DMA Insight

Tibetan Sculpture at the Dallas Museum of Art

Most of the ritual sculptures in the DMA collections are bronze or gilt bronze images created for veneration in monasteries or shrines. The development of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet led to distinctive ways that holy figures were represented. While the great bodhisattvas, including Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and Maitreya, are shown in compassionate and peaceful forms, several revered beings, very different in appearance, reflect Tantric ideas of enlightenment. These wrathful deities include Vajrabhairava, Palden Lhamo, Simhavaktra, and the dakini Vajravaraji. Sensuous female forms recalling Indian art, such as the female Green Tara, also are part of the pantheon [2005.28]. The mahasiddha sculpture represents an individual who has achieved enlightenment through extreme practices.

Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion, is the most beloved member of the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon. The DMA's Padmapani sculpture is a refined and moving example of a form of Avalokiteshvara [1980.45.FA]. His hand gesture bestows blessings. In his crown, radiant with supernatural flames, is the figure of Amitabha. This motif may be seen in Southeast Asian images of Avalokiteshvara as well. Looking back to Indian art, the tribangha posture of Padmapani is a variant of the contrapposto curving position seen in a number of Indian objects.

Buddhist divinities are often seated in meditation postures. Manjushri, the bodisattva of infinite wisdom, sits cross-legged in this pose, making hand gestures of teaching. His attributes are a book of scriptures and a sword to cut through ignorance [1955.19]. Notably, even a calm and benevolent being wields a deadly weapon, while its use is metaphoric. This work is an interesting contrast with the DMA's Japanese Monju hanging, where the Japanese version of Manjushri, seen as a small boy, rides a ferocious lion and wields a flaming sword [1970.8].

Another peaceful and beneficent seated figure is Green Tara [2005.28]. Her appearance recalls a sensual Indic mother goddess such as Parvati. Her warmth and loving-kindness reassure the worshipper of protection from evils like fire and theft. As with the Manjushri sculpture, the ornamental use of turquoise adds glowing color to the piece. The full-breasted, voluptuous Indian vision of female power and divinity may be seen in other works from the Himalayas.

Striking examples of the wrathful deities emblematic of Tibetan Buddhism are the Palden Lhamo sculpture [1997.157] and the figure of Simhavaktra, a lion-headed goddess. Palden Lhamo, a strong protectress of the Buddhist Dharma (law), is an especially frightening image, draped in symbols of mortality. She wears a flayed human skin and has a corpse in her mouth,. Her hair consists of flames, her diadem of skulls, and she rides through a sea of blood. As is true in several of these terrifying Tantric visions, she has connections with the Hindu god Shiva: the flames and crescent moon in her hair recall Shiva as Nataraja, also a divinity that transcends death and cosmic violense to bring spiritual liberation. Palden Lhamo illuminates fear, greed, and ignorance, which must be transcended in order to achieve nirvana.

The Lhamo sculpture includes two smaller attendants of the goddess, one of whom is a lion-headed deity, Simhavaktra. The Museum has a superb sculpture of Simhavaktra [1999.4] that embodies a powerful Tantric vision, frightening yet liberating. Her snarling, fanged face, her drooping breasts, and her aged belly confront the Tantric practitioner with fear and mortality. The image is reminiscent of representations of the wrathful Hindu goddess Kali, sometimes depicted as a frightening old woman.

Vajrabhairava is even more brilliantly terrifying. Bull-headed, he waves weapons while trampling gods and animals underfoot [1998.87]. His heads are crowned with skulls and he is ornamented with severed heads. He appears in sexual union with his shakti, or female counterpart. The whole sculpture radiates intense energy. The Tantric discipline carries the seeker beyond duality and transience, resulting in a spiritual liberation of immediateness and clarity, like the thunderbolt for which Vajrayana Buddhism is named.

The Museum has two images of historic holy figures, the lama sculpture and the sculpture of a mahasiddha [1994.47], [1992.42]. Mahasiddhas are ascetics and renunciants, and advanced practitioners in the Tantric form of Buddhism found in Tibet and the Himalayas. Celebrated for their intense devotions and extreme practices, their devotions relate in part to earlier Hindu rituals, including those evoking the god Shiva. Shiva himself was a great yogi, who meditated, naked and smeared with ashes, among cremated corpses on Hindu burning grounds. Mahasiddhas in India and Tibet practiced this same kind of ascetic discipline. The DMA mahasiddha has no attribute to identify him specifically, but the figure appears naked, as though meditating, and his chest is covered with a medallion and chains signifying enlightenment.

Adapted from

  • Anne Bromberg, "Tibetan Sculpture" in The Arts of India, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 155.