If you find yourself in Ohio, this is the last week to take in “Tantra in Buddhist Art,” the Cleveland Museum of Art’s exhibit of fourteen centuries of ancient works depicting Buddhism’s most esoteric path.
With the popularization of Buddhist and Hindu practices in the West, few words have been as misunderstood and misused as “tantra.” It is often associated with (and marketed as) a kind of spiritualized sexuality, but that is far from its actual meaning. The Cleveland Museum curators aimed toward a proper understanding of tantra, showing how “[tantric art] was used to reach the Buddhist spiritual goal of enlightenment and bring an end to suffering in the world:
“Tantra refers to a system of esoteric techniques used for attaining enlightenment more quickly than can be accomplished within conventional social or religious structures. Tantric practices center on visualization in yogic meditation, repetition of codified syllables called mantras, the performance of rituals, and prolific use of diagrams and images.
“Tantric art and rituals are tools of accelerated methods of reaching enlightenment that require training and skill. They are based on the idea that visualization is a powerful way to control the mind. The use of weapons in tantric art does not subvert the pacifist teachings of the Buddha; they are used metaphorically to conquer psychological impediments. The sexual imagery of tantric art depicts personifications of Wisdom, the female, and Compassion, the male, whose union results in the bliss of the enlightened state.”
The twenty works in the museum’s brand-new Focus Gallery show some of the earliest tantric expressions, as well as tantra’s geographic reach, with works not just from the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau, but also from Cambodia, Indonesia, and Japan.
Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.