A picture window into the exiled world of Buddhism
by Leon Nigrosh
ART FROM THE ROOF OF THE WORLD
At the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts and the G.W.V. Smith Art Museum, 220
State Street, Springfield, through April 30
Even if you are not familiar with the precepts and concepts of
Tibetan Buddhism, the trio of exhibitions
featuring Tibetan art now on display in the museums on the Quadrangle in
Springfield are not only informative, but also visual delights.
The first, and by far the most enlightening, is "The Mystical Arts of Tibet,"
which is arranged in several galleries of the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts.
In an effort to preserve Tibetan culture, the Loseling Institute in Atlanta has
assembled a collection of 108 eye-catching religious and secular objects. Since
the Chinese invasion in 1949, Tibet has been all but closed to the West. More
than 90 percent of Tibetan artifacts were either carried off or destroyed by
the intruders. Fortunately, many of the works on display were smuggled out of
Tibet by the Buddhist monks of the Drepung Loseling monastery and brought
safely into India, the exile home to the monastery.
The installation's overall effect is breathtaking. The colors, the fabric
textures and patterns, the gleaming bronze and silver -- all of it competes for
attention. Add the meticulous craftsmanship exhibited and you have a feast for
the eyes. Not to mention, the majority of the esoteric subjects consist of
many-headed, multi-armed creatures that are designed to instill fear in the
hearts of whomever they encounter -- or so it may seem.
Take Vajrabhairava. In this 19th-century tangka (or sacred,
painted scroll), we see a giant, blue, buffalo-faced figure holding a ritual
knife in one of its 34 hands, which are shown scooping the brains out of a
skull. The creature's necklace is composed of human heads, it's circled by
blazing flames, and all around it people are in pain. We wouldn't want to cross
paths with this fellow. But the nearby didactic panel goes to great lengths to
assure us the "The Diamond Terrifier" (a/k/a "The Opponent of Death") is really
on the side of the faithful. A small 12th-century bronze casting of this deity,
with its multiple heads and arsenal of weaponry, is a little less terrifying.
We can easily admire the artisanry involved in the articulation of a
two-foot-high, 16th-century bronze dancer, Vajrayogini. This deity may
have the body of a 16-year-old, but, according to the wall plaque, she holds
the wisdom of the ages. Never mind the garland of 50 dried-up skulls, the cup
of blood, or the fact that she is crushing two hapless figures with her feet.
To the initiated, these are symbols of passion transforming into wisdom -- a
major step toward enlightenment. She can be seen again in all her fiery red,
female glory as she dominates the activities in an early 20th-century
tangka, surrounded by her wrathful blue bodyguards and attended by
hundreds of ancestral practitioners.
Other objects worth noting are the 10-foot-tall dung-chen trumpets,
which emit elephant-like musical sounds and telescope down to less than four
feet when not being played. Then there are three dramatic stupas, or
bronze memorial urns; an intricately chased silver butter lamp; and the
original saffron monk's robe that belongs to His Holiness, the 14th Dalai
In another area of the Fine Arts Museum, Loseling monks completed a
four-foot-diameter mandala sand painting. It took six days to draw out the
complex geometric forms and then fill them in with layers of multicolored,
vegetable-dyed white sand. Such sacred circles, through their many levels of
symbolism, are thought to reconsecrate the earth and its inhabitants. Normally,
the monks destroy these sacred circles soon after completion, but this one will
remain on display until the close of the exhibition. Then monks will perform
the ritual sweeping, and then hold a public desanctification and pour the sand
into Connecticut River to carry the healing energies throughout the world.
Across the quad at the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum more than 150
local students, under the guidance of Tibetan artist Kalsang Lodoe Oshoe, have
created "Katmandu," an artistic interpretation of three 11th-century Tibetan
temples. The central figure is Shakyamuni Buddha, a mixed-media sculpture eight
feet tall and painted gold. He sits on a lotus, the symbol of purity, and holds
his hands in the mudra position, "witness to his enlightenment." In
contrast, in the shrine of The Black Mahakala, a fierce, six-armed deity
resplendent in skulls, blood, and eviscerated mammals stands ready to help
believers find enlightenment by overcoming their frailties. In the shrine room
of the female bodhisattva of compassion, a life-size Green Tara is adorned with
beautiful silken clothes and glittering jewelry as reminders of her heavenly
status. The detailing in all of these sculptures attests to the skills and
energy of the young people who were involved in the construction.
Allow yourself plenty of time to view these exhibits. The fascinating imagery,
uncommon to most Westerners, is engaging by itself. But to better understand
these objects are not thought of as art by Buddhists but rather as metaphorical
religious objects, invest in the color catalogue that accompanies "The Mystical
Arts of Tibet." It answers specific questions about each item, and serves as a
primer about Tibetan Buddhism.
The museums are open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Call