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Taking Refuge: Buddhist Art from the Land of White Clouds

February 25, 2009 - May 3, 2009

Unknown artist, Western Tibet, Kashmir school: Buddha, 10th–11th century; gilt bronze; 15 in. high; on long-term loan from a private collection.


Unknown artist, Tibet: Deities of the Bardo (Pair), 18th–19th century; color pigments on cloth; 36 3/4 x 23 3/4 in.; on long-term loan from a private collection.

Unknown artist, Nepal: Bodhisattva Padmapani, 9th–10th century; 14 in. high; gilt copper; on long-term loan from a private collection.

Unknown artist, Tibet: Nagaraja, 15th century; gilt bronze; on long-term loan from a private collection.

Unknown artist, Nepal: Pair of Taras, 18th century; gilt bronze; on long-term loan from a private collection.

Unknown artist, Tibet: Palden Lhamo, 17th century; gilt bronze; on long-term loan from a private collection.

“I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha.”

This simple prayer common to all Buddhists contains the essence of the Buddhist canon, referring to the three components of practice that constitute an active devotional life. Although there are numerous schools of Buddhism, they are unified by their belief in the Law of the Buddha. Depictions of the Buddha, the Dharma (doctrine), and the Sangha (community) aid the believer in understanding, learning, and participating in Buddhist practice. Taking Refuge, on view in Gallery 3, presents a selection of extremely rare and beautiful art created for this purpose in the Himalayan region—sometimes referred to as the Land of White Clouds—which has served as a lasting home to Buddhism.

A gilt bronze standing image of Buddha from western Tibet, created by Kashmiri craftsmen in the tenth or eleventh century, is one of the finest examples from an important transitional phase in Himalayan Buddhism. The Buddha is depicted in a highly symmetrical stance, draped in a tightly fitted robe, his legs planted firmly upon a lotus base. His right hand is raised in abhaya mudra, or fear abiding gesture, while his left hand grasps the edge of his robe. The face of the Buddha is delicately articulated with arched brow and gentle expression. His long earlobes point to the Buddha’s previous life as an Indian prince who has since renounced his life of privilege, including the jewels he once wore.

The importance of teachers in the Buddhist tradition cannot be overstated, as the transmission of the Dharma requires a direct and personal relationship with a teacher. Great lamas are honored in many ways, through depiction in paintings and sculpture or in monuments large and small. A bronze stupa in the exhibition demonstrates this tradition, honoring through inscribed verse an important sixteenth-century lama. The stupa once contained the relics of the teacher but now only bears his name. Other items that formally teach the Dharma include paintings depicting important principles like those expressed in the Bardo (Tibetan Book of the Dead). A colorful example can be seen in a pair of eighteenth-century paintings depicting both wrathful and peaceful deities from the Bardo.

Vajrayana Buddhism is the primary teaching in Tibet and the Himalayas, and has absorbed many doctrines that the lamas share with a larger community known as the Sangha. The esoteric doctrine that is passed from the master rimpoche to the disciple relies very heavily on oral transmission accompanied by visual aids such as mandalas, thangkas, and sculptural representations of members of the community. An elegant ninth- or tenth-century gilt bronze Padmapani (an aspect of Avalokitesvara, bodhisattva of compassion) communicates the nature of an important deity, while more earthly qualities are expressed in a sixteenth-century gilt bronze image of the teacher Mahasidda Avadhutipa.

The vast array of images of deities, teachers, protectors, and saints, all of whom receive attention by the devout Buddhist, are understood to be tools in the process of understanding the teachings of the Buddha. Although they are honored, placed on altars and pedestals, and given great respect, the images the practitioner knows have no value in and of themselves. As we read in the great Vajrayana text of the Hevajra tantra (translated by D. Snellgrove):

In reality there is neither form nor seer,
    neither sound nor hearer,
Neither smell nor one who smells,
    Neither taste or taster,
Neither touch nor one who touches,
    Neither thought nor thinker.

Julia M. White
Senior Curator of Asian Art