Being reborn in one of the heavens inhabited by a living Buddha offered a clear path to enlightenment for Himalayan Buddhist communities. Vairochana, the emanation of the historic Buddha Shakyamuni, sat at the center of the cosmos, while each of the Pure Lands in the four cardinal directions was presided over by a celestial Buddha. The vast and complex Mahayana and tantric pantheon of Buddhist gods and goddesses are emanations of these living Buddhas, while individual deities associated with them personify ideas such as compassion, abundance, learning, or protection. This cosmic organization gave a popular goddess like the savior Tara a clear place within the Buddhist pantheon. At the same time, an advanced tantric practitioner could find a powerful esoteric deity, such as Hevajra, conceptualized in an unambiguous context.
This exhibition draws together works of the highest caliber and places Vairochana at the center of the gallery, and the directional cosmic Buddhas on the four walls along with some of their most significant manifestations, presenting this complex Buddhist pantheon of deities in a startlingly simple way.
The exhibition is made possible by the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation Fund.
Read a Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History essay, "Cosmic Buddhas in the Himalayas," by Curator Kurt Behrendt.
"Cosmic Buddhas and the Directional Pure Lands" (October 4, 2017)
"Emanations of the Divine: The Buddhist Pantheon of the Himalayas" (October 11, 2017)
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Panel from a Buddhist ritual crown depicting Vairochana (detail), late 13th–early 14th century. Central Tibet. Distemper on wood, 11 3/4 x 5 1/8 in. (29.8 x 13 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Vincent Astor Foundation Gift, 1997 (1997.152)