The Karmapa’s Art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York

A river of creativity, running through many lifetimes…

No, not the 17th, but that of the 10th Karmapa, Chöying Dorje, who lived from 1604–1674.  Because of copyright laws, we can’t show a picture of it in this blog, but click the link below, and you will find a wonderful image of His Holiness’s engaging sculpture, Seated Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion.

Carved of ivory and only 6 ¾ inches high, this compelling works sits in the middle of a case in a quiet corner of the Met’s Asian Wing, Gallery 253. The sculpture shows its age, with numerous cracks and a brownish patina in the surface, and with missing pieces in the figure’s hair and headdress. But given Tibet’s cataclysmic history, and especially in Chöying Dorje’s era, it is a miracle that it survives at all.

More curious is that a Tibetan object crafted in devotion to Chenrezig now resides in an American art museum, far from the private chamber or shrine room where it undoubtedly was once housed. Kagyupa practitioners and devotees of the Gyalwang Karmapas can only wonder at this transmigration from ancient Tibet to modern America–further evidence (as if we needed it) of interdependence and impermanence in the realm of appearances.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s teachings on The Lives of the Karmapas underscore the particularly difficult circumstances of Chöying Dorje’s incarnation.  Virtually kidnapped as a child and kept away from legitimate lineage holders, he witnessed as an adult the destruction of his encampment and the slaughter of his followers.  Thereafter he wandered in exile for most of the rest of his life.

At the same time, he was without any attachment to material things and would immediately give away the lavish offerings he received.  Many of the Karmapas—including the 17th—are renown for their artistic skill, but the 10th Karmapa was peerless, despite his ceaseless wandering.  Amidst numerous obstacles, he managed to make at least one painting or sculpture every day.

Against the backdrop of the artist’s dramatic biography, Chöying Dorje’s little sculpture is surprisingly endearing, even whimsical.  Avalokiteshvara sits on rocks instead of the usual lotus flower, indicating his association with the sea, and he also carries a water vessel in his left hand, which symbolizes—according to some sources–his vow to slake the emotional thirst and cleanse the karmic defilements of beings.

Most striking to me is his unusual, tear-drop shaped face with downward-slanting eyes, large nose, pudgy cheeks and full, smiling lips.  In this, he seems more like a jovial, benign uncle rather than the sixteen-year-old divine being described in our practice manuals.  Yet clearly he is divine, with a Bodhisattva’s elaborate ornaments, Amitabha on his crown, and the characteristic Krishnasara deerskin draped over his left shoulder.  All these features illustrate the inventive nature of Chöying Dorje’s artistry, a combination of accessibility and elevated subject matter intended to benefit beings.

As an art historian, I often encounter holy objects in museums. I once asked Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche how a practitioner should view such religious icons in a secular setting. He said that no matter the context, we can always venerate such art works as actual representations of the Buddha.  Therefore, it’s appropriate to prostrate, give offerings, confess, and supplicate in front of them, either in actuality or in the imagination. So the next time you are at the Met, visit Gallery 253 and experience Avalokiteshvara’s Pure Land. And don’t forget to bring a khata.

— Karen Lucic

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