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Special Exhibition: Rugs and Ritual in Tibetan Buddhism
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.


John Guy: I’m John Guy, curator for South and Southeast Asian Art here at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and today I want to talk to you about our recently opened exhibition devoted to the ritual arts of Tibet. It’s a show we’ve called Rugs and Ritual in Tibetan Buddhism, a small, focused exhibition in which we feature some remarkable objects devoted to ritual enactment in Tibetan Buddhism.

The exhibition is centered around a series of Tibetan ritual rugs, which depict flayed skins of both animals and humans—rather gruesome subject matter—but very much concerned with the central Vajrayana Buddhist preoccupation with detachment from bodily attachments. And the exhibition itself features both the rugs and an array of ritual utensils—these are glorified butchers’ knives, if you like. In many cases they’re very beautifully crafted gold- and silver-damasked iron ritual blades for the symbolic flaying of flesh from bone and flaying of skin, which are used in the ritual enactment of destroying of the body, so that the Buddhist devotee, through meditation activities, can progress along that path that allows for true spiritual detachment from the bodily self towards a higher level of reality on the path to enlightenment.

The exhibition opens with a remarkable photograph taken in May 1921 by a Tibetan photographer working for Sir Charles Bell, the British expedition to Lhasa in 1920–21. We see this lama seated in an outdoor shrine, performing invocations of the presiding deity in which he uses some of the ritual utensils—the thighbone trumpets, the skull cup, the cutting blades—examples of which we show in the exhibition. It’s a rare and early piece of documentation of Tibetan ritual practice, rarely witnessed and certainly rarely photographed, as most of these rituals take place within the private chambers of chapels within Tibetan monasteries. So it’s a very rare and important photograph, which we use to set the scene for the exhibition.

From there we proceed to look at a whole series of extraordinarily beautiful pieces of ironwork, objects carved in wood set with ivory, rock crystal ritual daggers, for example, all of which are used in the dispelling of negative forces in the world. The principal obstacles to enlightenment, according to Vajrayana Buddhism, are what are characterized often as the “three poisons” of greed, lust, and delusion, and to destroy these negative forces clears the path, makes it possible then to proceed to higher levels of consciousness and ultimately enlightenment.

The ritual objects that we see in the exhibition are the tools to enable the practitioner to pursue this path. They are themselves only symbolic, not used to actually cut flesh from bone, or skin from flesh, but they are nonetheless symbolizing the enactment of these rituals as a way of cleansing the mind of the practitioner. We also feature in the exhibition two extraordinary large-scale black-ground tangkas. These are large cloth paintings, which feature protective deities who preside over these rituals. And, in fact, many of these rituals should only be performed by advanced practitioners of Buddhism. The protective deities preside over these rituals in a special dedicated chapel, to which access is limited to only advanced monks and tantric practitioners.

Each of these large cloth paintings, or so-called tangkas, feature not only the protective deity but an array of gifts made to the deity painted in this scene. So we see sets of armor, for example. We forget, of course, that the Tibetans maintained an army and were very martial—doesn’t quite fit with the normal conventional notion of Buddhism, but nonetheless it’s an important part of traditional Tibetan society. And so we see sets of weapons, for example, both actual weapons of war and then the ritual weapons, which are the focus of the exhibition, also depicted in these paintings.

One of the more remarkable objects in the exhibition is a skull cup, a kapala. It’s in fact made of stone, though a majority are made from the upper section of the human skull. These are used ritually for holding the brain and other sense organs in a ritual of destroying the sensory elements of the body, clearing this pathway to enlightenment. We show this skull cup together with a remarkable miniature bronze portrait sculpture of one of the Mahasiddhas of Indian Buddhism. These were the wild yogis of Indian Buddhism, those who traveled outside the normal boundaries of acceptable social behavior—eccentrics, if you like, in the religious context—who transgressed all the social rules, who ate meat, who drank alcohol, engaged in sexual activities, all the things that ascetics and those pursuing a spiritual path are forbidden to do, and attained higher levels of tantric powers: they could levitate, they could fly through the air, they could perform all sorts of miraculous feats. And this caste of Mahasiddhas, who were early historical figures in first-millennium northern India, have been absorbed into Tibetan Buddhism as a revered pantheon of semi-deified historical figures.

This exhibition is devoted to Vajrayana Buddhism, which is perhaps the most advanced form of Buddhism, according certainly to the Tibetan perspective. It is, in the long development of Buddhism—from the lifetime of Sakyamuni Buddha in the fifth century B.C.—it is the most recent development. We go through a series of stages, from early Hinayana Buddhism, still preserved and practiced today in Sri Lanka and mainland Southeast Asia, for example, to Mahayana, which certainly is active soon after the Buddha’s lifetime and becomes a more advanced religion, which comes closer back to Hinduism in some ways. It has a caste of saint-like figures who can intervene for you in matters of spiritual welfare. These are the Bodhisattvas and the female Taras. And then somewhere in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries we find a very extreme form of Mahayana Buddhism developing, very much sharing on the same tradition of tantric practice common to Hinduism at this time, drawing from that same well of tantric practice and developing into what we call Vajrayana Buddhism. And this is the Buddhism preserved and practiced in Tibet today, as exemplified, of course, by the ultimate practitioner, the venerable Dalai Lama.

The exhibition Rugs and Ritual in Tibetan Buddhism will be showing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from October 7 through to March 27, 2011.

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