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Realm of Enlightenment: Masters and Teachers from the Land of Snows

March 3, 2010 - August 1, 2010

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Unidentified artist, Tibet: Bhaishajyaguru or Medicine Buddha, 15th century; gilt bronze; on long-term loan from a private collection.

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Unidentified artist, Western Tibet, Kashmir school: Buddha, 10th–11th century; gilt bronze; 15 in. high; on long-term loan from a private collection.

The Land of Snows is a traditional name for Tibet, the origin of a remarkable collection of Buddhist art on long-term loan to the Berkeley Art Museum. Featuring new acquisitions to this collection, Realm of Enlightenment explores the role of the teacher and master in the transmission of the Tibetan Buddhist canon.

The Buddha, his teachings, and his image inspire meditation on the principles of wisdom and compassion, central tenets of Tibetan Buddhism. Among teachers the most accessible is the historical Buddha Sakyamuni, represented in the current exhibition as a standing figure in gilt bronze, his right arm extended toward the devotee with palm out in a mudra (gesture) of “fear not.” More esoteric transcendental Buddhas, such as the gilt bronze seated Medicine Buddha from the fourteenth century, inspire confidence in the healing properties of Buddhist teachings.

Great masters have a significant role in transmitting and interpreting the Buddha’s teachings, and their likenesses are also highly revered. Among the most admired of these historical figures is the eleventh-century Indian teacher Atisha (982–1054), whose image can be seen in a sixteenth-century gilt sculpture in the exhibition. Atisha traveled to Tibet in 1042 and his teachings had a profound impact on the future development of Buddhism in the mountainous country. The gesture known as vitarkamudra, seen in this image, is that of teaching the dharma or Buddhist law. An inscription on the base of the sculpture indicates that it once contained important relics directly related to Atisha.

Perhaps best known to modern audiences as a strong advocate and leader of Tibetan Buddhism today is the Dalai Lama, whose title means “Oceanic Master.” The current Dalai Lama is the fourteenth in a succession that reaches back to the sixteenth century. Losang Gyatso, known as the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, secular and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, acquired the title in 1642; his predecessors were at that time retroactively designated Dalai Lama. A remarkable set of seven thangkas, painted in vibrant colors and gold on cloth, illustrates the history and lineage of these leaders up through the Great Fifth. The paintings were likely commissioned on the death of the Ninth Dalai Lama in 1815 to celebrate his heritage. They are painted in a style combining techniques of Central Tibet with those of the far eastern Chamdo region.

Images of teachers and masters inspire the devotee to strive toward higher levels of consciousness through greater understanding. It is particularly fitting to contemplate such representations in the context of the University, where teaching is a core value and teachers are often mentors for life.

Julia M. White
Senior Curator of Asian Art