NEW YORK - The visual culture of esoteric Tibetan Buddhism demands a great deal from the viewer. The bewildering multiplicity of arms, heads, accoutrements and clothing can often deter the viewer from engaging with the object. There are a few fundamental questions, however, one can ask when faced with the sheer volume of visual information, which help provide a context:
What is this used for?
Objects such as this tour de force gilt-bronze depicting the Tantric deities Chakramsavara and his consort Vajravarahi were created as meditation objects. These sculptures present specific iconography which serves as a metaphor—arm for arm, limb for limb—of the enlightenment experience. The iconography is extremely specific, and is derived from ancient tantras or spiritual texts which provide the design blueprint as well as detailed explanations of meditation practices.
What are they doing?
This elegant sculpture of the Tantric deity Chakramsavara and his consort Vajravarahi depicts the two figures in ecstatic union—the Sanskrit name “Chakramsavara” translates to “Wheel of Bliss”. In the world of Tantric Buddhism, the great bliss of sexual union serves as a metaphor for the great bliss of enlightenment.
The two deities stand in alidhasana or fierce pose and trample underfoot two supine figures, each of whom represent philosophical ideologies which are not in accord with Buddhist practice. Vajravarahi’s right leg is wrapped around the thigh and waist of her partner, Chakramsamvara. Her left arm is around his neck, and her right arm is raised in the air above his shoulder. Chakrasamvara has four faces and twelve arms—his primary arms embrace his consort, while the auxiliary ten arms extend outwards.
What are they holding?
Both deities hold a variety of ritual implements in their hands, each of which is a metaphor for specific “tools” which the Buddhist practitioner can mentally utilize to overcome obstacles to their meditation practice. For example, in her raised right hand, Vajravarahi holds a kartrika or chopper (the blade of which is now missing) which serves as a reminder to sever the stream of ignorance and negative emotions in one’s own mind; Chakrasamvara also holds a chopper in his fifth right hand.
What are they wearing?
The clothing and ornaments of the deities are further iconographic reminders of positive qualities to cultivate, and negative qualities to recognize and subdue. Chakramsavara and Vajravarahi wear the the six bone ornaments, which symbolize the six paramitas or virtues. These textural bone ornaments appear in beaded rows at (1) the crown of the head, symbolizing dhyana or concentration; (2) the earrings that symbolize kshanti or patience; (3) the necklace that symbolizes dana or generosity; (4) the armlets and anklets that symbolize shila or discipline; (5) the girdle and apron that symbolizes virya or exertion; and (6) the crisscrossed torso ornament that symbolizes prajña or wisdom. From Chakrasamvara’s neck hangs a garland of fifty-one severed heads strung on a length of human intestine and the hair of a corpse, signifying the purification of the fifty-one mental “events” which distract the mind from recognizing its inherent blissful state.
When can I see it?
Our exhibition in New York runs from Thursday 12 March—Monday 16 March. Our auction of Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art will be held in New York on Tuesday, 17 March at 10:00am.