Cultures & Traditions

Tibetan Buddhism

Buddhism came to the Himalayas in the sixth century from India and Kashmir. In Tibet, Buddhism was established as the official religion of the land during the reign of King Songtsen Gyampo (r. 618–650). Early Buddhist teachers such as the revered Padmasambhava were accepted in part because Buddhist ideas could be associated with Bon, the indigenous shamanic religion. It was at this time that the first monasteries were built in Tibet, where culture eventually came to be centered on monastic life. The religious teacher, or guru, was always an important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. These teachers played a key role in develop­ing Buddhist institutions. Revered as holy lamas and considered to be reincarnate, such historical figures are often portrayed in Tibetan art. The DMA collection has sculptures of a mahasiddha and a lama, who are represented as enlightened and authoritative figures.

Thanks to Tibet’s geographical location between India to the south and west, Central Asia to the west, and China to the east, the Tibetans were involved in both war and trade along the Silk Road and had close contacts with China. Proximity to China influenced some aspects of Tibetan art, especially architecture, in temples such as the Jokhang in Lhasa.

By the eleventh century, Buddhism was central to Tibetan culture. The form that Buddhism took in the Himalayan king­doms evolved from the esoteric, Tantric traditions of Hinduism in India as well as from the indigenous rituals of Bon and more orthodox Buddhist practices. Himalayan arts reflect this Tantric character. In this school of Buddhism, called Vajrayana (Thunderbolt Path), practitioners believed that it was possible to reach nirvana—enlightenment—in one lifetime through concentrated disciplines, rather than through endless lives of rebirth and spiri­tual effort.

Tibetan art is distinctive in style and subject matter. Two prin­cipal themes are the veneration of holy monks and teachers, and dramatic representations of ferocious divine figures who help Buddhists transcend their fears and passions. Tibetan paintings display a complex array of deities and lamas, who embody Tantric visions of the Buddhist pantheon and cosmos. Bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, and Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, are often central figures in these paintings, as are female bodhisattvas, wrathful male and female divinities, the directional guardian kings, and the Buddha Shakyamuni himself.

Because Tibetan religious experience centered on monastic life, the creation of art also involved monasteries, whether as patrons of art making, places where offerings were dedicated, or centers of writing and painting. The isolation of the Tibetan plateau and the harsh conditions of life there probably enhanced this cultural tendency toward monasticism, which emphasized detachment from earthly desires.

Excerpt from

Anne R. Bromberg, The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 152.

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