Tibet and India
Buddhist Traditions and Transformations
February 8–June 8, 2014
Metropolitan Museum of Art
This exhibition singles out two periods when the Buddhist Tibetan tradition drew from outside influences to develop new vocabularies of form. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, after a period of political and religious disruption, contact with the great monasteries of North India led to considerable exchange. Looking from the Indian perspective, the exhibition examines how esoteric imagery, texts, and Vajrayana ritual practices contributed to reshaping the complex religious landscape of Tibet. Today, contemporary Tibetan artists are again addressing and incorporating ideas central to the current global reality, in an effort to recontextualize long-standing core Buddhist ideals. The exhibition will include five loans and eighteen objects drawn from department holdings.
The eleventh and twelfth centuries were a period of intense interaction and cultural exchange between Tibet and Buddhist North India. Like all Buddhist communities, the Tibetans strove to purify their understanding of Buddhism and thereby establish correct religious practice. As part of this effort, teachers from North India were invited to Tibet and many Tibetan monks traveled to North India to study at the famed monastic universities and pilgrimage centers associated with the Buddha’s life there. Particularly important was Bodhgaya, where the Buddha reached enlightenment.
North Indian palm-leaf manuscripts, which were translated by learned monks from Tibet, were important for the transmission of artistic ideas and had an especially profound impact on Tibetan painting. By this period a more expedited path to enlightenment, Mahayana Buddhism, had emerged. This path emphasized accessible Buddhas residing in celestial Pure Lands, deities that are shown as crowned Buddhas in both North India and Tibet. Building on this foundation was Vajrayana Buddhism, described in complex texts known as tantras (hence Tantric Buddhism). These texts required deep study with a realized teacher, and the associated imagery often takes the form of fierce protectors who sweep away defilements on behalf of the devotee.
The contemporary artists Gonkar Gyatso and Tenzing Rigdol continue to grapple with giving form to elusive Buddhist notions. In this light it is interesting that the Buddha argued that the past is a fiction based on imperfect memories, shaped by one’s ego, and subject to our delusional hopes and dreams for the future—a projection of time that does not exist. The Buddha teaches that the present moment is the only true reality. From this perspective, all the works presented here—even those from the eleventh century—become “contemporary” the moment a new audience encounters them. The compelling idea that these images can be understood afresh—and only in the present—is a very Buddhist one indeed.