“Truly one of the most blissful smiles I’ve ever seen in any artwork, Tibetan or otherwise.” Visit Kagyu Lineage Masters at the Rubin Museum

Milarepa, Tibet; 15th-16th century, Silver with gilt bronze base.
Long-term loan from the Nyingjei Lam Collection (HAR 68492)

Currently on view and remaining until February 11, 2013, is an extraordinary collection of Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan sculptures at the Rubin Museum in New York. The private collection, known as Nyingjei Lam (“path of compassion”), is on long-term loan to the Rubin Museum and exhibited together for the first time in the United States. The exhibition, called “Casting the Divine,” gives us a rare opportunity to stand in the presence of Kagyu lineage masters, including Marpa, Milarepa, and the Karmapas Rangjung Dorje, Karma Pakshi, Chodrak Gyatso, and Mikyo Dorje. As Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche reminds us each time he confers the vow of refuge, every image of the Buddha (and by extension, of the holders of our lineage) should be treated with respect because—when properly filled and consecrated—these works embody the actual essence of enlightened holy beings. So Kagyu practitioners will gain many blessings by visiting this show, and art lovers will delight in the exceptional quality and antiquity of these precious works.

How the owner of this major collection came into the possession of so many fine works is a mystery.  He is neither named nor extensively profiled in the exhibition literature; I’ve only been able to find out that he’s not a Buddhist practitioner, but an Irish-American Catholic who spent most of his life in Hong Kong building schools for Chinese students. He does state in an unsigned preface to an earlier exhibition publication that he was drawn to Tibetan Buddhism and its art by “the compassionate smiles that radiated from the faces of many of the statues of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, saints and lamas that I saw.”

This attribute enlivens the face of Milarepa, a gilt silver masterpiece of the 15th century that many visitors have told me is their favorite in the show. He sits in his canonical posture on an antelope skin, with right hand to his ear and left hand cradling a scull cup. A raised knee embodies the figure’s implicit spiritual energy. The sculptor exquisitely incised the folds of the yogin’s robes, and his meditation belt gleams in gold as it crosses his chest. He sports two different earrings on his long earlobes, and the tight curls of his hair recall typical representations of Shakyamuni Buddha.  But his facial expression is all his own: elegant, arching eyebrows and lids; serene yet lively eyes, perfectly formed nose, and—best of all—a winning smile that suggests rapturous singing.  It is truly one of the most blissful smiles I’ve ever seen in any artwork, Tibetan or otherwise.  This is perhaps what most attracts viewers to this special sculpture. Not only does it convey a potent sense of ecstasy, but also reminds us of the many beautiful dohas that spontaneously arose once Milarepa attained enlightenment. One of its blessings is to remind us of the specific gifts that this master bestowed on us as followers of his lineage.

And the Milarepa work is only one object in a hundred.  Hierarchs and lamas of other lineages appear; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas abound; and yidam deities remind us at every turn of Tibetan Buddhist art’s richness.  The fifth floor of the Rubin—where these works are displayed–is currently a very rare thing in the museum world: an abode of compassion.

— Karen Lucic


2 thoughts on ““Truly one of the most blissful smiles I’ve ever seen in any artwork, Tibetan or otherwise.” Visit Kagyu Lineage Masters at the Rubin Museum

  1. Darn! I was just in NYC and did not know about this display. Now I will have to go back.
    Oh well, only a 10 hour drive from Toronto.

  2. Yes it is totally amazing. There is an unbelievable wonderful little statue of Thangtong Gyalpo, possibly made by him himself for his long life. While you are in NYC be sure to stop by the Met to see the 10th Karmapa’s little ivory carving of Avalokiteshvara, too!

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