A Rare Look at the Changing Face of the Buddha
by Jennifer Kim
As a young boy in the middle of last century, Nik Douglas, walked into the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and rested his eyes on a sculpture that had been meticulously carved nearly two millennia ago into the face of the Buddha. It evoked a profound sense of awe. This wonderment grew over time and manifested as sojourns to India and Pakistan – as detailed studies of Buddhist scripture and long visits with the Karmapa – as studies of tantra and the writing of a best-selling book, “Sexual Secrets”. He also rode the wave of the social revolution of the 60’s and helped bring the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to millions of people.
All the while, Nik continued the tradition of his forebearers – the Dukes of Buckingham – by collecting precious artifacts. His fascination with the Buddha image directed the nature of his quest for more than 40 years. He came upon Buddha images carved in stone and cast in bronze and other materials. Many were from the ancient civilizations around Uddiyana and Gandhara – believed by some to be the birthplace of the Buddha image itself.
Somehow, these artifacts survived the changing fates of empires over the centuries. Many works of Buddhist art were systematically destroyed or neglected in the hands of rulers who did not see the world the same way as those who had originally commissioned and designed their creation. Yet with near-compulsion over many years, Nik managed to procure hundreds of these early Buddha images from the 2nd to 6th century.
In addition to Gandharan statues, he secured rare coins of the Buddha, early stupas and reliquaries in precious material such as rock crystal, gold and bronze, and statues created along the Silk Road as Buddhism migrated out of Uddiyana. These silent images speak volumes about our human civilization – how different cultures adapted and rendered the Buddha image, and how effigies of the
enlightened mind transformed over time.
Now this massive, rare and private collection is shown to the public for the first time ever at Tibet House’s gallery in New York in an exhibition called “Out of Uddiyana”. As the collection’s final resting place is being determined – perhaps behind the private doors of wealthy collectors or – more ideally within a museum for the world to behold, the public is welcome to view these rare and illuminating works of art until November 16.
For the seasoned collector, this exhibition is groundbreaking. For example, one would have to travel to the museums of Tokyo, San Francisco, Switzerland and London to glimpse just a few of the rare bronze Gandharan Buddha statues discovered to date. In this exhibition, there are 15 such statues. There is also a poignant stone sculpture of an emaciated Buddha – demonstrating the austerities and determination of Siddhartha’s quest for full enlightenment.
Yet this exhibition also speaks to a wide spectrum of people – many of whom have never heard of Gandhara nor would even consider themselves Buddhist. On one level, the exhibition exudes sublime beauty. One will find the Buddha’s hair carved in stone into delicate, cascading waves. The rock crystal stupas and golden jewelry demonstrate the refined work of artisans.
Yet behind the beautiful art lies a deeper insight into the portrayal of the Buddha. While many people are used to seeing the Buddha as a being from Asia with monastic robes, here the Buddha is unquestionably Greek, donning a himation (or a toga) and taking on the role of a philosopher-teacher. While the Indo-Greeks of that era had gods such as Apollo within their belief systems, they portrayed the Buddha as a human teacher – thus carrying on the Buddhist tradition of relying on the teachings instead of the powers of an external being to achieve liberation from suffering.
The careful observer will also notice an evolution of the Buddha image within this exhibition. While earlier statues portray the Buddha with eyes wide open and a fully-frontal pose, later ones portray him with heavy eyelids, indicating a more meditative and introspective stance. The ancient coins imprinted with the Buddha image demonstrate how rulers adopted Buddhism and contributed to the spread of its teachings across the Asian Continent. The Silk Road Buddhas are once again different – in this case with Chinese features, as Buddhism spread out of Uddiyana.
In stark contrast to the serene stone sculptures and delicate ancient bronzes covered with verdigris, huge bronze sculptures of sexual beings – some with multiple heads, arms and implements – serve as an annex to the “Out of Uddiyana” exhibition. These impressive castings from Tibet, Sino-Tibet and Mongolia are from the 17th to 20th centuries, representing the highest bliss achievable through tantric initiation and the channeling of powerful energies such as sexuality towards the goal of enlightenment.
They reflect the legacy of Padmasambhava (often referred to as the Second Buddha), who was born in Uddiyana. These bronzes derive from the “Tantrik Order in America”, founded in the early 1900’s and established in upstate New York. The founder’s wife was a pioneer of Hatha Yoga instruction in America, against the conservative current that attempted to relegate Hatha Yoga into a cultish practice of sexual deviance.
In conjunction with the earlier-period art, the tantric bronzes once again demonstrate the evolution of the Buddha image to fit the aesthetics, ideals and revelations of different cultures and time periods. In this sense, the “Out of Uddiyana” exhibition itself serves as a Buddhist teaching – demonstrating that everything manifests as a dependent arising, completely lacking inherent existence – with each person taking central stage in the creation of our collective world.
With such constant evolution of the Buddha image, the Buddha is not only a philosopher-teacher but the ultimate transcendental chameleon as well.
You can read more about this exhibition, and Tibet House in New York, at their website.