Embodying Compassion in Buddhist Art

A monumental banner of the Four-Armed Chenrezig welcomes visitors to the Loeb Art Center, Vassar College.
A monumental banner of the Four-Armed Chenrezig welcomes visitors to the Loeb Art Center, Vassar College.

By Karen Lucic

For the last five years, I have been on a journey following in the footsteps of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, better known to us as Chenrezig. The journey’s destination was “Embodying Compassion in Buddhist Art: Image, Pilgrimage, Practice,” an exhibition held this spring at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY.

Having taught at Vassar for almost three decades, I organized this exhibition as the culmination of my academic career. It was the first show in an American museum to survey representations of Avalokiteshvara from India, the Himalayas, China, and Japan.

An 11th-century Nepalese representation of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, on loan from the Asia Society, New York, makes a beneficent gesture as visitors enter the first gallery of the exhibition.
An 11th-century Nepalese representation of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, on loan from the Asia Society, New York, makes a beneficent gesture as visitors enter the first gallery of the exhibition.

On the outer level, I sought to introduce American audiences to this Bodhisattva’s spiritual significance and his many manifestations. On an inner level, I endeavored to follow Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s advice and use the art as a way to “plant seeds” of compassion in the minds of visitors—particularly in those who knew little about Buddhism and its transformative potential.

An early Karmapa, displaying his Black Hat, floats above the Four-Armed Chenrezig in this 14th century Tibetan thangka from the Rubin Museum of Art, New York. Below, lay practitioners make offerings to their yidam.
An early Karmapa, displaying his Black Hat, floats above the Four-Armed Chenrezig in this 14th century Tibetan thangka from the Rubin Museum of Art, New York. Below, lay practitioners make offerings to their yidam.

Since I have no formal training in Asian art, I was an unlikely pilgrim on this particular path, and the journey brought many unexpected challenges and rewards.

A curator without portfolio, I had to raise $100,000 to meet expenses, contact lenders, write an exhibition publication, plan a website, a smartphone app, programming, and publicity, and take on many other daunting responsibilities.

The project triggered overwhelming personal and professional insecurities. At certain crucial junctures, I cried out to my husband Doug, “I can’t do this!”

I was right, of course. The small, limited, illusory entity I call “me” could never have done it.

With this project, I learned that no one person accomplishes anything by herself, particularly something involving a vast interdependent network of causes and conditions. Chenrezig taught me that I could sometimes drop the focus on my own afflicted self-identity. Instead, I shifted my mental energy to the beneficial effect the project would have on others and posted a motto above my computer: “Compassion is my pole star!”

In the second gallery, rare copies of the Prajnaparamita, Lotus, and Heart Sutras emphasize Avalokiteshvara’s presence in Buddhist scriptures, while a mala, mandala, prayer wheel, and shrine demonstrate the various forms of ritual practice associated with the Bodhisattva.
In the second gallery, rare copies of the Prajnaparamita, Lotus, and Heart Sutras emphasize Avalokiteshvara’s presence in Buddhist scriptures, while a mala, mandala, prayer wheel, and shrine demonstrate the various forms of ritual practice associated with the Bodhisattva.

Every morning, I made the aspiration that my work would benefit beings. From that point on, the obstructions gradually gave way and my tasks got accomplished. As we got closer and closer to the opening day, the project took on a dream-like quality, and my involvement in it began to seem less and less concrete. I realized that this was an exhibition that simply wanted to be. I merely heard its call. I saw the countless individuals involved in its manifestation as bathed in Chenrezig’s blessings.

“Avalokiteshvara Today,” a complementary exhibition in the Vassar College Art Library, displayed contemporary art, texts, and ritual objects that related to the works in the Loeb Art Center.
“Avalokiteshvara Today,” a complementary exhibition in the Vassar College Art Library, displayed contemporary art, texts, and ritual objects that related to the works in the Loeb Art Center.
Seated Amitabha rests in the crown of this elegant gilt copper Nepalese sculpture; a Tibetan thangka representing Amitabha in Sukhavati appears on the wall behind.
Seated Amitabha rests in the crown of this elegant gilt copper Nepalese sculpture; a Tibetan thangka representing Amitabha in Sukhavati appears on the wall behind.

When “Embodying Compassion” opened on April 23, 2015, I watched with delight as a wide range of viewers responded enthusiastically to the beautiful paintings, sculptures, and ritual objects in the show.

One visitor favorite was a magnificent Nepalese representation of the Bodhisattva standing in the center of the first gallery. With a serene, meditative expression, the sculpture gracefully offered the Dharma to those before him. I loved to tell visitors that this work demonstrates how Chenrezig avoids “caregiver burnout” through a miraculous balance of outwardly directed compassion based on inwardly directed wisdom.

It was my constant hope that those previously unaware of the Bodhisattva’s significance would gaze at such a powerful image and recognize the source of compassion within themselves.

Members of Albany and Hartford KTCs, plus fellow travelers, come for Dharma Day in the galleries!
Members of Albany and Hartford KTCs, plus fellow travelers, come for Dharma Day in the galleries!
Lama Zopa clarifies a point about Avalokiteshvara’s significance in the galleries.
Lama Zopa clarifies a point about Avalokiteshvara’s significance in the galleries.

It was equally rewarding to walk through the exhibition with those who know Chenrezig well. Scores of sangha members and practitioners from KTD and other Dharma centers took advantage of this unique opportunity to view sublime artistic representations of Avalokiteshvara, gathered together for a brief—but significant—span of time.

Another KTD group visit, including David Kaczynski, Anne Hulett, and Kay Larson.
Another KTD group visit, including David Kaczynski, Anne Hulett, and Kay Larson.

In an amazing display of synchronicity, the exhibition opened the same week that His Holiness was in residence at KTD. Since the Karmapas are considered supreme embodiments of compassion, a sweet and auspicious mood prevailed over all the opening activities, including the week-long installation of a Chenrezig sand mandala in Vassar’s Main Building, constructed by lamas from the Drikung Kagyu lineage.

Chenrezig altar and completed sand mandala, Vassar College Main Building, done in conjunction with “Embodying Compassion in Buddhist Art.
Chenrezig altar and completed sand mandala, Vassar College Main Building, done in conjunction with “Embodying Compassion in Buddhist Art.”

Were it not for the help of many kind individuals—first and foremost the glorious teachers of the Kagyu lineage—the project never would have manifested. Ultimately, “Embodying Compassion in Buddhist Art” is an offering to these precious gurus.

Drikung lamas and mandala makers bless the exhibition on opening day. Left to right: Lama  Konchok Sonam Karushar, Vajra Master Hun Yeow Lye, and Khenpo Choephel.
Drikung lamas and mandala makers bless the exhibition on opening day. Left to right: Lama Konchok Sonam Karushar, Vajra Master Hun Yeow Lye, and Khenpo Choephel.
KTD members witnessed the dissolution of the sand mandala along with about 150 other members of the community. Here Doug Winblad, Shirley Wong and her husband Joe join the lamas, exhibition curator, and Vassar’s director of religious and spiritual life, Sam Speers, who sponsored the mandala.
KTD members witnessed the dissolution of the sand mandala along with about 150 other members of the community. Here Doug Winblad, Shirley Wong and her husband Joe join the lamas, exhibition curator, and Vassar’s director of religious and spiritual life, Sam Speers, who sponsored the mandala.

The exhibition galleries closed on June 28, 2015, but the show lives on at: http://pages.vassar.edu/embodyingcompassion. There you can find all the works in the exhibition, plus dozens of comparative images, interpretative texts, videos, audios, glossaries, and many other teaching tools, plus a free downloadable smartphone app.

May Chenrezig bless us all!

Karen Lucic

A quick field trip during the Nyungne teaching in May included Lamas Tsultrim, Tsultrim Yeshe, and Karma Lodro. Behind is a special form of Japanese mandala depicting an important pilgrimage site sacred to Kannon, as the Bodhisattva is known in Japan.
A quick field trip during the Nyungne teaching in May included Lamas Tsultrim, Tsultrim Yeshe, and Karma Lodro. Behind is a special form of Japanese mandala depicting an important pilgrimage site sacred to Kannon, as the Bodhisattva is known in Japan.

Karen Lucic (above right) took refuge in 2007, and since that time has had the great good fortune of studying with her guru Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche and many other resident and visiting lamas at KTD. She currently serves the KTD mandala by teaching Introduction to Meditation classes, and will join about 60 other students of Khenpo Rinpoche for the upcoming pilgrimage to Thrangu Monastery in China.

Advertisements