Filed in Vajrayana

Tantric Art: Maps of Enlightenment

An Interview With Jeff Watt

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Avalokiteshvara: not giving up

In the painting opposite, a theme taken from the Mahayana sutras is used to create a deity. In the Mani Kabum, a seventh-century text, Avalokiteshvara, theCollection of the Rubin Museum Art Bodhisattva of Compassion, vowed to establish all sentient beings in enlightenment. "If ever I should break this vow," he said, "may my head split into pieces." He tirelessly worked toward emptying the hells—the hungry ghost realm, the animal realm, the human realm, and so on—but every time he looked back, he saw that these realms were filled with ever more sentient beings. Finally he became exhausted and despaired of ever making progress. He decided it would be best if he worked only for the benefit of himself. At that moment, his head shattered into pieces.

Amitabha Buddha, lord of the Pure Land, saw this, gathered the pieces, and stacked them in sets of three, one atop the other. The bodhisattva Vajrapani, in a wrathful form, offered help and put his own head atop those nine. Amitabha Buddha, vowing to be always present, then placed his own head atop all ten. The bottom ten heads, including Vajrapani's, are also a reference to the ten paramitas, the virtues one must develop in order to become enlightened: generosity, discipline, patience, courage, meditation, wisdom, skillful means, vow, power, and knowledge. Further aiding Avalokiteshvara in his quest to liberate all sentient beings, the thousand buddhas of the current cosmological cycle each offered up the symbol of an eye, which appear in the palms of the hands of Avalokiteshvara's thousand arms.

In his upraised right hand Avalokiteshvara holds a crystal mala (prayer beads) representing the bringing of all beings to the state of enlightenment as the beads are drawn toward the heart. In the upraised left is a crystal lotus symbolizing that Avalokiteshvara is of this world but not stained by it. The other two hands are held in the prayer gesture at the heart, requesting all Buddhas to remain in the world and teach. The wishfulfilling jewel held between the two hands represents the Buddha-nature found within all beings and the wish for all beings to reach enlightenment.


Jeff Watt

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