Yesterday, I paid my very first visit to the Rubin Museum of Art. The museum has the largest Western collection of religious art from cultures of the Himalayan mountain range. Since I’m an avid practitioner of yoga, I have a strong interest in Buddhist and Hindu art. Yet as a westerner, I don’t really see or understand many of the subtle messages communicated by the art objects. After visiting the Rubin Museum of Art, that changed.
The Museum provided an excellent Looking Guide at the start of the gallery, which is also available for download. It explains the 3 major figures in Buddhist art:
- The Buddha: one who has obtained enlightenment.
- The Bohisattva: an enlightened being who has vowed to be reincarnated and remain a teacher until all beings achieve enlightenment.
- The Tantric Deity: A personification of the different aspects of enlightenment. Representations of tantric deities are not gods or goddesses, but meditation tools to awaken these qualities within the observer.
You can start to identify these 3 major figures by their postures and their mudras. Mudras are hand gestures that carry symbolic meaning.
I really enjoyed this guide to understanding what each mudra means. In yoga classes, they often instruct the use of different mudras, like prayer or teaching. But still, I was unclear of the meaning of these mudras in art. Buddhas are identified by the use of touching the earth and contemplation. This alludes to the story of when the Buddha is tempted by Mara. Mara personifies the temptations and distractions from spiritual life. He is a tempter, distracting humans from spiritual practice by making the mundane alluring or the negative seem positive. Mara tries desperately to distract the Buddha, but nothing works. Mara’s final attempt to discourage by fear, asking “who will bear witness to your achievement of enlightenment?”. The Buddha reaches down and touches the Earth, his witness.
Buddhas can also be recognized by having large earlobes and no jewelry. This is because they have reached universal consciousness, and transcended material things, and removed heavy earrings that would have stretched the ears.
A bodhisattva can be recognized by his/her posture of royal ease. This indicates that while the bodhisattva is meditating, (s)he is always ready to spring to the aid of those in need. The bodhisattva can also use a variety of mudras, but the most common are protection and the granting of blessings and generosity. The bodhisattva can also be recognized by the adornments of clothing and jewelry, which indicates the promise to remain on Earth until all beings achieve enlightenment.
If you enjoyed this post, please visit the Rubin Museum of Art. Their website has excellent resources, and the Museum has wonderful tour guides and events. I’d also recommend watching the PBS documentary, The Buddha.