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A Home For Buddhist Art In Indiana

The Dalai Lama's most recent visit to Bloomington brought hundreds of visitors seeking his words of wisdom. And while it's a frequent pit stop for His Holiness, Bloomington is also home to a fair share of Buddhist art.

When you visit The Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center, you'll find that it's filled with art. Arjia Rinpoche is director of the cultural Center and not only is he a Tibetan high lama, but an also an architect and an artist himself.

He walks me through the center and its lush green campus. Rinpoche talked about how the ethos of peace and compassion is taught through Tibetan Buddhist art.

Three Arts In Tibet

"In Tibet, in Kumbum especially, we have three arts," Rinpoche said, "one is butter sculpture, one is thangka, the other one is the appliqués."

For those of you unfamiliar with the sewing needle, appliqué is an art form that uses pieces of fabric and embroidery to create scenes and designs. Appliqué techniques are often used in American quilting.

Thangkas are painting that are normally created on fabric or as murals.

But let's go back a little bit. Did he say butter sculpture?

Butter Sculptures Of Tibet

Rinpoche confirmed that butter sculptures are indeed made out of butter.

Long ago, he explained, the sculptures were principally used in Tibet as food offerings in Buddhist temples, but have since become more decorative which sheds light on why they are made out of butter.

Fruits and vegetables are hard to come by in the mountains of Tibet, but Rinpoche said they know how to make the most of what they have plenty of.

"Because in Tibet, we have lots of butter," he said, "So we use the butter for lamps, those butter sculptures, then also we use this butter as a food."

The butter sculptures on display and the Cultural Center are about seven feet tall. On each one is carved scenes of the life of Buddha, which are surrounded by colorful florets the size of cantaloupes.

Symbolism In Buddhist Art

If you're familiar at all with Buddhist art, you might remember seeing images of a human-like characters with many arms and heads, and sometimes even many legs!

Judy Stubbs is the curator of the Asian art collection at the IU Art Museum and helps the Western mind understand the symbolism of those bizarre images.

"The image of a Buddha with many arms, you're not supposed to see it somehow as a freak," Stubbs said, "but as each one of those arms represents or holds an icon, or an image, or a message or a mudra – a hand gesture – which allows you to understand a piece of the message."

But some of the characterizations make one wonder what that message could be. Buddhist art includes images of angry, weapon-wielding, fire-breathing demons that don't seem to fit into Buddhist concepts of peace and compassion.

These are called the wrathful deities.

"That's not to scare the believer into compliance, it is to scare away the impediments to enlightenment." she said. "They're helping you achieved your perfection of your practice. And so what appears to be frightening is not directed at the believer, it's directed at the impediments.

"The ideas are very abstract. So, using very concrete forms to make these ideas understandable."

Practice Makes Perfect Practice

Some times Buddhist art is less about the image than it is about the practice and process of the art form. For example, mandalas detailed portrayals of many forms, colors, symbols and scenes.

"You start with these very complicated, sort of, spiritual diagrams [in mandalas], where you have lots of different images, lots of different symbols. Focusing on each section and understanding each message, by the time you understand the whole, you have gained a great deal of knowledge. So it's not about worshipping the image itself."

Back at the Cultural Center, Russ Ellis creates thangkas of beads to further his understanding of Buddhist teachings. His education, during the time it takes to create a thangka, is focused one pattern.

"I usually pick one I know nothing about, and as I work on it, I start to get more of an understanding," Ellis said. "So this one I'm still working on, and I have a lot to learn."

He has a lot of work to do, too.

For each stitch on his beaded thangkas, Ellis recites a mantra or prayer. And each of his thangkas requires no less than 108,000 stitches. It's a full-time job.

"It takes 2,000 hours. So that's like a year, 40 hours a week. So I've sat and beaded for close to eight years of my life."

All the time and energy he puts into his thangkas pays off, he says.

"It's very calming. I think I can say now I have a lot more patience than I used to. That I can definitely say."

Attachment And Impermanence

Sometimes artists will put hours upon hours into a piece that will never be displayed.

Rinpoche takes me to one of the two sand mandalas currently on display at the Cultural Center. Having a sand mandala on display is very rare.

Typically, monks destroy a sand mandala once it is completed.

"In our mind, we always have two problems: one is attachment, one is anger," Rinpoche expalined.

"So when something is very beautiful, then we always have attachment."

Learn more about Arjia Rinpoche in his newly published autobiography, Surviving the Dragon: A Tibetan lama's cccount of 40 years under Chinese rule.

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