The beginning of a new school year means new course loads and new friends, but also…new art! On August 30, the exhibit “Deities and Devotion in Mongolian Buddhist Art” found a temporary home in the Kruizenga Art Museum. With over 100 artifacts on display, one could easily spend hours enjoying every painting, sculpture and devotional relic, all of which celebrate the traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism.
Vajrayana Buddhism – also called Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism – originally began in India in the 5th century. It spread to neighboring countries, in particular Tibet, where it took dominance and became known as “Tibetan Buddhism.” This specific form of Buddhism reached its peak in Mongolia in the 16th century. The rise of Tantric Buddhism coincided with the rise and spread of Buddhist schools, and many believe it was a movement to return to traditional roots. In recent history, Tantric Buddhism has spread west. Especially since the “Tibetan Diaspora” and the 1959 removal of the Dalai Lama from Tibet, Tantric Buddhism has migrated to unlikely places and has gained acclaim as a symbol for religious and political ideals.
As with all forms of Buddhism, Vajrayana is a path out of samsara (cycle of birth and rebirth) and into enlightenment. Aspects of traditional Buddhism and Hinduism influence Tantric Buddhism and sets it apart from other forms. One aspect, in particular, is its use of sexual imagery to teach philosophical beliefs. Yab-yum—“father-mother”—is the sexual embrace of a male deity with his female consort. In the Kruizenga, yab-yum can be seen in much of the artwork displayed. This physical act represents what must occur in all human beings to reach nirvana: the embrace of passive concepts (ie., wisdom) with active ones (ie., compassion). Images such as these were only meant to be seen by Buddhists, who had been trained to give them appropriate deference, and not the general public.
Within Tantric Buddhism, there are many different deities with varying roles and importance. The art in the Kruizenga exhibit is sectioned by what type of deity it venerates. Much of the art focuses on the original Buddha, as well as other Buddhists who reached nirvana and also acquired the title “Buddha.” Some art also focuses on Bodhisattvas, teachers who have almost reached nirvana but will first help others achieve it for themselves. Tantric Buddhism has put an emphasis on fierce or wrathful Bodhisattvas, who are terrifying in appearance but act as loyal guardians. In this way, Tantric Buddhism teaches its followers to look past artificial exteriors and into the heart of the matter. Similar to the Bodhisattvas are the Dharmapala, Dakini and Heruka. The Mahasiddhas and Lamas are not venerated to the same level as the gods above and instead are seen as human teachers and role models. The most well-known of these is the Dalai Lama.
There is certainly a lot to see in this new exhibit, which will be on campus until Dec. 14. It is easy to be overwhelmed with the numerous names and titles of the deities, who are not so much constant as they are constantly changing throughout history in appearance, function and purpose. But within this staggering collection is a wealth of information, stories and guidance. This fall, the Kruizenga challenges you to escape your personal samsara of class and stress and to enlighten yourself to the beautifully unique and vibrant artwork on display. Many Tantric Buddhists believe the way to reach nirvana is to meditate with these deities through their artwork, thus melding with the enlightened being in question. So the next time homework has you suffering, dispel it with a walk across campus and a journey into Mongolian Buddhism.