tantric art

The tradition of Himalayan tantric art evolved over more than a thousand years into a form notable for its iconographic complexity and stunning beauty. In December, Tricycle visited New York City’s Rubin Museum of Art, home of one of the West’s richest collections of Himalayan art. In this interview RMA curator Jeff Watt pulls back the curtain on this potent Buddhist art form.

What role can art play in conveying the Buddhist teachings? Buddhists are always talking about tools to use on the path to liberation. Often we are accused of living in our heads, of being too abstract. Buddhist art—and more specifically, tantric art—gives us the opportunity to come down to earth and look at how Buddhism represents itself visually. How is the Buddha represented? How are his teachings and followers represented?

Collection of the Rubin Museum Art
Can you say something about tantra itself, and tantric art?
 Tantra is simply a method to reach enlightenment quickly, in one lifetime. It belongs to Northern Buddhism, the Mahayana school, although it once pervaded much of Buddhist Asia, including Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. Tantric paintings are the visual representations of tantric texts, which outline expedient practices. The texts themselves are primarily understood as revelation, and are said to be the words of the Buddha in his divine or transcendent aspect. Most tantric texts were written down between the fourth and tenth centuries C.E., and tantric art developed alongside of the texts.

And how does tantric art represent the teachings in tantric texts? The deities in the paintings are personifications of the texts and the systems of practice they teach. Tantric art actually compresses all of the important points of the Buddhist teachings into a very tight visual package of symbols.

Excerpt From Tricycle Article, Tantric Art: Maps of Enlightenment, by Jeff Watt

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