JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 6 (pp. 41 to 50)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 6 (pp. 41 to 50)





Buddhism is concerned with the development of compassion and realization of emptiness as well as the development of wisdom and skillful means. The majority of surviving religious artifacts from Tibet belong to the Vajrayāna (diamond path) branch of the earlier Mahāyāna (great path) Buddhism. Mahāyāna Buddhism developed a focus on a resolve to liberate all beings by transforming the entire universe into a realm of peace, abundance, and happiness. Vajrayāna is based on Mahāyāna Buddhist literature with the addition of a variety of esoteric teachings derived from the literature of the tantras. The tantras are scriptures purporting to record the revelatory teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, which describe practices intended to accelerate one's progress on the evolutionary path toward enlightenment. Because such an acceleration necessarily requires intense methods, Vajrayana practices are considered so powerful that they would be dangerous for those who are not properly prepared or who are not under the guidance of an experienced teacher. Therefore, some information is kept secret from those who have not been initiated and specially instructed (Lessing and Wayman 1978; Berzin 1981; Thurman 1991).

Much of the extensive literature of the tantras originated in India. Some texts form part of the Hindu and Jain traditions, and other teachings are unique to the Buddhist tradition. The main topics of tantric texts are creation, dissolution, worship, gaining of powers, and communication with divine beings. The texts combine metaphysical/philosophical knowledge with methods for mental focus, making images, constructing sacred spaces, and performing rites, festivals, and social duties (Banerji 1988). Buddhist tantras comprise four categories: Action, Performance, Yoga, and Unexcelled Yoga. These works form a hierarchy, with the latter reserved for only the most advanced practitioners.

Written description of meditation practice and theory is one side of Vajrayāna teaching. The texts are often symbolic and cryptic, however, and do not completely record the process of meditation. The second side of Vajrayāna teaching is personal initiation and continued guidance from a recognized meditation teacher through oral teachings that explain and elaborate upon the written documents. Much of the ritual is communicated orally to qualified practitioners only (Snellgrove 1987).

Tibetan Buddhist practitioners place importance on textual study, reflection, and meditation, although the emphasis may vary from one school to another. The components of meditation are āsana (body posture), mudrā (symbolic hand gesture) (Saunders 1960), music and sound (Goldblatt 1982), mantra (sacred syllables) (Alper 1989), deity images (paintings and sculptures), and visualization (creating a mental image of a deity and its associated colors, syllables, and mudrās in one's own mind) (Tulku 1974). The deity images and other sacred symbols are often arranged in mandalas with circular and square patterns (Tucci 1978).

The primary purpose of the art associated with Tibetan Buddhism is to aid the practitioner in his or her quest for enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, not for a selfish or personal goal. To fulfill this function, the artwork has evolved into a complex set of forms that communicate both metaphysical and practical ideas. Tibetan Buddhist sculptures and paintings visually supplement written texts and oral teachings. They serve much the same function as a periodic chart and molecular models in a chemistry class and are especially useful to the visually oriented aspirant. They aid meditation in three ways.

First, visible images aid learning and memory of the important details of deity visualizations. The images are usually complex. Although many details are described in the meditation texts, it is difficult to remember them all without a visual model.

Second, iconic images focus attention while one contemplates the inner meaning of the teaching. They are intended to provide hints without giving everything away at once. Complete understanding requires oral instruction combined with repeated contemplation and meditation.

Third, images provide a means for a person to record and communicate his or her meditation experiences to others. The artist or the person determining the iconography of the artwork attempts to convey a meditation experience so well that those who observe the artwork can also share in the same experience of truth. The visual forms are external representations of internal experiences that guide others toward having those same experiences.

A secondary purpose of Tibetan art, in Buddhist belief, is to gain spiritual merit by serving as the patron for the making and/or consecrating of religious images. For a Buddhist, the accumulation of merit is of great importance, for it influences the circumstances of a person's future births and thus how favorable the conditions will be for attaining enlightenment. The commissioning of artworks and the donation of religious images to a monastery are considered highly meritorious acts. One can also donate a sculpture in the name of a loved one so that person will acquire some of the merits of the deed. Images made of metal were sometimes considered to yield the greatest religious merit (von Schroeder 1981).

Iconic images are seen as essentially nontheistic. However, every Buddhist image or religious object is regarded as an extension of the actual body of the Buddha, transmitting a living presence and worthy of highly respectful handling and treatment.


The other religion of Tibet is Bon-pö, which includes a wide range of practices that originated in the native, pre-Buddhist traditions of Tibet. The term is used to refer to both the very early, aboriginal practices and to the later, more formalized Bon religion that was highly influenced by Buddhism. The practices center on a belief in many local and personal spirits. Prominent among these are various mountain gods and the Lords of the Soil. Of central importance are spirit possession, exorcism, and the use of oracles. Related to Bon-pö beliefs was the concept of the divine origin of the Tibetan kings, which resulted in the building of elaborate royal tombs (Snellgrove 1957).

Although Buddhism became the dominant religion of Tibet, Bon-pö practitioners have always remained active, even up to modern times. Adherents frequently borrowed from the repertoire of Buddhist images and rituals, and Tibetan Buddhism in turn incorporated many Bon-pö elements into its own practices (Karmay 1972). It is much more rare to find Bon-pö images in Western museums and collections than it is to find Tibetan Buddhist images. However, the Bon-pö images also frequently hold multiple meanings and serve many of the same functions as do Tibetan Buddhist sculptures.

Copyright © 1992 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works