An illustrated treatise on Tibetan religious art that explores visual motifs—animals, flowers, geometric symbols, and much else—that convey precepts of Buddhist philosophy.
Huber and Glantz (The Golden Valley, 2016) spotlight artworks from the Senge Buddhist monasteries in Tibet’s Golden Valley, found on furniture, altar pieces, scripture boxes, prayer wheels, and other objects produced over the last 600 years. They present more than 625 images of these pieces, which feature intricate compositions of flowing lines and vibrant hues of red, blue, pink, green and orange. (Huber notes that he finds the paintings so bizarre and psychedelic that he fleetingly wonders, “could the artists be on drugs, possibly LSD?”) The book is therefore a visual feast, and the authors focus on interpreting this imagery in light of Buddhist precepts. They arrange the text with alphabetic entries on specific visual tropes, which include information on aesthetics, folkloric associations, and mystic, philosophical allusions. Thus, the entry on bael notes the real-world fruit’s aromatic pulp and effectiveness at relieving diarrhea, as well as its reputed ability to boost positive karma to bring one closer to ending samsara, the cycle of suffering and reincarnation; its use in fertility rituals; its canonical artistic representation in groups of three representing “the three jewels of Buddhism”; and its symbolization of “the goal of recognizing emptiness and dependency and the connection between cause and effect.”
Throughout, the authors’ investigation of symbols ranges from the mundane to the fanciful. Fish images imply happiness, they note, as well as fertility and the inexhaustible abundance of the Buddha’s energy. The lotus flower speaks of “the soul’s path from the mud of materialism to the purity of enlightenment.” A picture of a skull made into a cup filled with boiling human fat is no mere provocation, but symbolizes “the empowerment of the absolute truth of no self and the realization of the ‘illusory body’.” Their extensive discussions of these subjects effectively make the text a sort of primer on Buddhist doctrine, with substantial sections on the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Noble Path, and the Five Precepts. The authors recount vignettes from the Buddha’s life and parables, such as a tale of a tortoise that refused to leave his pond when it dried up (teaching the folly of attachment to worldly things). They reprint a lengthy Buddhist hymn and sprinkle representative mantras throughout. Overall, though, this book isn’t the most imaginative introduction to Buddhism’s esoteric precepts, due in part to the authors’ dry, catechistic tone, and they’re also rather vague about the “applications” of the lore they present, despite mentioning them in the book’s subtitle. Still, many people will discover uses for this book; novice meditators, for example, will find ideas to ponder and phrases to chant; designers of prayer flags (as well as death-metal band posters) will find resonant imagery; and general readers with an interest in Buddhism and art will find encyclopedic information on a significant tradition with much aesthetic appeal.
A richly presented, if didactic, survey of Buddhist thought.