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Tantric Buddhist Statue from the Crow Collection in Dallas, Texas

From the Crow Collection in Dallas, Texas

From the Crow Collection in Dallas, Texas – photo: Mark Alonzo

The Tantric Buddhist statue pictured above (credit: Mark Alonzo) is sexual and symbolic. Saw it with Mark and Laura this past Wednesday when we made a trip to the Crow Collection. I don’t remember exactly when or what region it is from, but Mark took a beautiful picture that gleams.

The Tantric statues on display were meant for more monks of a more elite status. Like this one, they were meant to be contemplated, meditated on. Some of the statues were of figures that would wear chains made of human faces. You could see, say, on the Lord of Death a bunch of faces which seemed smug or vain or any number of related emotions. I, at least, thought that death as the end or “judge” of any human pride might have been part of the point.

Exactly why the statues are so erotic is an open question. The Crow Collection discusses Tantric practice as bodily ways to achieve a body/mind unification, where compassion can flow from one’s very grounding in reality (their phrase):

Tantric practices, unlike other Buddhist vehicles, explicitly use the body as the path. Visualization makes use of the power of sight to bring the outside in and the inside out, to dissolve the boundary of our body. Breath control, gestures (mudras), and positions of the body (yogic asanas) are tools to stimulate and direct the flow of energy, along with extensive ritual performances ordering and purifying space and summoning and dispelling energies.

Part of me feels this a bit too technical, though many of the statues feature some cosmic force personified trampling other bodies: a rejection of human form. And the practices described are obviously important. But to what degree are the statues simply about using one’s own erotic passions to pursue something higher? The statues are stylized and symbolic, but there’s a lot of sensuality on display.

The statue pictured above is probably the mating of wisdom (Buddha) and compassion (the girl). His hands, left over the right, are in a “teaching” gesture. While gold, it is relatively unadorned, instead focusing on their expression, their gestures, their unity. “Wisdom” is a bit distant, but “Compassion” seems to have warmth and joy. This is a cosmic tension represented.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you Ashok for your visit to the Crow and the exhibition Noble Change: Tantric Art from the High Himalaya. And for the photo, which does gleam–radiant!
    The stats on the sculpture in the photo are:
    Adi (Supreme)Buddha Samantabhadra (Ever –Perfect He-One) and his Consort Samantabhadri (the “Ever-Perfect-She-One, a.k.a. “the Girl”) in Union as One (Yab-yum.) We are not certain where it was made or when, but note Sino-Tibetan elements of style, and affinities with sculpture made in the 20th century. We are pursuing answers to these questions.
    Your engagement with the works of art and their frame in the exhibition is much appreciated.

    Yes. The objects were made for use with techniques of awareness that practitioners of Tantra cultivate, with the guidance and amplification of a teacher. Tantra in its textual forms often appears to be manuals of technical navigations from where we are in our construction of the world (an isolated self in a body) to an experience of life as energies that can be directed toward indivisibility and inclusion—wisdom and compassion.

    The way that we construct the world with our human minds and bodies (which are believed by Buddhists to be precious opportunities for greater capacities) is central to the techniques of the Tantras. The techniques do not leave aside our sense capacities–hearing, vocalizing, making shapes with our bodies, making meaning, feeling, seeing. Tantra does not deny them, but offers techniques to drain them of their claim on our thoughts and actions, to free them from fixed arrangements around ego. Tantra presents the possibility of use of our lives in all their vivid energies, including sexual energy, for the benefit of all life.

    The sensuality so vivid in these sculptures–as you do not abandon to technical”ese”– is clearly intentional and must therefore be instrumental in the tantric process. The unity of dualities–male and female–is also so strong, whether it is portrayed as peaceful or fierce, that even as we come to these works of art outside of tantric practice as museumgoers, we recognize our own desire for the equanimity, fearlessness, and joy they portray, beyond duality. The hands of Samantabhadra around the waist of his consort rest serenely in the gesture of meditation.

    The suffering, which you also note appears in the exhibition in severed heads and prostrate bodies, is fundamental to the Buddhist path–the very foundation: the Truth of Suffering. As human beings, there is a visceral response to these forms. We shrink from their rank smell of pain and death. For Tantric practitioners, teachings are embedded in each of these forms in the context of the whole visionary body. The forms however sustain the root of suffering that we see with our ordinary eyes. They must have been designed to do so. Tantric art is highly codified and the code known only to a few. Its scope, however, is also intentional universally human. And it is meant to return you to things as they are, the fuel for the path to the cessation of suffering as a condition of existence.

    These are responses to your thoughts from a curator–not a tantrika, and from one without any claim to be a teacher of tantra. As a presenter of art, I hoped for responses that would bring into focus sensitive viewing and thoughtful consideration of forms in art that is embedded with codes, and made for particular audiences.

    Your thoughtful viewing and comment are the reasons we have exhibitions at the Crow–for personal account and communal dialogue.

    Hope to see you again at the Crow,

    Caron Smith. Curator

  2. On a pilgrimage thru’ India a few years back, we visited a place where there were several such tantric carvings and monuments. Although this made some of the more “conservative” in our group blush a bit, my take of the whole thing is that the world is both “dual” and “nondual.” Duality being the play of opposites, male and female, give and take, light and dark, etc., and the union of the opposites pave the way for the experience of oneness. I would have loved to see the particular statue mentioned here. It looks absolutely stunning, absolutely beautiful!

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