. The sexual imagery depicts personifications of Wisdom (female) and Compassion (male) whose union results in the bliss of the enlightened state.

Inspiration for this exhibit began with Hevajra (c. 1200) a magnificent bronze Cambodian sculpture. Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, the George P. Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, built the exhibition around it.

In 2011, the Cleveland Museum of Art received a bequest of 18 objects of Indian and Southeast Asian art, including the Hevajra, from the estate of John Flower, president emeritus of Cleveland State University, and his wife, artist and collector Maxeen Stone Flower. Quintanilla chose to focus on this piece because of its pristine condition, rarity and relevance to the history of tantra.

Other highlights of the exhibition include the gilt bronze Virupa, made in the imperial workshop of an emperor of the Ming dynasty, and one of the oldest surviving Tibetan paintings of the Cosmic Buddha Vairochana.

Hevajra is an extraordinary work, according to Quintanilla. Few such works survive and those that do are usually in very bad condition, because tantric Buddhism is a private, devotional practice and many of its religious pieces were small and easily melted down for their bronze.

Hevajra, however, was in such rare good condition that scholars at first doubted its authenticity. How could all of the delicately formed implements still be intact? And the surface corrosion was abnormal.

Research and testing finally unearthed the truth: The sculpture had been buried in northern Thailand in a clay pot that had filled with water, which kept it protected. Tests have proven that it was made around 1200 A.D.

This bronze sculpture depicts the enlightened being Hevajra, one of a number of enlightened beings in Tantra who appeared to yogis in visions and explained the practices needed to achieve enlightenment in one lifetime. Those yogis passed down the teachings to disciples.

“It is very important to have clear lineages for tantric practices that extend back directly to one yogi who had the vision from an enlightened being,” Quintanilla said.

With Hevajra as a starting object, Quintanilla chose the surrounding pieces according to the chronology and geography of the development of tantric Buddhism, illustrating its spread from India to Cambodia, through Southeast Asia and up through Nepal, Tibet, China, and Japan.

An opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on cloth painting, Vajradhara, Nairatmya, Virupa, and Kanha (ca. 1450) from Central Tibet’s Ngor Monastery, depicts the Mahasiddha Virupa, who transmitted the Hevajra Tantra.

The Mahasiddha Virupa is depicted in the lower left as a brown-skinned Indian yogi seated on a black antelope skin, with a band around his waist and leg to help maintain yogic postures. He wears an array of delicate flower garlands and jewels.

He points to the sun, which he was able to halt in its tracks as a result of the power he developed through intense yogic and tantric practice. Above the sun is a depiction of Hevajra with his consort, Nairatmya, also represented in several paintings and sculptures in this exhibition.

Virupa’s disciple, the Mahasiddha Kanha, is at the lower right. Mahasiddhas, or “Great Adepts,” are revered as the first human transmitters of tantric texts. Above Virupa is Vajradhara, who represents the essence of all Buddhas.

Tantric Buddhas are distinguished from historical Buddhas by their crown and jewelry. Tantric Buddha Vairochana (ca. 1150–1200), an opaque watercolor in gold, and ink on cloth from Central Tibet, depicting a figure making a symbolic hand gesture to indicate that he conveys the meaning of the tantric teachings.

The unusual depiction of a monk in a crown may be Phagmodrupa, founder of an influential Buddhist order for whom this painting was made. It exemplifies the Tibetan artists’ adaptation and fusion of northern Indian and Central Asian artistic styles.

Then there is Hevajra and Consort (late 1500s) opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on cloth from Central Tibet depicting the Hevajra dancing while locked in sexual union.

The two blue bodies are offset by flaming vermilion. Fourteen of the Hevajra’s 16 arms function like rays of energy emitting from the figures’ cores. Trampled underfoot are personifications of afflictions and ignorance, surrounded by dancing female tantric figures called dakinis. Along the top and side are depictions of enlightened beings and masters.

In this show, Quintanilla seeks to educate visitors on the tenets of tantric Buddhism and its spread across Southeast Asia through these works, and on the whole succeeds.

While the explanations are a bit on the dry and academic side, visitors are presented with stunning works of art beautifully displayed, and those who know nothing of tantric Buddhism when they enter have a much better understanding of it when they leave.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or dtgshinn@att.net.


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