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Rugs and Ritual in Tibetan Buddhism

Exhibition objects

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Ritual in Contemplation: Text and Tools in Tantric Buddhism

Program information

For the Museum's third-annual lecture on South and Southeast Asian art (March 20, 2011), Robert A. F. Thurman—Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, Department of Religion, Columbia University—presents "Ritual in Contemplation: Text and Tools in Tantric Buddhism."

A related exhibition, Rugs in Ritual in Tibetan Buddhism, was on view October 7, 2010, through June 26, 2011.

This lecture is made possible by the generous support of Jeff Soref and Paul Lombardi, Jeff Soref Fund of the Stonewall Community Foundation.

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Special Exhibition: Rugs and Ritual in Tibetan Buddhism

Program information

Curator John Guy discusses the ritual arts of Tibet and their role in the path to enlightenment, the subject of the installation Rugs and Ritual in Tibetan Buddhism.

Rugs and Ritual in Tibetan Buddhism

October 7, 2010–June 26, 2011

Thirty works dedicated to the enactment of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, focusing on Tibetan tantric rugs as the seats of power employed by practitioners of Esoteric Buddhism, form this installation. These rugs typically depict the flayed skin of an animal or human and, together with associated ritual utensils, are the tools employed in the enactment of Esoteric rites associated with protective deities. The employment of these images and ritual tools celebrate the power of detachment from the corporal body that advanced Buddhist practitioners strive to attain. It features two large ritual tangkas, together with the rugs upon which the practitioner sits, or upon which his ritual utensils are placed, as well as a rich assortment of associated ritual paraphernalia. Many are rarely seen objects from private collections.

More about the Exhibition

Vajrayana and Tantrayana are the names most commonly applied to the advanced schools of Mahayana Buddhism practiced in Tibet. Vajrayana ("Diamond Vehicle") has at its core the pursuit of higher spiritual awareness and, ultimately, enlightenment through the study and mastery of ritual activities that remove obstacles along this path. The "three poisons" that hinder spiritual advancement are identified as ignorance, greed, and hate, and much of the ritual enactment is devoted to quelling these negative passions. This exhibition explores the role of these empowering rites and of the utensils and other paraphernalia they employ. Some of these activities can be performed by novices; others involving advanced skills in visualization—creating a mind-picture of the deity under worship—are dangerous for anyone other than advanced practitioners in the tantric arts. Trance and exorcism are key elements within the repertoire of advanced performance meditations.

Many of the objects included in this exhibition are shocking to those unfamiliar with the meaning and purpose of Tibetan religious art; depictions of exposed brains in skull cups and flayed human skins, for example, are but an extreme expression of the Buddhist pursuit of bodily detachment. Although intended to elevate the initiated to a higher level of consciousness, to the uninitiated or the novice these images may seem simply gruesome. Two large cloth paintings on view were meant to be used expressly within a chapel dedicated to the wrathful protective deities. In this chapel, or gonkhang, invocation rituals were performed using many of the utensils displayed here. Much Vajrayana ritual is based on sacrifice, which has its origins in early Indian Vedic and Hindu practices. They share many of the same utensils and performance gestures, differing only in the symbolic meanings attached to them.

The wrathful deity Mahakala, an emanation of Akshobhya Buddha, features prominently. He serves as the principal destroyer of the corporeal bonds that tie us to our material and physical existence, thus impeding spiritual advancement. Likewise, Padmasambhava, one of the pioneer propagators of Buddhism in eighth-century Tibet, is an important figure in this ritual history. His instruction in and promotion of the Vajrakila Tantra, an early Indian tantric text, was a seminal moment in the development of Tibetan ritual, further stimulated in the fourteenth century with the promotion of these rites in the Sakya monastic tradition.

Tibetan tantric rugs serve as seats of power employed by practitioners of Esoteric Buddhism. The imagery—the flayed skin of an animal or human—is potent. Together with the utensils on view in the exhibition, these rugs are employed in a variety of Esoteric rites. A tiger-pelt rug on view has a long ancestry in India, where holy men of various persuasions meditated and preached while seated on a flayed tiger skin. In Tibet these skin rugs were deployed principally in rites invoking the protective deities, and were a noted feature of the annual New Year's Eve exorcism dance performance (Tse Gutor, rtse dgu gtor) to cleanse away the past year's sins.