The Rubin Museum of Art celebrates the legend and legacy of Padmasambhava, who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet.
According to legend, Padmasambhava was a divine being with magical powers who emerged fully-formed from a lotus blossom at the age of eight (his name means “the lotus-born one” in Sanskrit), brought tantric Buddhist teachings to Tibet, battled local gods and demons who resisted the new religion, and deposited hidden treasures to be found by future generations. According to the historical record, or what remains of it, Padmasambhava was born like anyone else at the age of zero, either in what is now western Pakistan or what is now eastern India, and traveled through Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet during the 8th century spreading Buddhism, supervising translations of scriptures, and winning the favor and occasionally the enmity of the local aristocracy. There is also a possibility that he never existed, at least not as a single person. In any case, the figure of Padmasambhava—sometimes called “the second Buddha”—looms large in the world of Himalayan culture, to the point where it is impossible to imagine its art without him. Biographies, the first of which was written in the 12th century, credit him with single-handedly bringing Buddhism to Tibet, and accordingly, depictions of Padmasambhava and his legendary deeds dominate the iconography of Tibetan painting and sculpture.
At the Rubin Museum of Art, a unique institution in New York dedicated to Himalayan art in all its forms, “Padmasambhava wins by a big margin over Shakyamuni Buddha [the founding figure of Buddhism itself] in terms of numbers of images in our collection,” says curator Elena Pakhoutova. “He occupies a lot of bandwidth in Tibetan culture.” Fittingly, then, in February the Rubin opened “The Second Buddha: Master of Time,” an ambitious exhibition focusing on artistic depictions of Padmasambhava, drawing not only on its own first-class holdings but also on loans from public and private collections around the world, including some pieces from Switzerland that have never before been shown publicly. After remaining on view for the rest of 2018, the show will travel to the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., which co-produced the exhibition catalogue with the Rubin.
“The Second Buddha” features 41 works in various media, dating from the 13th century to the 20th. In addition, the exhibition deploys augmented-reality technology to reveal subtleties and hidden motifs in the paintings, analogous to the secret treasures (known in Tibetan as terma) hidden throughout the Tibetan landscape by Padmasambhava himself. “The Second Buddha” is an immersive experience that communicates the enduring power of this sacred figure within the Tibetan imagination and suggests its relevance for all human beings.
One important genre of Padmasambhava art is the panoramic biographical painting, which encompasses all the major episodes of his life as well as the various forms under which he manifested himself. In such paintings, mythographic completeness and visual unity take precedence over chronology, so that multiple times and places are portrayed within one frame. In a sense, this approach also indicates Padmasambhava’s ability to transcend time. A representative example is Padmasambhava, His Eight Manifestations and Life Story, a 19th-century pigments on cloth painting from Bhutan. In the center of the composition sits Padmasambhava, enclosed within a rainbow (indicative of the “rainbow body” of light achieved by enlightened beings according to Tibetan Buddhism). Around him are little vignettes depicting scenes from his life, beginning with his miraculous birth at the upper left and continuing clockwise with his life as a wandering ascetic in India and his exploits in Tibet subduing demons and teaching tantra. Scattered between these scenes are eight somewhat larger figures representing Padmasambhava’s manifestations.
Other paintings in the exhibition concentrate on specific episodes in the life and career of Padmasambhava or depict him in one particular role. For example, in Scenes from the Life of Padmasambhava, a 19th-century Tibetan pigments on cloth painting, shows the discovery of the new-born teacher, floating on the water on his open-petaled lotus, by the childless King Indrabhuti of Oddiyana, who had been on a voyage in search of a magical wish-granting jewel. The king then raised the boy as his own son. The narrative, perhaps tapping into universal archetypes, seems to echo the biblical story of the infant Moses. In the center of the composition is a related scene that shows Padmasambhava again on a lotus, in a later incident in which he emerged miraculously regenerated on the flower after having been burned at the stake by anti-Buddhist zealots.
Padmasambhava has numerous other names that indicate various aspects of his being, as well as roles and guises he assumes. A gilt copper alloy sculpture made in Tibet during the 18th century, on view in the Rubin exhibition, represents him as Nyima Ozer (“Rays of the Sun” in Tibetan), an ascetic who practices tantric yoga at burial grounds while wearing a garland of skulls, surrounded by serpents, and holding a mirror in the shape of the sun disk. Despite the deathly iconography, the figure is serene rather than eerie, raising his right hand in a gesture of reassurance and benediction. Acceptance of death and knowledge as to how to navigate post-mortem stages of existence are key elements of Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, another 18th-century Tibetan painting in the show, Peaceful and Wrathful Deities of the Intermediate State (Bardo), represents this after-death world (or worlds), in which souls encounter frightening visions that are the result of their bad karma. If the soul recognizes them for what they are—illusions, projections of the mind—they will no longer stand in the way of the attainment of enlightenment or at least a favorable reincarnation. A major body of Tibetan Buddhist literature, including the famous Bardo Thodol or “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” is built around detailed instructions for the soul to follow for successful navigation of the post-mortem realms.
One positive after-death outcome is for a soul that does not achieve liberation in this life to encounter Padmasambhava in his realm on the Glorious Copper-Colored Mountain. There the Buddha can directly liberate the soul from illusion and bring it to enlightenment. This mountain, which is conceived by Tibetan Buddhists both as a physically real place and a symbolic one representing an inner journey, is the subject of Padmasambhava in His Pure Realm, the Copper-Colored Mountain, a 19th-century cloth painting from Kham Province in Eastern Tibet (illustrated on page 18). Here the savior inhabits a palace with intricately depicted complex architecture within a hexagonal walled city atop the reddish mountain, which in turn is surrounded by a sort of moat or circular river. The Copper Mountain is also depicted in a fantastic painted gilt-wood portable shrine from 18th–19th-century Bhutan, on loan to the Rubin from a private collection.
Another persona of Padmasambhava is shown in a ground mineral pigment on cotton painting from 19th-century Tibet. Here he is simply a teacher, the “Precious Guru” who generously brings the Buddhist doctrines and meditation techniques to Tibet, represented as a snow-bound land inhabited by red-faced barbarians—which is how the Tibetans, rather self-effacingly, portray themselves as having been before the civilizing influence of Buddhism. The inscriptions on the painting speak of bridging the past, present, and future. Herein lies a major theme of the exhibition: the hidden treasures, or terma, which Padmasambhava planted in Tibet as a way of helping secure the future of the people, and ultimately, of the whole world. Terma are particularly important in the Nyingma tradition within Tibetan Buddhism, which traces directly back to Padmasambhava, but they are important in other Tibetan Buddhist lineages and even in the still-existing pre-Buddhist Bön religion, all of which pay homage to Padmasambhava.
Terma can take the form of manuscripts or ritual implements, and they are said to have been secreted in caves or under rocks or within crystals. They can even be hidden in trees, under water, or in the sky. The idea of concealment is not just physical; essentially it symbolizes the hiddenness or latency of the teachings in the mind, from which they cannot emerge until the recipient is ready. In other words, certain ideas and practices in Tibetan Buddhism are conceived of as emerging only when the time is ripe. Some of the teachings are legacies for the future, and the future depends upon the past. The connection between past and future is built from faith and love, which is symbolized in one of the paintings in the Rubin exhibition as an iron bridge built by Padmasambhava.
“Padmasambhava could see past, present, and future as they exist,” explains Pakhoutova. “He saw that Tibet would have a very difficult time and that traditions would be lost, so he concealed some teachings that he thought would be useful in objects and in memories embedded in the minds of disciples. He projected his teachings forward into the future and made them accessible in our own time.” The presence of terma is denoted in some of the paintings as handprints and footprints that Padmasambhava left behind, symbolically marking the landscape of Tibet and rendering it sacred geography. In addition, the exhibition represents terma treasures in the form of ritual objects such as a dagger (kila) and a scepter (dorje).
The Rubin curators have taken an unconventional and very of-the-moment way to help visitors understand the concept of terma—augmented reality. The AR technology deployed in the exhibition uses digital reconstructions and animations, which will be viewable by using iPads. Pakhoutova says, “We wanted to convey the idea of the hidden or the not apparent; we wanted viewers to have the experience of discovery. The AR is being used to reveal something which is not apparent in the artworks. The paintings will come to life.”
By John Dorfman