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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Exhibition: Paradise on Earth at the Rubin Museum

June 22, 2008

The New York Sun (USA)
June 19, 2008

Threats of punishment and promises of reward inspire a lot of
spiritual quests. Unless you are a true masochist, pessimist, or
martyr, however, imagining enlightenment, resurrection, and
redemption is probably preferable to thoughts of suffering and
damnation. Most of us prefer a massage to a hair shirt; hope to fear;
picturing walking into the light, rather than into the fire. That is
probably why, although most cultures have visions of heaven, fewer
have visions of hell. It is blissful paradise — the protective,
walled garden, or womb, of Eden, the beautiful pleasure grounds of
heaven — that stirs most fantasies of an afterlife.

Paradise, then, is stunning, comforting, and otherworldly. So, too,
is the Rubin Museum's "Buddha in Paradise," a show comprising some 40
works, from the 13th to the early 20th century, of painting,
sculpture, and ritual texts from the RMA's rich permanent collection.
The traveling exhibition, the third and final in a wonderful series,
curated by Glenn Mullin, that began with "The Female Buddhas: Women
of Enlightenment in Tibetan Mysticism" and "The Flying Mystics of
Tibetan Buddhism," explores the Tibetan Buddhist concepts of
paradise, or the different "Pure Lands" of "buddhafield" or
"buddahworld," which are often associated with particular Buddhas or

In Buddhist thinking, there are two levels of reality: "conventional
reality," the fixed and delusional world perceived by ordinary
beings; and "ultimate reality," the actual, perpetually changing
world perceived by enlightened beings. "Pure Lands," or purified
realms of paradise, are not final resting grounds for the chosen.
Death, like birth and rebirth, is merely a cog in the Wheel of
Becoming. And enlightenment, or nirvana, is not something rewarded
but, rather, liberation to be worked for and attained. Ordinary
beings may be born within one of the six realms of existence, which
are bound within the endless, karmic cycle of death and rebirth
(samsara). After death, one might be reborn as a pig in slop, a demon
in hell, or even as a god in paradise, all of which, however, are
impermanent worldly existences marked by suffering, and bound within samsara.

The Buddhist goal is to advance, ascend, and become awakened -- to
free oneself ultimately from the karmic wheel — to reach one of the
"Pure Lands." The Pure Lands are often depicted in the show as
cloudlike islands, concentric rings of light, or thrones of fire.
Each island, mounted by a single meditating Buddha or bodhisattva, is
the sun at the center of the picture's vast universe, the source of a
mandala, or it is a dreamlike vision floating high in the sky.

Mr. Mullin also reminds us that Pure Lands, unlike the ordinary,
worldly realms, are free from "delusion and suffering." Pure Lands
are "neither final destinations nor the equivalents of
'enlightenment.' Rather, they are understood as blissful,
user-friendly way stations between worldly existence and liberation,
such that beings reborn in them have the possibility of quickly
reaching enlightenment." He goes on to tell us that, although
"Buddhists often pray for rebirth into a Pure Land ... the Buddha
also preached that Pure Land paradises are in fact all around us."

The dual nature of this fact is emphasized throughout "Buddha in
Paradise," in which as much beauty and attention are lavished on the
pleasures of the world of suffering, sentient beings as on the realms
(reserved for Buddhas and bodhisattvas) of blissful enlightenment.
This is especially true of a section of the exhibition devoted to
"Tantric Pure Lands," in which, as the wall label states, "the
tantras, like the tantric practices and tantric Pure Lands
themselves, make transformative use of what the sutras exclude: fear,
desire, and anger." "Reach for enlightenment — for freedom and
bliss," the pictures seem to instruct us; but, while reaching, "take
time to smell the blissful roses."

The late 19th-century Tibetan painting, "The Wheel of Becoming," in
dreamy creams, greens, pinks, and blues, is among a grouping of
pictures that illustrate the cycle of birth, death and, depending on
one's actions, in life, the numerous possibilities for rebirth. In
it, Yama, the Lord of Death, resembling an upside-down turtle,
appears to float on his back in the sea. We see his exposed belly —
all existence, the Wheel of Becoming — which, divided like a game
board, looks like a map of our past, present, and future. Gnawing on
the Wheel like a dog with a bone, he forever devours himself and living beings.

Illustrated on the Wheel are the six realms of existence (hells,
ghost, animal, human, titan, and god realms), our worldly pleasures
and pains, our dreams, mirages, and illusions, as well as our root
delusions and mental afflictions (attachment, ignorance, and
aversion, symbolized, respectively, as a rooster, a pig, and a
snake). But Buddha, to inspire us toward transformation, points to a
heavenly Pure Land, encouraging us to transcend our worldly ways.

Amid the variegated diffusion of impossibly infinitesimal forms in
these pictures, Buddha is always the calm at the center of the
beautiful storm. When the picture spreads like a wild garden, Buddha
is a central fountain, temple, or source of light. When the world
surrounding the Pure Land is three-dimensional and volumetric
(obviously an unenlightened delusion), Buddha is flat, firm,
weightless, and formless. When the world surrounding the Pure Land is
flat, Buddha, suddenly pregnant with form, reaches forward, becoming
volume. In the sculptures, as in the 18th-century gilt copper "Buddha
Shakyamuni," the standing Buddha, a solid, gleaming, golden form,
evokes nearly every element (save that of human): His body, seemingly
weightless and levitating, shines like the sun. Ripples of air or
water flutter across his body, and his limbs and robes appear to rise
and to flicker like fire.

In "Buddha in Paradise," Buddha, like a shape-shifter, satisfies
whatever is required of Buddha; and the "Pure Land" — a unique vision
within each of us — satisfies whatever is required of paradise. At
the RMA, that vision — call it nirvana; call it paradise on Earth —
awakened in the form of art, is available to us in the here and now.

Until August 18 (150 W. 17th St. at Seventh Avenue, 212-620-5000).
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