Woman’s garment (kushuthara)

The kira is the national costume for the women of Bhutan. This kira, called a kushuthara (white ground with geometric motifs), came from north central Bhutan. It is a rectuangular piece of cloth with horizontal sripes, consisting of three loom lengths woven on a backstrap loom and joined together. Worn wrapped around the body over a blouse, it is attached with silver clasps at the shoulders and tied with a belt at the waist.

The Kingdom of Bhutan lies in the eastern Himalayas, between Tibet and India. It is a country famous for its art. While Bhutanese painting and sculpture rely heavily on Tibetan art as a model, the textile art is indigenous, and it is the foremost artistic expression of Bhutan. Most Bhutanese wear homespun cloth, colorful creations in cotton, wool, and silk, with a predominatly stiped pattern. The stripes run vertically on men’s clothing and horizontally on women’s. Textiles are woven on backstrap looms and floor looms. Patterns vary from valley to valley and from household to household, resulting in a rich repertoire of textile design.

The Buddhist teacher Padmasambhava as Guru Drakpochey

Padmasambhava, the “Precious Teacher” (Guru Rinpochey) who transmitted Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet in the ninth century, sits at the top left of this thangka. Guru Drakpochey, the Great Fierce One at the center of this painting, is a visionary form adopted by Padmasambhava to overcome obstacles to meditative progress. Opposite Padmasambhava sits Pema Lingpa, a lama from Bhutan who rediscovered the Drakpochey visualization in the 16th century.

On the back of this thangka a golden inscription praises a text called Lotus Skull Rosary. This is the precise text from which the Guru Drakpochey visualization derives, and its composition is attributed to Padmasambhava. But the Lotus Skull Rosary did not appear in public until the fifteenth century, when it was “discovered” by the lama at the top right of the thangka, Pema Lingpa. According to the story, Pema Lingpa awoke from a prophetic dream to meet an old monk who offered him a scroll. On it, he found the cryptic letters called khandro. Merely seeing these letters allowed Pema Lingpa to find and decode a text hidden five hundred years before by Padmasambhava. Texts hidden and discovered in this manner are called “treasure” (terma).

The bodhisattva Vajrasattva

The Buddhist deity Vajrasattva sits cross-legged on a double-lotus throne. He holds a stylized thunderbolt (vajra) to his heart and a ritual bell (ghanta) at waist level. Respectively, these two objects symbolize compassion and wisdom, the dual components of enlightenment. In Esoteric Buddhist meditation, practitioners often visualize themselves as Vajrasattva, literally the “thunderbolt being.” The dynamically taught figure, elegantly executed limbs, and elaborate ornamentation show the influence of the Pala art style, which came to Tibet from eastern India in the eleventh century.

Temple hanging

In China, as elsewhere, the lotus (hehua or lianhua) is associated with Buddhism. Flowering in the summer months, the lotus is a symbol of purity because it emerges from the muddy soil unstained. Five of the six long pendants of this hanging are embroidered with jars from which stylized versions of lotus flowers spring forth.

During the reign of the Yongle emperor (1403–1424), many Buddhist objects were made for the emperor’s Buddhist practice or as gifts for the high lamas of Tibet. This hanging was probably part of the traffic of luxury goods that passed over the borders of China and Tibet at this time. Such hangings were used in temples during Buddhist rituals and special ceremonies.

Imperial court overvest

The shape of this sumptuously embroidered vest continued the imperial fashion of the earlier Yuan dynasty, but the decoration is typical of the Wanli reign. Two dragons, rising from rocks and waves strewn with jewels and coral branches, ascend a sky filled with wish-granting clouds. Biting the flaming pearls between their teeth, the dragons clutch the clouds with their clawed paws. These dragons of the Wanli period are characterized by white horns and white spiky eyebrows and whiskers. Their rainbow-colored hair sweeps back beneath their horns. They have white spines and rainbow underbellies, and their snouts resemble the lingzhi fungus near their tails.

An embroidered inscription inside the lapel reads, “Made on the fifth day of the eleventh month, twenty-third year of the reign of the Wanli emperor [equivalent to December 5, 1595]. Length four feet, two liang [slightly more than two ounces] of silk floss [for padding].” This particular day was just two days before the fiftieth birthday (by Chinese count) of the most powerful woman of the period, the Empress Dowager Li, also known as Cisheng Huangtaihou, “Benevolent Blessed Empress Dowager.” She was the mother of the Wanli emperor. This elegant vest of superb workmanship was most probably made for the occasion of her fiftieth birthday.

The Cosmic Buddha Vairochana

This painting depicts the Buddha of the center, Vairochana. His name is translated as “The Radiant One,” and he is sometimes described as the “Sun Buddha.” Vairochana sits at the center and summit of the universe, where he is able to see all things. As a result, he is called “all-seeing” (sarva-vid).

Vairochana is not the only Buddha present in this painting. Notice how the area behind the shrine is made of minutely detailed Buddhas. These Buddhas appear in a pattern called a “pointed shrine” (kutagara). Each pointed arch in the shrine is made of one of the five color-coded Buddhas. Each sector of the mandala is thereby represented in this one painting, and the whole is present in its parts.

Such images, which can be described as “fractal,” present a similar pattern at multiple scales. They occur throughout art of the Lightning Vehicle. A stupa silhouette composed of consecration formulas appears on the reverse of this painting.

The Buddhist deity Trailokyavijaya (Gozanze Myo-o)

The main figure in this painting, Gozanze Myo-o (Sanskrit: Trailokyavijaya), is one of a special group of deities known as the Five Great Kings of Light. While ferocious in appearance, these kings use their powers of magical knowledge to protect believers and help them overcome obstacles to their spiritual development. Gozanze means “conqueror of the Three Worlds”; these worlds are thought to be full of craving and suffering. Here he is depicted trampling other deities associated with the Three Worlds. Showing influences from iconographic multi-headed, multi-armed forms of Hindu deities, this Gozanze has four faces (the one in back is not visible here), each with three eyes. The front face is said to signify fury, the right one anger, the left one disgust, and the back one heroism. Gozanze’s eight arms symbolize great power. His two middle hands make the gesture of anger; the three hands at his right hold a bell with thunderbolt (vajra), an arrow, and a sword; the three hands at his left carry a trident, a bow, and a lasso.

Morning glories (incense wrapper)

Decorated paper wrappers (kozutsumi) like this one held aromatic twigs for the incense ceremony (kodo), an aristocratic pastime that spread throughout Japanese society in the 1600s. Ogata Korin painted several like it, ingeneously adapting motifs from nature for this purpose. Here a decoration of morning glories was painted on gold foil affixed to silk. Elements of the Rinpa style include sensuous, curving forms, defined in ink and color rather than outline; use of the pooled ink technique known as tarashikomi;and rhythmic surface patterns.

As the creases indicate, the wrapper was folded into a square inward from the right, then left, up from the bottom and down from the top. Unfolding the wrapper, one would see a succession of perfect designs: glimmering gold rectangles with blossoms in rich mineral blue, leaves in green or black, and white buds. Scholars believe this example was an outer wrapper, once used to enclose several smaller incense packets.

Table screen depicting the Taoist deity Doumu and her entourage

It is believed that the Dipper Mother (Doumu) grants longevity, affluence, and protection to her worshipers. Following Daoist tradition, the clouds on the screen are in the shape of a wish-granting fungus of immortality. In this unusual image the Daoist goddess Doumu appears inside the sun disk in the guise of Marici, Buddhist goddess of the dawn. She is three headed, with her left head that of a boar. Holding aloft sun and moon disks, bow and arrows, and bell and vase, she rides on a chariot of seven boars (representing the seven stars of the Big Dipper) among the clouds. She is flanked by two kings-warriors brandishing weapons. Below her is a small charioteer, pulling the ropes of her chariot, along with what are known as the Three Commanders: a warrior carrying a flag; Leigong, the bird-beaked god of thunder with his mallet and chisel; and Panguan the Judge, with his brush and record of human wrongdoings.

Plaque with scenes of the life of the Buddha

This small sculptured plaque suggests the complexity of cultural relationships among various parts of the Buddhist world in the period from 1000 to 1200. Plaques quite similar in arrangement, symbolism, size, and material have been found in northeastern India, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. Many have also been found in Burma, and some scholars have assumed that all (or most of) the plaques of this type were made there. However, some plaques have inscriptions on the back in Tibetan (including this one) or Chinese. The easiest way to explain this fact would be to say that the plaques were made in northeastern India for the many Buddhist pilgrims of various nationalities who came to worship at the holy sites of the Buddhist homeland.

In this plaque, the central seated Buddha image is surrounded by representations of the events of the seven weeks after the Buddha achieved enlightenment and of seven of the standard set of eight scenes of the Buddha’s life. Immediately on either side of the central Buddha are bodhisattvas, presumably Maitreya and Avalokiteshvara.