“Step Away From The Chaos” And Into The Rubin’s New Tibetan Buddhism Exhibit

The Rubin Museum’s new exhibition on Tibetan Buddhism, called Awaken, is made up of 37 artworks from the 7th and 21st centuries: stone, wood, and metal sculptures, traditional Tibetan hanging scroll paintings, illuminated manuscripts and contemporary pieces by artist Tsherin Sherpa. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the path to enlightenment, and how to travel on it.

Your invitation is there in the opening sentence of the show’s description: “Unplug, step away from the chaos, and embark on a journey of self-knowledge and transformation.”

installation view

arrow Photo by David De Armas, Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

The exhibition was originally conceived by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 2019, but moved to New York this month, where it will remain until next January. The Rubin has bolstered the show with works from its collection and from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. It has also provided descriptions of the philosophical concepts behind the art. And the museum has created a 10-part podcast on mindfulness meditation to accompany the artwork.

Elena Pakhoutova, senior curator of Himalayan art at The Rubin, spoke to Gothamist about Tibetan Buddhism’s understanding of enlightenment, and how best to seek it.

installation view

arrow Photo by David De Armas, Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

Is this show in some way a response to the particular hardships of the pandemic, such as isolation and anxiety?

Everyone has been through these things lately — the overwhelming chaos of the uncertainty of our existence, along with the fragmented kind of lifestyle that comes with being connected mostly digitally and not really in person. It’s hard to make sense of what’s going on and to see the bigger picture: that we’re all in this together, and that the pandemic might even be giving us the chance to face reality with a new perspective.

What is that new perspective?

It’s realizing that everything is interconnected, which gives us a new way of relating to everything around us — and not just the world but ourselves. This is the beginning of moving towards an awakened state of mind, which is talked about in Buddhism.

How does the artwork in this exhibition express the Buddhist idea of enlightenment?

Buddha means awakened. The Buddha meditated under the Bodhi tree and would not move until he realized the true nature of reality. Why do we suffer? Is there a way out of this cycle of constant birth, death and rebirth? He described what he saw in teachings to his students, which became the Buddhist scriptures. A lot of Tibetan Buddhist art represents those complex ideas and explains the practice of enlightenment.

sculpture Vajrabhairava; Sino-Tibetan; 15th century or later

Vajrabhairava (Sino-Tibetan; 15th century or later) Photo by David De Armas, Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

What’s an artwork that visitors will see?

They will see the sculpture of the Buddha in a meditative posture under the tree while he is touching the ground with his hand. This is important. Even though it looks like only a static stone sculpture, it is actually a re-creation of the moment just before the Buddha’s enlightenment. After he had faced his fears and inner doubts and overcame them, he touched the Earth to call the Earth Goddess to witness his moment of awakening.

How did the Earth Earth Goddess reply?

Well, according to the story, she didn’t reply.

Why not?

Because she’s the Earth Goddess. But the whole world shook and all of the gods of India realized what had happened and they came and asked the Buddha to transmit this wisdom to them.

Tsherin Sherpa painting (American, b. 1968, Nepal)

Tsherin Sherpa (American, b. 1968, Nepal) Photo by David De Armas, Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

New York City has some of the busiest, most frantic people in the world. Are they especially in need of Buddhist wisdom?

I think so and, I mean, according to our visitors, they feel that this is a very moving exhibition. The Rubin is a special place where you can just come and unplug for a while and then go back and face the reality of your hectic life again with a broader perspective. You can face it with more energy and more focus and even more awareness.

Awaken runs through January 3rd, 2022. The Rubin Museum is located at 150 W 17th Street in Manhattan.