Golden wonder

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 56

108 Bronze Portrait Sculptures of Tibetan Buddhist Lineage Masters 11TH-18TH CENTURIES To Be Offered For Sale By Sealed Bid Auction

Golden wonder

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 56

The fabulous intricacy of Tibetan Buddhism – with its many deities and gurus – is well known in the West. Edward Wilkinson shows there is personality and artistry too

Tibet has a rich and complex artistic heritage that spans 14 centuries, but images of the Buddha and the country's multitude of deities have only been widely known since the late 1950s. Even now, paintings and sculpture of Tibetan historical figures are just beginning to be fully appreciated, with connoisseurs starting to recognize and admire the detailing, expressiveness and presence of particular sculptures. These qualities are richly apparent in this private collection of 108 Tibetan portraits, offered at Bonhams Hong Kong and on show to the public from 30 September to 12 October.

A Tibetan lama or guru is considered to be one and the same as a Buddha, so the practice of taking refuge with a guru (guruyoga) is intended to connect the disciple directly with the Buddha (the guru), his teachings (dharma) and the community (sangha). This tradition of approaching the Buddha through the veneration of historical masters and teachers from particular lineages is unique to Tibet. Depicting the 16 disciples of the Buddha (arhats) is well known in the Indian, Nepalese and Chinese traditions – with examples dating to the late 8th or early 9th century AD – but it was Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet that expanded reverence for enlightened mortals to this whole new level.

In Tibet, when engaging in visualization practices and meditation, an image of the Buddha or deity is used to help the practitioner emulate and embody the principles of enlightened beings. Similarly, the portrait of a guru inspires those attempting to discipline the mind and serves as a reminder of particular teachings. These teachings are passed down from guru to student, and this transmission establishes lineage within a tradition. The image of the lama is thus a tangible link to this transmission of knowledge and the root deities who embody such teachings. The guru is living proof that a human being can become enlightened.

Images of a master might be created in his lifetime, shortly after his death, or long after his death. Indeed, portraits made during a guru's lifetime are often inscribed with the epithet ngadra-ma ('just like me'). Unlike idealized representations of the Buddha and deities, these portraits show idiosyncratic features and even the master's demeanor. Many have stern expressions and their hands posed dramatically, as if in the act of teaching. Others wear broad smiles. Still others hold favored ritual objects, such as skull bowls or long staffs (khatvanga). There are many tales of portrait sculptures intended as a substitute for an absent lama, either faraway or now deceased, consoling followers or relatives, speaking to a universal human need for objects that connect us with those we hold dear who cannot be with us.

Some of the most engaging and distinctive portraits are of mahasiddhas, mavericks of the Buddhist Tantric tradition. Hailing from 7th to 10th century India, many of the 84 mahasiddhas were gurus of Tibet's early Buddhist masters. They would perform miracles, such as taking flight or stopping the sun in the sky, as well as such extreme practices as eating fish entrails raw. What marks out their portraits is that they are rarely shown in conventional monastic robes and often have long hair, when monks and lamas typically shave their heads. The sources for their features are not known and it seems likely the artists who created the images were granted more license to exaggerate and embellish when depicting mahasiddhas than they were with the more codified treatment of lamas.

Cast, using the lost-wax method, in a copper alloy that is fire-gilded and often inlaid with silver and copper to accentuate features, no two portraits are the same. Along with inscriptions, no matter how vague, this allows us to identify important historical figures. But the most successful portraits are charismatic and magnetic – just like the masters who inspired them.

Edward Wilkinson is Executive Director of Bonhams Asia.

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