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Works of Transformation: The Wisdom and Compassion of Sacred Tibetan Art

The Knoxville Museum of Art, WorldŐs Fair Park

Sept. 28 through Jan. 6, with a memberŐs opening this evening at 5:30 p.m. Call 525-6101 for information on related events.

What the World Needs Now

Finding comfort and wisdom at the KMA

by Heather Joyner

In the 1989 film Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left For The East?, the elderly protagonist speaks of another Zen master, saying, "Although he is faraway in the mountains, he is like the beacon from a lighthouse. To be effective, mustn't a beacon be situated high up and far away?" The country of Tibet is such a beacon, however enigmatic it remains for much of the outside world. Referred to as the Buddhist Land of Snows, Tibet encompasses more than a million square miles. Its melting glaciers are the source of Asia's great rivers: the Ganges, the Indus, the Mekong, and the Yangtze, to name a few. But even in its shadow, when I've hurried past saffron-robed Thai monks on the streets of Chiang Mai or slept in a Tibetan home in the Bayankara Mountains, it's seemed beyond my limited grasp. I've felt I was seeing another world within a world already foreign.

As Rand Castile of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco has put it, "In a Westerner's mind there is, perhaps, no place more distant from here, from now, than Tibet. Its very elevation [with an average altitude of 16,000 feet] makes it aloof—above, even, geography—we know so little; what can the fading pictures of National Geographic tell us? Do we yet know the real name of Everest?"

Beginning this week, the KMA brings us a bit closer to Tibet. If we've not previously known what a "tangka" is, we'll have the chance to see 50 so-called icon paintings. Drawn from more than 1,000 pieces belonging to Shelley and Donald Rubin, the Worlds of Transformation show includes images dating as far back as the 13th century and featuring everything from Bodhisattvas and Dharma Kings to mandalas and portraits of lamas. It's a complex and utterly stunning exhibit, one that will warrant repeated visits. One need not have studied Tibet's history since it became a dynastic state around 400 B.C. or know Buddhism's involved terminology to appreciate these works, although they certainly present an opportunity for learning—even inspiration.

In these times of fear and uncertainty, Worlds of Transformation reminds us that compassion and the shapes it takes are limitless. Beyond being a religion, Tibetan Buddhism is what scholar (and father of Uma) Robert Thurman has called "a cultural and civilizational force with many aspects." Beyond being a source of comfort, it also guides one's actions. Tibetans have enjoyed a spirituality that is all-encompassing, woven throughout their everyday lives. Tibet's traditional flag, upheld by a pair of guardian snow lions, features the Three Jewels representing Buddha, his teachings (the Dharma), and the Community (the Sangha), the idea being that community-centered spirituality can release one from the imprisonment of selfishness.

Writes Thurman: "[In Tibetan Tantric Buddhism,] it is no longer 'I against you' or 'it'...the Apocalyptic Buddhist Vehicle [or phase called 'the Diamond Path'] assists in reconstructing the self and universe on the basis of enlightened wisdom...overcoming [a universe] built up by countless lives steeped in ignorance." Such words are easy to get lost in, yet we might think of it this way: If we are as one, then the hate and desire for revenge overwhelming a group of people once they've been attacked is pointless. Without compassion, violence is inevitable, and the transformation of society necessary for true freedom is impossible. The Bodhisattvas or "Buddhas-to-be" seen in paintings at the KMA are beings dedicated to helping others escape Samsara, the painfully endless cycle of birth and rebirth. But while we are living an earthly existence, an understanding of our connectedness is essential.

As for the tangkas themselves, they explode with color and detail and confront the depths of the human psyche—our fears and hate and desire. Their portability (as cotton or linen scrolls, they can be rolled up and moved from place to place) has made them a powerful form of communication available to countless individuals throughout thousands of years. And the fantastic visualizations they present, usually the product of more than one unknown artist, are basically beyond description—they must be experienced. However beautiful, tangkas are intended for meditation rituals and prayer and are thus a means of getting somewhere, so to speak. Furthermore, they are considered alive, inhabited by enlightened or awakened beings.

Divided into a dozen sections based on subject matter, Worlds of Transformation is an extensive and absorbing show. The heft and scope of Buddhist cosmology can be a little exhausting at times, but it is never dull. Amidst numerous treasures, elaborate mandalas symbolizing the divine nature of our own world frame multi-armed deities.

Just as the Dalai Lama created a large sand mandala for a previous exhibit, Tibetan monks hosted by the KMA will begin similar work on Tuesday, Oct. 16. Although they plan to finish on Oct. 21(the point at which a piece is usually destroyed), the mandala will remain in Knoxville until it is dismantled during the exhibit's closing ceremony in January. Sand from the sacred "painting" will then be given to those in attendance as well as carried to the river where its healing energies can be released into the world. We can only hope that healing of some kind has already begun by then.

September 27, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 39
© 2001 Metro Pulse