In Trying Times, Buddhist Art Offers Spiritual Refuge

One of the oldest Tibetan art collections in the United States arrived in Newark, New Jersey, at the beginning of the 19th century. At that time, one of the Newark Museum of Art’s founding trustees, Edward N. Crane, met Dr. Albert L. Shelton, a Christian medical missionary coming back from China and Tibet. The latter had collected objects such as Buddhist ritual instruments, religious paintings, and sacred books during border wars between the two countries. Crane convinced the museum to borrow the Tibetan objects for a special exhibition, which opened in early 1911 and was an apparent success

Given such historically significant origins, it is not the least surprising that in the early aughts, the Newark Museum of Art installed a Tibetan Buddhist altar, consecrated by the Dalai Lama, as part of a special project, Tibet, the Living Tradition (1988-91).

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The visually arresting altar, replete with intricate images and statues of the Buddha and his teachings, is prominently located on the third floor of the museum’s north wing. It was designed and created by Tibetan artist Phuntsok Dorje in collaboration with museum staff and a team of Tibetan consultants and scholars, replacing a 1935 altar constructed by American artists on special assignment. 

Phuntsok Dorje, Tibetan Buddhist Altar (1988-90), commissioned by the Newark Museum (courtesy Newark Museum)

The altar is more than just a historically informative display of artifacts. It also serves to focus on Buddhist religious ritual and provides a space for profound contemplation. Offerings are even placed by the museum on the altar to mark the sacred space, as well as the devotee’s dedication to the path to enlightenment. 

At various junctures in our collective history, especially during times of trauma, loss, and the erosion of a shared objective reality, many people tend to crave spaces that are accepting and compassionate, and conducive to self-reflection, while also presenting an inherent sense of connection. Institutions from the Newark Museum to the Rubin Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum in New York recognize this presently growing need. 

Speaking to Hyperallergic about the Rubin Museum’s exhibition Healing Practices: Stories from Himalayan Americans, which opened on March 18, Michelle Bennett Simorella, the museum’s director of Curatorial Administration and Collections, said, “These last two years we’ve all been through a collective traumatic experience with the pandemic. And now many people are reflecting on how we emerge from this — how we heal, together as a society or individually. The Rubin has something to offer on the topic of healing since Tibetan Buddhist artworks have long been associated with promoting wellbeing, so it felt like a natural theme to explore in 2022.” 

Green Tara, India (Odisha, Cuttack Hills, Udayagiri or Ratnagiri), eighth century, Khondalite, 67 3/8 x 26 x 17 1/2 inches. Brooklyn Museum, Carll H. de Silver Fund and Ella C.Woodward Memorial Fund (photo: Brooklyn Museum)

Joan Cummins, the senior curator of Asian art at the Brooklyn Museum, addresses a common mainstream fallacy about Buddhism — it is about much more than simply feeling “chill” or “mindful.”

“People who bother to delve more deeply into Buddhist teachings and practices discover huge complexity and real challenges,” she added. 

This past January, the Brooklyn Museum opened a new permanent gallery, Arts of Buddhism, which features eye-catching sculptures such as the expansive eighth-century statue of Buddhist goddess Green Tara from India, looming over visitors at more than 60 inches, composed of Khondalite or gneiss.

In Sanskrit, Tara is the word for “star” or “constellation.” It relates to the verb tar, meaning “to lead over or guide across.” One of her popular forms, Green Tara is known for rescuing her followers from peril. This specific avatar is depicted holding a closed blue lotus; her right hand is in the position of bestowing boons, with both a devotee and a multi-armed attendant at her feet. 

Seated Maitreya, 13th-14th century, gilt copper alloy, 10 1/4 x 7 1/2 x 3 inches. Brooklyn Museum, Charles Stewart Smith Memorial Fund (photo: Brooklyn Museum)

The Tara statues also stand out from the rest of the Arts of Buddhism gallery as the “only overtly female figures in the space,” according to Cummins. While most Buddhist enlightened figures are male, specific schools of Esoteric Buddhism place a much stronger emphasis on feminine manifestations of enlightenment. “I think that’s one of the many reasons why Tibetan-style Buddhism has gained popularity in recent years. Also worship of Tara is relatively reassuring and approachable for novices; she is the embodiment of compassion,” explained Cummins. 

Beyond ancient objects in museums, the Buddhist principles of impermanence (anicca), no inherent and independent self (anatta), and dissatisfaction (dukkha) have been explored in various forms by modern and contemporary artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Marina Abramović.

A standout work highlighted in the publication In the Present Moment: Buddhism, Contemporary Art and Social Practice, which discusses how art and Buddhism connect as a social practice, is Canadian artist Lam Wong’s “MA No 1 — The Space between Objects (Wu/Mu)” (2019-ongoing). The installation reframes the traditional tea ceremony as a floor sculpture with the dimension of three tatami mats, all the accoutrements for tea ceremony, and visible Buddhist symbolism, including a Heart Sutra inscription, the mirror, and obsidian crystals. The artist engages visitors as participants in the meditative ritual of tea. According to Haema Sivanesan, author of In the Present Moment and chief curator of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, this kind of artwork “goes beyond the idea of visual beauty to consider how art impacts our psyche.”

Lam Wong, “MA No 1 — The Space between Objects (Mu/Wu)” (2019-ongoing), installation and socially engaged art work: mirror, charcoal, seal chop, Chinese calligraphy of Heart Sutra, tea, tea seed, obsidian, teacups, wood, river rock, bamboo ladle, meditation cushion, tea accessories, ceramic tea ware, chawan; 106.5 x 71 inches, duration variable (courtesy the artist, photo by Mei Wong) 

“With ongoing crises of pandemic, war, inequality, and climate change, there seems to be a renewed interest in the subject of spiritual groundedness and art as a form of healing,” noted Taiwanese artist Charwei Tsai, who creates art rooted in the Buddhist practice, and whose solo show, The Eye Is the First Circle, ran at the Philosophical Research Society (PRS) in Los Angeles through March 6 of this year. 

“If we revisit the principles of many ancient wisdom traditions such as Buddhism, it becomes apparent that the roots of these manmade problems come from a constant feeling of dissatisfaction, a lack of acceptance of impermanence, and a mistaken grasping of the self as an independent and permanent entity,” she said. 

For artists such as Tsai working with ancestral traditions and beliefs, art is one of the most powerful methods to delve into these universally relevant notions, because “truth exists in a paradox that is best expressed through art.”


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