On Exhibit: Tibetan Buddhist concept and artwork celebrated at the Tang

The exhibit tells the story of Padmasambhava, the Indian master who is often credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet
Artists unknown: Padmasambhava, 19th century, left, and Padmasambhava, 15th century, silver, gilt copper alloys
Artists unknown: Padmasambhava, 19th century, left, and Padmasambhava, 15th century, silver, gilt copper alloys

Intricate artifacts and artworks come together in “The Second Buddha: Master of Time,” at the Tang Teaching Museum. 

With its earthy-red walls, the dimly-lit exhibit space gives one the sense that what they’re viewing is sacred and set apart, that it’s meant to be viewed and discussed in hushed tones. 

Through ornate scenes painted scrolls, and sculptural works dating back to the 15th century, the exhibit tells the story of Padmasambhava, the Indian master who is often credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet. Padmasambhava is known as the guru or buddha of three times: the past, present and future. Legend says that the enlightened being could see into the future and could predict troubled times so to help future generations, he hid his teachings throughout Tibet for his disciples to find. 

The Teaching Museum has been especially focused on the exhibit this week with its Bardo Now program, which brings together artists like Laurie Anderson and scholars like Donald S. Lopez Jr.

“The idea of Bardo Now was to look at this concept of bardo, which the [in] most literal translation would be an intermediate state,” said Benjamin Bogin, an associate professor of Asian studies at Skidmore who organized Bardo Now. 

Bardo is a Tibetan Buddhist concept that refers typically to the space between death and rebirth, though it can also be applied to any uncertain spaces, like spaces between thoughts, said Bogin. 

Bardo Now kicked off on Tuesday with a conversation between Lopez, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography,” and George Saunders, a professor and author of “Lincoln in the Bardo.” 

Fittingly, Saunders joined the conversation in a “disembodied” state, via video chat, to discuss his novel, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2017. In the book, Saunders considers the bardo from an American standpoint. He writes about President Lincoln’s son, Willie, passing from life into this terrifying state known as the bardo in the midst of the Civil War. The scenes when Willie is in the bardo are filled with magical realism. Saunders grounds the novel in historical accounts, from eyewitnesses and diarists and with his own fictionalized historical accounts. 

“The reason I love this story is because it has a historical basis. Lincoln really did go into that crypt, it really was at that moment in the Civil War,” Saunders said.  

When Saunders first began working on the novel, he planned to read “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” and master it to make sure his story honored the text. He quickly realized that the book would take several lifetimes to master and that the best way to go forward with the novel would be to let the novel speak for itself. However, several of the ideas from the historical text influenced his work. 

“One notion that really stuck with me was ‘If you want to know what your death is going to be like look at right now’ and the second one, which was really intriguing and terrifying was this idea that the mind, this vast, powerful, neurotic mind is embodied while we’re here. But when you die, it’s like a wild horse has been tethered to a post all your life and when you die that rope gets cut,” Saunders said. Many of his characters that are in the bardo have an unhinged quality; they keep telling stories from their lives over and over again or act in ways that seem illogical. 

Lopez praised the novel, as well as Saunder’s efforts to infuse different buddhist notions in his work. 

“For me, one of the components of Buddhism that I think is absolutely true is that we can seek truth. We can seek it in our own minds and we can seek it in our actual experience. The beauty of that is if you just do that, one of the things I noticed early [on] is we can transform this mind with which we make the world,” Saunders said. 

Bardo Now continues tonight at 6 p.m. with a performance by Susie Ibarra and Tashi Dorji. As a composer and percussionist, Ibarra creates immersive music that explores rhythm,

“The Second Buddha,” is presented by the Rubin Museum of Art and the Tang Teaching Museum, will be on view until May 19. For more information visit tang.skidmore.edu.

Categories: Art, Entertainment

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