I went to the Rubin Museum of Art this weekend, and I had an unexpectedly very good time. We had a pleasant and knowledgeable tour guide, who made the experience so interesting. According to the New York Times, the Rubin Museum of Art is “America’s largest, boldest, and most significant museum devoted to Tibetan and other Himalayan art.” It showcases the art of the Himalayas and the surrounding areas, which portrays mainly the different streams of Buddhism.
Unlike modern western art, it is unlikely to have different interpretations of Himalayan art. Many people in the Himalayan regions were “simple” people, who did not know how to read or write. Therefore, the Himalayan art, whether it’s a painting, sculpture, ritual objects, or prints, was used to visually instruct people on how to follow the teachings of Buddhism. All of the art that was shown to us on the exhibition, were portrayals of different deities. There were many aspects in the tour that I found fascinating, and I will present a few.
As a secular Jew, that does not really believe in God or a higher being, it is very easy for me to connect or understand the logic behind Buddhism. But for a lot of other people on the tour, most of them much older than me, it was not as easy. In Buddhism, there are no gods to be worshiped, or any outside forces of good and evil that pull us to either side. “God” is not a higher power, yet every person’s potential of reaching enlightenment. A person’s life journey is not to please a higher power, but to try and better himself each and every day, in hopes of one day reaching enlightenment. This journey may take many life times, and you will be reincarnated until you finish it.
Many of the deities are portrayed in a very demonic way, holding different weapons, and surrounded objects that represent death. Since there is no good or evil, heaven or hell, these deities are not evil demons that should be feared. They are guides in your journey to enlightenment, and you are able to ask for their assistance. The more demonic looking the deity is, the stronger it is, and the more helpful it will be in defeating your “mind poisons”, or mind blocks that restrain you from bettering your self. The “mind poisons” are usually due to one’s ego, ignorance and attachment to things.
Another thing I found interesting, is that in contrast to Western art, the older Himalayan art does not use specific facial bone structures when trying to portray different beings. This causes all of the Buddhas and deities to look almost the same. The way to distinguish them from one another is by looking at their sitting and hand poses. Each deity has it’s own unique and recognizable pose. According to the tour guide, one explanation to this, is that the people in the Himalayan regions believed that a “beautiful person” is a person between that ages of 15-18, so a lot of the Buddhas and deities have young looking faces and bodies. Overall it was a very interesting experience, it is always nice to learn about cultures and beliefs that you are not usually exposed to.
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