Buddhism

A radical realist take on Tibetan Buddhism at the Rubin

One of the features of recent decades has been the rise of nationalism based on religion, for example in India, the United States and the Middle East. And it has become common to discuss these areas to draw a connection between politics and religion, whether it is Hinduism, Christianity or Islam.

Buddhism, however, keep upsetting us. People are often shocked that this could be at the heart of the violence of Sri Lanka Where Burmaor the more than a hundred self-immolations that took place in Tibet in the early 2010s – acts of self-inflicted political violence that baffled both the Chinese government and many onlookers in the West. For many, Buddhism is “a religion of peaceand its adaptation for political purposes, even to inspire violence, seems downright wrong.

This makes the exposure at the Rubin Museum of Art, “Faith and Empire: Art and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism,” a particularly welcome landmark, the first in-depth exploration of the subject. Closely organized around sixty articles, the exhibition is accompanied by a catalog of photos and essays by some of the leading specialists in the relatively new field of Tibetan studies. Together, the exhibition and the book go a long way to demystifying Tibetan Buddhism, art and politics, showing how intertwined they have been over the past 1,300 years.

Probably only the Rubin, with its extensive collection of Tibetan art and deeply knowledgeable curatorial staff, could organize such an exhibition. The exhibition and the catalog offer a non-sentimental and non-Orientalist perspective on Tibet, in which violence is an integral part of political and religious discourse, as elsewhere in the world.

It’s a boldly defiant view, however, especially in the West, where Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, enjoys a popular image as a man of unimpeachable peace. But that overlooks the fact that the Dalai Lama began his adult life as a theocrat leading a government with an army; only later did he develop into a Gandhi-influenced proponent of non-violence who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. This transformation may make strategic sense for Tibetans in their struggle against an overwhelmingly powerful Chinese state, but it is a recent development, as the Rubin show reveals with its exploration of how, during the most of Tibet’s history, Buddhism has served the state.

At its heart, “Faith and Empire” deals with two phases of Tibetan history. One was the period of Tibetan glory in Central Asia, including the great Tibetan Empire from the 7th to 9th centuries, and that of the revival of Tibet from the 11th to 12th centuries. The second period was the transformation of Tibetan Buddhism from the 13th century into a dispenser of sacred rules and occult powers, both of which seep into today’s romanticized visions of Tibet and its spiritual practices.

Religion and politics have been inextricably linked in Buddhism since its beginnings in ancient India. This is especially true of Tantric Buddhism, which emphasizes rituals and magic. Although today Indian Buddhism manifests itself primarily as a protest movement against the hierarchy of Brahmanical Hinduism, its practice was once characteristically associated with petty republics and royal courts.

It was in the 7th century that Buddhism arrived in Tibet, roughly coinciding with the kingdom’s rise to become a Central Asian superpower. It was the most powerful military rival of the Chinese Tang dynasty and briefly occupied its capital, Chang’an. Buddhist monks were active on both sides, lending their spiritual authority to this power struggle using rituals and invocations of deities like the wrathful Acala.

When the Tang ceded control of the Hexi Corridor, a vital segment of the Silk Road to Central Asia, to Tibet, Tibetan culture spread throughout the region. It was a multicultural empire, incorporating Greek medicine, a Sanskrit-based writing system, Tang-derived record-keeping, and Sogdian silver-working. The drinking horns and silver goblets on display testify to this cross-fertilization.

When the Tibetan Empire crumbled later in that century as a result of power struggle and political fragmentation, Tibetan influence in the region lingered, particularly after the founding of the western Xia empire of the Tangut people, an area that corresponds to the eastern end of the Silk Road, specifically in present-day Ningxia province. The Tangut imitated many Tibetan practices and began a custom of appointing a Tibetan Buddhist monk as Imperial Preceptor, the highest religious figure in Western Xia. Most preceptors anointed emperors and advised them on religious matters, but sometimes they also wielded political power in their own right, as a preceptor did in the Yuan dynasty when the Mongol leader Qublai Khan gained suzerainty over Tibet. Buddhism thus served the state, with the Tangut presenting themselves as universal sacred rulers, legitimized by Tibetan Buddhist rituals.

When the Mongols wiped out the Western Xia in the 13th century, they took over many of these practices. One of the most memorable paintings in the exhibition shows a tiny emperor Qublai Khan in one corner of the picture talking with his giant-sized imperial tutor.

Interestingly, the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) also treated Tibetan Buddhism as a religious authority, even though the Ming was an ethnic Chinese regime that consciously presented itself as breaking with the traditions of the nomadic peoples of Central Asia. This is evident in several beautiful pieces, including an intricate piece of silk embroidery on public display for the first time that was a gift from Emperor Ming Yongle to a visiting Tibetan lama. Because Yongle was a usurper, he needed a way to legitimize his rule. He did so by imitating Qublai Khan, seeking, for example, initiation into the rites of Hevajra– another fiercely protective deity, from the same sect as Qublai Khan’s tutor. The Chinese emperor therefore consciously modeled himself on his Mongol predecessor to declare his own sacred authority.

The Ming never occupied Tibet, but they erected a series of temples along the border as a sort of soft power. These displayed opulent Buddhist icons amid grand palace-like architectural backdrops, using sacred imagery to project temporal power into these contested regions by showing that they too worshiped the same deities. An example of this practice is a highlight of the show, a nearly life-size bronze bodhisattva weighing 380 pounds that was loaned to the Rubin by the Cernuschi Museum in Paris.

One of the most fascinating sections of the exhibition, and of the catalogue, deals with China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644-1912), ruled by another nomadic northern people, the Manchus. They too looked to Tibetan Buddhism for legitimacy and to bolster their military might with its spiritual authority.

The Manchus achieved this by using Buddhist stories and images to mobilize the Mongol soldiers who fought for them. A particularly graphic image in the exhibit depicts the story of the Shambhala (a legend that eventually turned into the fantasy of Shangri-La). In its original form, it was an end-times tale which announced that a Buddhist king led his soldiers out of a hidden redoubt to annihilate all heretics and unbelievers – that the Manchus, in their account, equated with enemies of the Qing.

During a recent visit to the Rubin, I spoke with the curator of the exhibition and catalog editor, Karl Debreczeny. He pointed out that, for many people in the West, Buddhism is completely separate from its history. So many beliefs and rituals have been suppressed in this vision that many Westerners regard it purely as a philosophy rather than a religion. As well-intentioned as this version of Buddhism may be, it is also a fantasy that places its practice on a higher moral and spiritual plane and erects an unbridgeable distance between us and its true historical significance in Tibet.

“This exhibition attempts to challenge the Western romantic notion of Buddhism and Tibet,” he said. “These leaders weren’t interested in mindfulness, meditation, and yoga mats; they wanted to know what this religion could do for the state. One of the objectives [of the show] is to take off those blinders and recontextualize art.

These ideas owe much to the influence of Elliot Sperling, the revered Tibetologist who died in 2017, aged 66. candid criticism of Chinese policy in Tibet, he was also a pioneer in the study of Tibet – the one who qualified a generation of scholars, including Debreczeny himself. Unlike the explorers and chroniclers of the past, these new scholars learned to read Tibetan and Chinese, and to take the country and culture on its own terms, rather than be distracted by the projections of powerful neighbours, rivals and Tibetan patrons. Sperling’s classic 2001 essay “‘Orientalism’ and aspects of violence in the Tibetan tradition” underpins many of the exhibition’s concepts, especially its realism about Tibetan politics and the integration of Buddhism with the needs of secular power.

This is not to deny the transcendent beauty of many works of art in this exhibition. Rightly, they can be considered solely on their merits as vivid expressions of fury, violence, peace and splendor. But understanding their place in Tibetan history enhances a deeper appreciation of this still remote corner of the world and its remarkable journey over the past millennium.


Faith and Empire: Art and Politics in Tibetan Buddhismwas at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, through July 15, 2019.