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Tantra in Buddhist Art

A new exhibition explores how art was used to achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime
August 2, 2016

Sonya Rhie Quintanilla George P. Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art

Virupa 1407–10. China. Gilt bronze; H. 43.6 cm. Gift of Mary B. Lee, C. Bingham Blossom, Dudley S. Blossom III, Laurel B. Kovacik, and Elizabeth B. Blossom in memory of Elizabeth B. Blossom 1972.96


The next exhibition in Gallery One’s new focus space explores the concept and characteristics of Tantra through art from regions across Asia. Among the most familiar Sanskrit terms to enter the Western imagination, Tantra carries vague resonances of forbidden and culturally subversive religious practices. Twenty works of outstanding aesthetic quality, ranging from the seventh to the 17th century, introduce visitors to key elements of tantric art to show how it was used to reach the Buddhist spiritual goal of enlightenment and the eternal bliss of nirvana.

Tantra refers to a system of techniques used for attaining enlightenment more quickly than within conventional social or religious structures. In tantric Buddhism, also called Esoteric Buddhism, the teachings remain secret except to initiates. Another name for it is Vajrayana, or the “Lightning-bolt Vehicle”; when practiced correctly, its followers maintain, tantric methods can lead to enlightenment with blazing speed. Tantric practices center on visualization in yogic meditation, repetition of codified syllables called mantras, performance of rituals, and prolific use of diagrams and images.

Transmitted directly from teacher to disciple, tantric teachings can be traced through lineages back to holy men who recorded them in texts called tantras. The contents of the tantras are said to have been revealed by enlightened beings who appeared in the meditative visions of yogis. Portraits of lineage masters so common in the art of Tantra underscore the importance of the legitimate teacher. The exhibition features paintings and sculptures of Virupa, a founding lineage master who lived in northeastern India during the ninth century. According to Virupa’s hagiography, for many years he studied as a Buddhist monk but left the monastery in frustration, feeling that he was no closer to enlightenment than when he started. He began to wander as a yogi, and in the midst of his meditations Nairatmya, an enlightened being who personifies Wisdom, spontaneously appeared to him. She explained how to follow the techniques set forth in the Hevajra Tantra, and Virupa thus reached enlightenment. No longer bound by the rules of the ordinary world, he then could perform miracles such as stopping the setting of the sun in order to extend payment of a tavern bill. His purpose in achieving enlightenment, however, was not to acquire superhuman powers but to teach tantric methods to others, to aid them in reaching enlightenment quickly, and ultimately to eradicate suffering in the world: the more enlightenment, the less suffering.

The imposing Chinese bronze sculpture of Virupa dating to around 1407–10 was made in the imperial workshop of the Ming dynasty’s Yongle emperor and sent as a gift to a high-ranking Buddhist leader in Tibet who traced his lineage to the revered teacher. In accordance with Virupa’s standard iconography, the sculpture shows him as a portly Indian yogi who sits on the traditional antelope skin, but unlike a monk or yogi he wears garlands of flowers and costly jewels. These apparently contradictory elements are intended to cause the viewer to question conventional societal notions of how things ought to look, since such notions keep one tied to the ordinary world from which tantric practitioners attempt to break free. His bulging eyes reference the power of ferocity to eradicate mental impediments and negativities. He points to the sun to stop it in its tracks, and in his right hand he holds a tantric object, a skull bowl filled with blood and pus. These substances, considered fearsome and gruesome by the uninitiated, to the tantric master are equal to a golden cup of nectar. The differences between blood and nectar, bone and gold are considered purely illusory mental constructs that the practitioner must overcome in order to reach enlightenment. Cremation grounds and cemeteries are the preferred location where Virupa and other tantric practitioners perform their rituals and meditations. There they can quickly internalize and come to terms with the body’s inevitable decay and destruction, thus conquering the fear of death and attachment to one’s physical self.


Mandala of Vajradakini

Mandala of Vajradakini (detail of cremation grounds) c. 1425. Central Tibet, Ngor Monastery. Opaque watercolor on cotton; 82.5 x 72.4 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1993.4


Tantric art and rituals are accelerated methods of reaching enlightenment that require training and skill. They are based on the idea that visualization is a powerful way to control the mind. If abstract negativities, such as fear or pride, impede the attainment of enlightenment, tantric practices explain how to project them into real forms and visually defeat them with powerful images that stand for the forces of compassion, skill, and wisdom. The use of weapons in tantric art does not subvert the pacifist teachings of the Buddha; they are used metaphorically to conquer psychological impediments. The sexual imagery of tantric art depicts personifications of Wisdom, the female, and Compassion, the male, whose union results in the bliss of the enlightened state. Their multiple arms indicate their superhuman power to aid the practitioner in skillful accomplishment of the goal.

Tantra flourished in Nepal and Tibet long after it disappeared from India after the 13th century. Tantric Buddhism spread to China and Japan as early as the eighth and ninth centuries and became prominent sects, often supported by the ruling elite. The importance of Southeast Asia in the history of Tantra is also set forth in the exhibition with five objects from the Khmer and Javanese kingdoms dating between the ninth and 12th centuries. Works of art and inscriptions found from Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia reveal widespread practice of Tantra prior to the 14th century, when it was supplanted by a different form of Buddhism.  


Hevajra and Consort Nairatmya

Hevajra and Consort Nairatmya late 16th century. Central Tibet. Opaque watercolor on cotton; 105.7 x 91.4 cm. Lent by the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection


Cleveland Art, May/June 2013