Buddism in its early inception in India, was not particularly visually represented as much as it was practiced or taught. As it spread, the use of sculpture and idols, as well as art in various forms became central to its expression, especially in Tibet. Buddism is ultimately about death, birth, and what we do in the world of the living. Key symbols like the wheel, which is said to have been part of the origins of Buddhism, are seen throughout the art forms. The wheel is complex, relating to death, which is often depicted in artwork along with a demonic style figure called Yama. This shows our lives are ruled by core principles like impermanence, suffering, rebirth, and passion. All of these elements can help us grow. There are “realms or levels” and 6 worlds depicted in the wheel. The Bhavachakra or wheel is often found on textiles and outside temples. All of Buddha’s teachings are symbolically illustrated so that one can ultimately follow a path to liberation from the earthly elements that bind us, these teachings unite all creatures not just humans, to an ultimate possible Nirvana. To try to explain all of Buddhism here is an impossibility, and most certainly a book, course, and lifetime is needed to grasp it entirely. So, for those interested in learning more about the history of Buddhism and Tibetan practices, I am including a list of suggested readings in this post.
Sculpture and Jewelry:
In terms of adornment and symbolism, the Tibetan sculptures are rich. I want to focus on the jewelry worn in the sculptures in an attempt to understand the relationship between religion, cultures, and adornment. What can we learn? Well, to start I went to see an exhibit on Tibetan Buddhism, textiles, and sculpture at the Rubin museum of art in New York. These objects were once used in a spiritual context and the deities they represent are invoked, see this Christies article for more. I toured some exhibits and permanent installations, as their focus is on Himalayan examples. What did I see?
Interestingly enough the snake which I so love in the form of jewelry, has the meaning of one of the three fires which keep us from enlightenment in life (greed, ignorance, and hatred). They hold fast to each other in a circle. This can be seen in the Dharma wheel (a visual representation of Buddha’s core teachings). These obstacles prevent a good rebirth. Depending on what kind of level you are reborn into, the animal or human etc reflects the level of suffering one may endure. In the wheel, even gods can die and exist on a lower level than those who escaped this cycle. Thus, with so many levels and beings trying to work their way out, it is believed that those on the animal realm should be treated considerately by humans.
The Dharma Wheel and Jewelry:
The statues depict the second Buddha, Buddha, and forms that have escaped the cycles of the wheel or life and death. Many statues sit on a lotus flower in these pieces, which symbolizes having grown above the attachments of life. I think we can deduce that the earrings and hats have a strong symbolic significance for the figures as they repeat throughout. Notably, these Dharma wheel style earrings are very interesting as they are found in quite a few examples at the Rubin. There are eight raised circular areas in this earring’s overall circle, with one central stone. Possibly, a reference to the eight spokes or paths coming from the center.
However, in the piece below the earring features 6 turquoise stones. These could symbolize 6 realms on that wheel. Again, the center of the wheel being the circle in which we find the 3 poisons or fires. The wheel is believed to have been designed by Buddha, so its symbols are important additions to such statues.
The Monster: While there is the death symbol, as described here below-there are deities that set up obstacles, but also protect tantric traditions.
This has been a fruitful exercise in the exploration of how jewelry is central to social cues, religions, genders, and power. The fact that jewelry was so intricately done and included in these relics indicates the importance of their role in Tibet. They took the time to not only include them, but to set stones like turquoise inside the examples. Turquoise in Tibet is a stone which relates to the soul, symbolizes a higher status, is worn by brides, used in amulets ( some of the earrings and such above have an appearance similar to Tibetan amulets), and is related to prosperity and wellness.
The Rubin Museum in New York city houses some amazing examples and revolving exhibits. Their bookstore is also very interesting! I hope to continue to explore the anthropology of jewelry again soon.
Awakening from the Daydream. David Nichtern.
Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind. Suzuki Roshi
The Art of Happiness. The Dalai Lama
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Sogyal Rinpoche.
The Teachings of Buddha. Jack Kornfield.
Tibetan Religious Art Book. Antoinette K. Gordon.
Buddist Symbols in Tibetan Culture: An Investigation of the Nine Best-Known Groups of Symbols. Dagyab Rinpoche.
The Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its History and Meaning. Denise Patry Leidy.
Ulrich von Schroeder’s complete set: Indo-Tibetan Bronzes.