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by N.F. Karlins
New York City’s own little bit of the fantastical Himalayan world, the Rubin Museum of Art, is now five years old, and this summer took steps to reintroduce itself to the public with a new, long-running exhibition titled "Gateway to Himalayan Art."

Along with an educational video presentation, the show opens with several striking images of the Buddha, or "enlightened one." "Buddha" is an honorific referring to the founder of the religion, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in the 6th or 5th century BCE.  He is revered as Buddha Shakyamuni.

One, a 16th-century Tibetan thangka, or scroll painting on cloth, depicts Buddha Shakyamuni seated on lotus throne, the lotus being a symbol of purity. He can be identified by distinctive marks -- a cranial protuberance called an "ushnisha," a tuft of hair between the eyebrows known as an "urna," long earlobes, and usually a monk’s robe. The long earlobes refer to the heavy earrings that he wore before renouncing his royal life of ease to practice austerities that allowed him to reach "nirvana," or enlightenment, overcoming the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that the unenlightened suffer. The earlobes also refer to his being all-hearing, a good thing if you are praying to him.

In the thangka the Buddha is depicted with a groundedness that underlines his importance, as does his placement in the center of the picture. If you think the halo around his head is similar to haloes in western Christian art, you’re right. These signs of spiritual radiance both derive from sun disks from the Middle East.

As can be seen from the illustrations in a free brochure available to museum visitors, this Buddha has his legs crossed in a full lotus position, which is associated with meditation. His hand touching the earth is symbolic of the Buddha’s defeat of the temptations put in his way by a devious demigod, named Mara, before he finally "awakens," which occurred only after many years of self-denial during meditation. 

"Buddha" also refers to other manifestations of enlightenment besides the historical Buddha’s, as theoretically anyone can attain enlightenment by following Buddhist principles and practices. But the historical Buddha has attributes by which he can be identified and symbols that tell the viewer that a specific time in his life is being referenced, as in this thangka, which depicts the event during which Prince Siddhartha attains enlightenment and becomes Buddha.

Attributes also can help identify the panoply of Himalayan gods and goddesses. One large group of deities are called "wrathful," and they certainly appear to be. Multi-headed and multi-limbed, these fierce gods and goddesses have bulging eyeballs and necklaces of skulls. They are an important element in Tantric Buddhism, a form of Buddhism based on certain texts, or tantras, common throughout the Himalayas.

But these wrathful deities are in truth enlightened beings -- in large part -- who protect the devout from temptation and remove obstacles with the weapons they brandish. In a scroll painting with a black background, or "black thangka," Tsangpa Karpo, a guardian deity, is shown wearing a helmet with skulls on horseback hefting a sword meant to slash away ignorance impeding the enlightenment of the faithful. Those skulls, whether in his helmet or worn in a necklace by other wrathful deities, are symbolic of overcoming egoism.

In Tantric Buddhism, the ecstatic sexual embrace of multi-limbed male and female deities can be used to visualize aspects of the enlightened mind. Included in "Gateway" is a 14th-century Tibetan gilt copper statue of Vajradhara, the principal Tantric male deity, which would be incomplete without his consort or female complement. He represents compassionate action, which would be useless without her wisdom. Their sensual coupling in this fantastic artwork is conceptually a trope for enlightenment and physically a glorious mixing of bodies.

Tantric Buddhism emphasizes visualization as a spiritual practice that leads to close identification with a particular deity. Practitioners concentrate on a god or goddess and conceptualize that entity within a mandala, a diagram often representing a palace-like setting, with numerous levels and protective deities, all leading to a central figure. "Gateway" includes a 15th-century deity mandala from southern Tibet -- with the usual form of a square with four gates inside a circle -- but also features a 3D computer simulation of a 2D mandala.

What’s more, a private Buddhist shrine, containing more than 150 works of art from Tibet, Nepal, China, and Mongolia dating from the 13th to the 19th centuries, is being installed in "Gateway" on Oct. 6, 2010. Elsewhere in the museum is a show of masterpieces from Nepal; an exhibition of late 19th-century photographs of Sikkim and Bhutan by John Claude White, an officer during the British Raj; and "Tradition Transformed," a show of works by nine contemporary Tibetan artists.

"Gateway to Himalayan Art," July 23, 2010-Jan. 1, 2012, at the Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.