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Exhibition Reflects Dalai Lama's Message


Shakyamuni Buddha with Avadana Legend Scenes. Click on image to view enlarged version.

Wisdom, compassion and peace emanate from a collection of Buddhist art in an exhibition that opened May 4 in the lower level of the Museum of Art.

The exhibition, which honors the visit of the 14th Dalai Lama to Smith on May 9, features a roomful of Tibetan tangkas (paintings on cloth) from the 14th through 19th centuries, as well as four sculptures of Buddhist figures. The works are on loan from the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City and the collection of Shelley and Donald Rubin.

“Aesthetics of the Sacred: The Buddhist Art of Tibet,” which was curated by Marylin Rhie, professor of art and East Asian studies, runs through August 4. Rhie will give a gallery talk on Friday, May 11, at 6 p.m. It is free and open to the public.

The tangkas depict a variety of subjects from the vast iconography of Tibetan Buddhist art, grouped into three sections illustrating Tibetan Sacred History, Masters From the Four Major Orders, and Icons of Practice and Protection. Paintings include images of the Buddha Shakyamuni, his disciples, known as Arhats, Bodhisattvas (those on the path to enlightenment), mahasiddhas (yogic practitioners), portraits of the famous lamas, and the fierce protector images, among others. Some are surrounded by intricate scenes of the past lives of the Buddha, or life events of famous masters, such as Milarepa. The central figures are typically seated in peaceful repose amid a symmetrically balanced tableau of harmonious arrangements of lamas, practice deities and protectors, with depictions of pristine blue-green mountains or richly detailed landscapes.

In Shakyamuni Buddha with Avadana Legend Scenes, for example, the Buddha Shakyamuni -- the historical Buddha also known as Gautama Buddha -- sits in a lotus position making the vara (giving) gesture with his right hand. He is surrounded by scenes and people from his past and present lives.

Another painting, Milarepa and Life Scenes, features Milarepa, the beloved Tibetan Buddhist poet, saint and teacher from the 11th century, seated in a cave flanked by a dense array of miniature scenes of his life set within a rich mixture of dark red and green rocky landscape.

The sculptures include some of the finest images of the 14th and 15th centuries depicting the Buddha Shakyamuni, the mystical Buddha Vajradhara, a yogic adept (Mahasiddha) and, in the case of Begtse, offer a rare early 18th-century gilt copper statue from Outer Mongolia. This superb sculpture is posed with flailing sword and wears a coat of mail as befits this warrior protector of Buddhism.

Since the 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 amid an invasion by China, Tibetan art has become well-known throughout the world. The works in “Aesthetics of the Sacred” represent the purity, calm and meditative power inherent in Tibetan art that seeks to bring the sublime world of enlightenment into our world as an inspiration for meditation and devotion, and to reveal the aesthetics of the profoundly mystical realms.

The Rubin Museum collection is the most extensive of Tibetan art in the United States with several thousand objects.

“Aesthetics of the Sacred” is supported by the East Asian Studies Program, the Ada Howe Kent Fund and the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston.


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