I stand with Julia White, Senior Curator of Asian Art at the Berkeley Art Museum, before a gigantic gilt bronze Shakyamuni Buddha from 14th century Tibet. “The top comes off of course,” she informs me. “You can remove theushnisha?” I ask. “Absolutely. And then you can see inside,” White replies. I can’t help myself so I ask, “What do you see when you look inside the Buddha?” “Absolutely nothing. The Buddha is empty” she says with a smile.
The Shakyamuni Buddha is the centerpiece of “Himalayan Pilgrimage: Liberation Through Sight,” a University of California Berkeley Art Museum exhibit showcasing Vajrayana Buddhist art. The purpose of the exhibit is to take the viewer on a pilgrimage of sacred objects across India, Nepal, and Tibet. Through the course of the journey, the installation reveals how art creates an environment for liberation as well as serving as a direct vehicle for enlightenment.
The most important set of images in the exhibit are a complete collection of seven tangkas, or paintings, of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama and his lineage. The Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, was the first to acquire the title of Dalai Lama, his predecessors retroactively designated with the name. Painted within the seven exquisitely detailed tangkas are Tibet’s historical and mythical kings, the heavenly floating figures of later Dalai Lamas, a profusion of foliage revealing auspicious symbols, amusingly lifelike attendants, and a surprising array of monkeys, birds and fish. The seven paintings are also unusual because of their creation after the sudden and untimely death of the Ninth Dalai Lama as a clear statement of political and religious authority.
There are many beautiful treasures to discover within the collection. An impressive 9th or 10th century Avalokiteshvara from Kashmir begins the tour. “It’s a very early and a very human Avalokiteshvara. There are clear references to earlier Indian artistic traditions,” explains White. The piece reflects the broad shoulders, sinuous body, and open expression of earlier Buddhist art from India. A serene Tara from 17th century Nepal, whose partner resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, has beautifully detailed robes and a unique headdress that incorporates shimmering leaves. A 14th century Bhaishajyaguru, or Medicine Buddha, from Tibet reveals evidence of adoration. “The lips, eyes, and ushnisha have been repainted, demonstrated that they were venerated by devotees” White explains.
“The consecrated material in these objects was removed before we ever received them… but we still handle them as though they were consecrated,“ says White. The objects clearly don’t lack for power. The exhibit carefully balances male and female representations as well as peaceful and wrathful emanations of enlightened power. White includes a beautiful 17th century Prajnaparamita from Tibet to represent a peaceful deity with multiple arms and hands in the dharmachakra, or teaching mudra. A small but skillfully detailed 17th century Penden Lhamo, the protector of the Dalai Lamas, “is probably a derivative of Kali” offers White, and she rides triumphantly on the skin of her son who refused to turn away from cannibalism.
Appropriately, the most powerful objects are placed in a small room on the side of the exhibit. A rare and fragile 17th or 18th century Karma Kagyu protector deity from Tibet is outlined on black with dakinis dancing across the sky and the protector and his consort riding ghostly mounts through swirling clouds. Another gorgeous tangka splashes the colors of sunset against black, an 18th century Kubera carrying a mongoose spilling jewels from its mouth to represent victory over the nagas, symbols of greed. “People think that wrathful figures represent evil, but they don’t. They represent the power of enlightenment,” White adds as she discusses a 16th century Tibetan Varjapani dancing in a halo of flames to represent the powerful fearlessness of the enlightened mind.
My two favorite objects from the exhibit represent this dualistic expression of enlightened activity. A small gau, or traveling shrine, made by Chinese imperial craftsmen holds a stone image of Simhavaktra from the Pala dynasty in India. The image of Simhavaktra, a fierce lion-headed dakini, is only a few inches tall yet conveys its supple yet fierce nature. My other favorite is a 15thcentury Bhaishajyaguru, or Medicine Buddha, from Tibet. He sits quietly with little flowers of gold and turquoise stones set over his ears. The peaceful healing power of enlightenment and the wrathful blaze of fearless liberation are two sides of this exhibition. Appreciating both objects as equally profound offers the opportunity to see something very rare indeed: the possibility of liberation through sight. The Himalayan Pilgrimages exhibition challenges its viewers to see and appreciate both sides of a spectrum of enlightenment, and for that opportunity alone it’s well worth a visit.
Through November 25, Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Fridays 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Berkeley Art Museum, UC Berkeley Campus, 2626 Bancroft Way.