Art as a tool of Buddhist practice
If you missed “The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last fall, you can catch it at the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art this spring, through May 9. And if Ohio isn’t in your travel plans, you can have nearly as transforming an experience by perusing the exhibition catalog, The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art (Columbus Museum of Art and Serindia Publications, 2003, $90 cloth). Prepared by curators John C. Huntington of Ohio State University and Dina Bangdel, now at California State Polytechnic University, with a team of Ohio State graduate students, the book packs into 560 lavishly illustrated pages what Huntington has called “the first and most comprehensive art exhibit of a religious tradition that is not about the art, it is all about the meaning.” The focus, in other words, is on how the art works in spiritual practice.
The 160 or so pieces—paintings, sculptures, and ritual objects from five countries of the Himalayan region—are essential practice tools of Vajrayana (“Diamond Vehicle”), or Tantric Buddhism. Both the exhibit and the book are set up to be viewed in sequence, mirroring the practitioner’s step-by-step progress toward awareness.
“Vajrayana’s primary purpose is to say that enlightenment is possible in this lifetime,” notes Bangdel, who has studied with Buddhist teachers in her native Nepal. “Circle of Bliss” refers to the Chakrasamvara, or “Mother” Tantra (tantra means “continuum,” or method), one of the most advanced Vajrayana vehicles of liberation. Meditation on the nondual union of Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi (“diamond sow,” his consort) is considered a direct route to the “clear light of bliss,” the enlightened state. Bangdel and Huntington take great pains to explain that these complex visualizations “require preparatory empowerments and initiations from a qualified Tantric teacher before the yogin can undertake any details of the meditation.” Do not try this on your own at home, in other words.
But there is no harm in just looking. The Circle of Bliss contains superb examples of the art of this “completion-stage” meditation, with the two deities shown in a sexual embrace, representing the attainment of nonduality. Bangdel is quick to distinguish Tantric unification practices from the “tantric sex” exercises trumpeted in popular manuals on improving your love life. The traditional practices “were meant as sexual metaphors, to be taken symbolically, not literally,” she emphasizes. “The representations were meant to be meditationally internalized in the individual practitioner, perfecting and transforming [the practitioner] in an internal coming-together.” Misconceptions have arisen, she says, because “the teachings are secret and once you have received them you are not able to talk about them, so they have been misrepresented and misunderstood.”
Similarly, there are misconceptions about Buddhist meditational art. Huntington is firm: it is not devotional art. He takes as an example the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, or Kwan Yin, as she is known to Chinese Buddhists. “You meditate on Kwan Yin or invoke her name as an inspiration to be like her, to awaken that compassion in yourself. She was not meant to be a devotional figure.”
A journalist, author, artist, and Zen monk, Mira Tweti is currently writing a book, Birds of a Different Feather: The Sometimes Funny, Always Fascinating, and Often Catastrophic Collision of Parrots and People, to be published by Viking Press.