‘Golden Visions of Densatil’ Opens at Asia Society
By HOLLAND COTTERFEB. 20, 2014
You have to hate or fear something a lot to do what China did to Tibetan Buddhism. In the early 20th century, Tibet had thousands of active monasteries; when the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, it had fewer than 10. The politics of blame are always tricky; some scholars argue that Tibetans themselves, for complicated reasons, contributed to the purge. But one reality is plain: By the time the mass demolition wound down, centuries’ worth of religious art was gone.
Among the major losses was the Densatil Monastery. High in the mountains in central Tibet, it was founded in the 12th century and famed throughout Tibet for its art, particularly for a set of eight sculpture-encrusted and gilded stupas, or reliquary monuments, each over 10 feet tall, that stood in its worship hall. In the campaigns of destruction, Densatil was cruelly hit. It wasn’t just dismantled; it was pulverized. The assumption was that none of its art survived.
But some did survive, hidden away by devotees, or taken by Chinese military personnel. Beginning in the 1980s, astonishing examples of these metal sculptures — three-dimensional figures, relief plaques, architectural ornaments — that had covered the stupas began to appear with growing frequency on the Western market.
It was almost as if the monastery were trying to reconstitute itself, piece by piece. And now Asia Society has done a rough-sketch version of exactly that, assembling some 50 sculptures from American and European collections in an enthralling show called “Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery.”
The Densatil stupas originated with the death of one holy man, and the dream of another. In 1158, a magnetic spiritual teacher named Dorje Gyalpo decided to trade a busy monastic life for contemplative solitude. He scouted out a remote mountain spot, locally called Phagmo Drupa — the place name would later be added to his own name — and settled into a thatched hut there.
He wasn’t alone long. His disciples tracked him down. They missed him. They wanted to stay. They built their own thatched huts. Densatil, in rudimentary form, was born. When Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo died in 1170, his ashes were interred in a small, plain stupa, and, within a few decades, a large worship hall was built to enclose and preserve his thatched hut.
Around the time of the building, one of his most ardent former students, Jigten Gonpo, who had by then established his own monastery, had a dream. In it, he was transported to a sacred mountain and shown the most elaborate stupa he’d ever seen: tall, multileveled, glowing and pocked with niches that sheltered divinities. This, he realized, was the proper receptacle for his teacher’s remains.
He hired sculptors from Nepal to create the stupa in his dream and he took Phagmo Drupa’s ashes from Densatil to occupy it. Then the Densatil monks had second thoughts. They wanted the ashes back. Things got tense, and the only solution was to recreate the new-style stupa at Densatil itself, inside the worship hall. Over the next three centuries, seven more such monuments, holding the ashes of revered abbots, would join it.
In addition to being grave markers, stupas were meditation aids, three-dimensional mandalas, or maps of the spiritual universe, that devotees must traverse to reach enlightenment. They were also blessing dispensers: To visit them prayerfully put you in a state of grace. And, in the case of Densatil stupas, they were aesthetic objects, calculated to thrill the eye and captivate the soul.
We have some sense of the overwhelming effect they made, thanks to pictures taken of Densatil in 1948 by an Italian photographer, Pietro Francesco Mele. And it is on these photographs that the exhibition organizers — Olaf Czaja, a historian at the University of Leipzig, and Adriana Proser, senior curator at Asia Society — based their installation of Densatil fragments.
The layout is in six sections, corresponding to a stupa’s six tiers, beginning with the bottommost tier, dedicated to the “Protectors of the Teachings,” and continuing, as the show goes on, symbolically upward. The protectors are a tough and charismatic crew. Earth and water spirits who link the human and heavenly realms, they function as a supernatural security team, and approach their job with gusto.
Cast in high relief in copper, then gilded and inlaid with turquoise chips, policing goddesses raise their swords and bare their fangs while backup teams of smaller, scowling figures float around them. Eight such plaques, cast individually and then attached to a stupa, appear in a free-standing circular unit toward the front of the show. As you walk around it, you encounter them, one by one, with little jolts of surprise at their expressiveness and their variety.
Despite their fierceness, the protectors, female and male, are on your side if you approach them with the right attitude. Like bouncers at a club, they’re there only to keep out troublemakers. If you’re devout, they’ll let you be, even help you if you ask, bring you health, wealth, a good harvest. What they can’t do is bring you enlightenment; they’re too close to earth. For that you have to keep moving up.
On the second tier, you will meet a welcoming hostess line of alert, smiling goddesses. One, Parnashavari, her six arms sweeping the air, curtsies in your direction. Her name means “dressed in leaves,” and, sure enough, she wears a kind of toreador jacket composed of leaf-shaped gems.
Nearby, four goddesses play drums, bells and flutes. And along a splendid long, gilded relief in two sections, on loan from the Musée Guimet in Paris, 16 goddesses, embodying types of pious offerings from songs to perfume, form a Rockettes-esque chorus line.
The atmosphere is so charmed that you may be tempted to linger, but spiritual advancement is what the stupa preaches, and you press on to the next level, where the mood grows quiet. The meet-and-greet hubbub is past. You’re in a place of concentration and tantric mystery, an advanced enlightenment workshop that stretches over three tiers.
Single Buddhas, seated cross-legged on cushions, with eyes closed, line the way. Beyond calm, they couldn’t be more different in demeanor from the guardians and dancers encountered earlier. The name of one of these beings, the Buddha Akshobhya, “the immovable,” says it all and even applies to an out-of-this-world beautiful tantric god locked with his consort in erotic embrace.
Finally, you reach the top, where, in an actual stupa, the remains of the deceased would have been enshrined, and where, the hope was, enlightenment for someone would have been achieved. Whatever the case, it’s been a long spiritual mountain climb, even as it is imagined in the small Asia Society show. Yes, by that point, you’ve left the world behind, but celebration is still in order. And in three sculptures of heel-kicking goddesses, of a kind locatable in Mele’s photographs, it begins.
There are other causes for celebration, too. Densatil is being slowly reconstructed. In 2010, for example, under the auspices of the Tibet Autonomous Region ministry of culture and the Drikung Kagyu monastic order, a new version of the hall where the stupas once stood was built on the original site.
And Tibetan Buddhist art is irrepressibly alive. Through Sunday, monks of the Drikung order will be creating a sand mandala at Asia Society, preserving a tradition that long predates Densatil but, like its stupas, is a visually brilliant, spiritually power-packed how-to manual for salvation. It will stay in place until the end of the show, then be destroyed so that another mandala can be created, and another, and another, and another, each destruction and re-creation proof — which in this world we need — that loving devotion wins the day.
“Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery” is on view through May 18 at Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, at 70th Street; 212-288-6400, asiasociety.org.