Esoteric Art, South and Southeast Asia

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The Buddhist esoteric arts of India, the Himalayan regions, and Southeast Asia are inspired by the VajrayĀna sect that is sometimes called Tantra, referring to the texts, called tantras (literally, "woven threads"), that the sect uses. These arts are an integral part of the visualized meditation rituals (sādhana) that Vajrayāna developed to harness the powers needed to achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime. Vajrayāna arts are called esoteric because the intensely complex and mystical quality of the visualized meditations make them mysterious and "secret" to all but the initiated. To fully utilize esoteric art the practitioner must be guided at every step by a qualified teacher; merely following a text will not suffice.

Aesthetically, a few generalizations can be offered about esoteric painting. Because the human form is the yogic "vessel" for following the path, the figure is paramount. Images of symbols are also important as the focus for specific meditations. A maṆḌala often combines the use of figures and symbols to striking effect. Composition, depth, and volume are only defined through the juxtaposition of pure contrasting colors and solid defining lines; realistic depictions are not valued. Most of the background and details are idealized and stylized into fluid symmetrical patterns.

Visual supports for ritual meditation

Esoteric Buddhism makes more extensive use of visual imagery and symbols to impart its teachings than any other school of Buddhism. This is because Vajrayāna uses texts so abstruse that their meanings can seemingly be conveyed only through art. Even the name of this path, vajra, which literally means "thunderbolt" or "diamond," is expressed in art by a ritual implement that reveals the esoteric truth of the name. The vajra is a scepter with, usually, five prongs joined together at the end; the prongs symbolize the powerful and quick method of practice focused on the five transcendent buddha families, ultimately joined together in the enlightened state. Sometimes a vajra may be attached to a bell, which symbolizes prajÑĀ (wisdom). A bell with a vajra handle thus represents the perfect balance and necessity of combining method with wisdom to achieve enlightenment.

A wide range of media are used for esoteric arts. Paintings mounted as hanging scrolls (Tibetan, thang ka; literally, "something rolled up"), murals on monastery or temple walls, and manuscript illustrations are the most common art forms used as aids for meditation. They are often commissioned as offerings or to commemorate a special event or festival. Sculptures for either altars or niches are cast in metal, carved of wood, or sculpted in clay, usually painted and gilded. Ritual objects and instruments manipulated in meditation rituals or dances (Tibetan, cham) are usually cast in metal, but gems and semiprecious stones are also used, along with bones, shells, and rock crystals. More temporary media include woodblock prints, prayer flags, and votive clay images. Offerings, especially initiation mandalas, can be made of almost any material, such as chalk, butter, grains, or sand. The two main forms of sacred architecture in esoteric Buddhism are the stupa, called a mchod rten (chorten) in the Himalayas, and the monastery complex, which includes shrines, dance courtyards, and residences for monks or nuns.

Transcendent pantheon in esoteric art

The Buddha Śākyamuni is deified, or rather multiplied, as two groups of beings in the esoteric pantheon. His teachings thereby become elaborated in visually concrete systems that are organized by mandalas, mystical diagrams that map out the process of visualized meditations. The first group is comprised of the five transcendent buddhas who parent the five buddha families of deities. The second group encompasses an array of beings, mostly adopted from local traditions, who sponsor specific practices; these are guardians or personal deities called yi dams in Tibetan (Sanskrit, iṣṭadevatā). Within each sect of Vajrayāna Buddhism, the second group is incorporated into the first group in a way that emphasizes their particular doctrines.

The iconography of this esoteric pantheon is precise. The five transcendent buddhas are identified by color, gesture, and direction in the maṇḍala (east is at the bottom), and each one characterizes a particular aspect of the Buddha Śākyamuni's life:

  1. Akṣobhya: "Imperturbable" (vajra family), sapphire blue, earth-touching gesture (bhūmisparśa-mudrā), east (some sects place Akṣobhya in the center); the Buddha's enlightenment.
  2. Ratnasambhava: "Jewel-Born" (jewel family), golden yellow, giving gesture (varada-mudrā), south; the Buddha's generosity as shown in his choice to teach and as demonstrated in his previous lives.
  3. Amitābha: "Infinite Light" (lotus family), ruby red, meditation gesture (dhyāna-mudrā), west; the Buddha's path of meditation.
  4. Amoghasiddhi: "Infallible Success" (karma family), emerald green, protection gesture (abhaya-mudrā), north; the Buddha's miraculous powers to protect and save.
  5. Vairocana: "Illuminator" (buddha family), diamond white, turning the wheel of the dharma gesture (dharmacakra-mudrā), center (some sects place Vairocana in the east); the Buddha's first sermon and all of his teachings.

The colors of yi dams are determined by their place within the five families. The talents and weapons they bring to the particular meditation ritual they guide are shown by other attributes. For example, the yi dam Vajravarāhī is red because she is related to AmitĀbha. She carries a ritual chopper with which she cuts through ignorance, because her function is to confer transcendent wisdom. Her consort Cakrasaṃvara is blue because he is related to AkṢobhya, and he carries many weapons because he is charged with providing whatever skillful means, all rooted in compassion, are needed to enable the practitioner to become enlightened.

Regional variations

Indian practitioners and artists of esoteric Buddhism came to the fore after about 500 c.e. They began to make images of many new deities, often displaying ritualized sexual postures (Sanskrit, yuganaddha or mahā-mudrā). They also increased the depiction and variety of ritual gestures and devices, extended the use of maṇḍalas, and recognized that artistic activity itself could be a form of spiritual practice. The earliest image of a deity holding a vajra occurs in the northwestern region of ancient Gandhāra.

The advent of Buddhism in Tibet occurred in the seventh century c.e. Tibetan esoteric arts grew around a seeding of Indian tantric forms among the indigenous shamanic religion called Bon. Particular to Tibet and later Nepal is the extensive use of the posture called yab-yum, literally "father-mother" in Tibetan, as a potent visual metaphor for the absolute necessity of joining the goddess's transcendent wisdom with the god's skillful means: They are physically joined in a sexual embrace. The whirling dance posture of mostly nude figures is also characteristic of the Himalayas.

Another Tibetan iconographic form is the lineage painting used to legitimize sects, tulkus (sprul sku; living incarnations of particular bodhisattvas, such as the Dalai Lama as an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara), and teachers within a genealogy of previous teachers and the transcendent buddha families. Parallel to this development is the wide proliferation of small mchod rtens (elongated stūpas) to commemorate, as well as to invoke, the protective powers of teachers, saints, tulkus, and sacred scriptures. Huge three-dimensional mandalas, some with interior shrines, are also thought of as mchod rtens. Unique to Nepal are the eye-mchod rtens, which have an enormous pair of eyes painted on each side of the square base beneath the top spire; these eyes belong either to Vairocana, the Illuminator, or to the primordial buddha principle named Adibuddha.

Ritual objects such as the prayer wheel, the vajra (Tibetan, rdo rje), the bell, and the phur pa (Tibetan, used to "nail" down demons) were extensively developed in the Himalayan regions. The highly sophisticated techniques of making and consecrating these necessary implements spread to Southeast and East Asia.

Esoteric Buddhism in Southeast Asia thrived mainly in Bhutan, Myanmar (Burma), Kampuchea (Cambodia), Malaya, and Indonesian Java. The most important esoteric art forms that remain are the complexes of Angkor Thom in Cambodia and Borobudur in Java, as well as many fine examples of ritual implements and sculptures. Borobudur (about 850 c.e.) elaborates the life of the Buddha Śākyamuni as the ideal path to enlightenment. Each stage is represented on a different level of this enormous three-dimensional maṇḍala, with seventy-two pierced stūpas on the top level, each housing Vairocana as he illuminates the world. This site is both a straightforward and an esoteric commemoration of the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death.

See also:Buddha(s); Esoteric Art, East Asia; Himalayas, Buddhist Art in; Huayan Art; Southeast Asia, Buddhist Art in; Tibet


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Gail Maxwell