Art » Art Feature


Self-preclusive violence in the Tibetan art at Brooks.



At a recent soirée, a compliment for a review of mine was capped by the backhanded admonition to "keep writing -- don't get a day job." Ouch, I sniveled silently. The sting of the remark was due in large measure to its truthfulness, given that the liberty I enjoy to pursue the speculative vocations of artist and writer is subsidized by the consistency and relative stability of my loving spouse's profession. Like anyone in the arts, I labor under the anticipation (or grandiose illusion) of a value-added payoff, so the reality check was not at all appreciated. As I digested the aside with conflicted emotions and gathered my composure, the incident triggered thoughts of the wrathful beings who inhabit much of "Worlds Of Transformation" at the Brooks Museum, a collection of sacred paintings (tangkas) from Tibet.

The depictions of these ferocious deities -- ablaze and billowing smoke, with bulging bloodshot eyes and gaping mouths, riding beasts or trampling enemies, wielding terrifying weapons, slurping blood from skull cups or engaged in seemingly volatile sexual couplings, often simultaneously -- concentrate such symbolic force not as an embrace of violence and aggression but as an antidote to one's own destructive self-grasping. The Indian saint Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Siddhartha Gautama), distinguished in many of the 30 tangkas on view by his saffron-colored robe and begging bowl, recognized that the afflictions of beings are spawned by hope and fear and that the path of equanimity and compassion is one's salvation from suffering.

The contemplative traditions of Tibet have sought to cultivate the unique method of transforming the base material of afflictive thoughts and emotions into enlightenment gold. Perhaps the narrative behind the several tangkas depicting Yamantaka Vajrabhairava, one of the most fierce dharmapalas (protectors) of the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, will help elucidate:

The story goes that a yogi occupied a cave for an extended retreat and was so absorbed in his meditation that he was unperturbed even after poachers chased a water buffalo into the cave. The men cornered the animal then butchered and ate it. In the firelight, the poachers noticed the motionless form of the yogi still absorbed in his meditation and, for fear of being fingered by a witness to their criminal act, straightaway chopped off his head. The accomplished yogi, returning to his body to find it headless, groped about and inadvertently donned the decapitated head of the water buffalo, flying into a blind rage, devouring the poachers and terrorizing the countryside, annihilating everything in his path as an emanation of Yama, the lord of death.

After discovering his power too great to overcome, saints and lamas began to supplicate the deity Manjushri, the embodiment of wisdom, for protection against Yama. Manjushri, in his limitless compassion for beings, manifested as Yamantaka Vajrabhairava by assuming the very likeness of Yama but magnified exponentially, sporting nine faces, 34 arms brandishing weapons, and 16 legs, utterly subduing Yama and transforming him into a protector of the Dharma.

This story illustrates a recurring theme in Tibetan cosmologies -- that of hideousness and intensity overcome by an even more devastating image of itself. Tibet, before the introduction of Buddhism in the 7th century, was a feared militaristic culture, and no doubt, the remnants of that legacy live on in the wrathful deities and the spiritual implements germane to the practice of Vajrayana Buddhism, taking the form of various maces, swords, daggers, axes, and lassos, as portrayed in the grisly Realm Of Yamantaka and the Dharma Protectors. The adaptation of the instruments of destruction and death to the purpose of spiritual practice mirrors the path of the tantrica, where the very poisons of self-grasping become the implements for the transformation of consciousness.

Robert Thurman, an author, educator, and respected Buddhist scholar who will lecture at the Brooks on Sunday, September 22nd, at 2 p.m., says that Yamantaka Vajrabhairava's array of weapons and "universe-devouring ferocity [are] only for destroying the universe of self-addiction and self-obsession," symbolically "reflecting evil beings' horrific nature back to them magnified infinitely, petrifying them with terror, immobilizing them in the inescapable prison of infinite voidness, sustaining them and teaching them with inexhaustible patience, and finally transmuting them, their deepest hearts' life energies, into the blissful world of altruistic goodness."

Of course, the "infinite voidness" to which Thurman refers stems from the Buddhist notion that phenomena are devoid of any intrinsic identity but arise in relation to one another in an endless cycle of cause and effect. Ultimately, the no-nonsense bluntness of wrathful means, by putting everything on the table (including awkward social collisions), ruthlessly penetrates base emotions, cravings, aversions, habits, and qualities that would otherwise be regarded as anathema to a spiritual path, transforming them through the recognition that they are nothing more than vacillations of the mind.

"Worlds Of Transformation: Tibetan Art Of Wisdom and Compassion," through October 27th.

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