The Mysterious Museum of Mongolia — Buddha in the Yurt: Buddhist Art from Mongolia Edited by Carmen Meinert

Buddha in the Yurt

Buddha in the Yurt:
Buddhist Art from Mongolia

EDITED BY Carmen Meinert
(Hirmer Publishers, 2011)

From the Publisher:

“Since the introduction of Buddhism to Mongolia in the seventeenth century, art has emerged as an important component of Buddhist culture. Drawing on a large privately owned collection of Mongolian and Tibetan art, this volume reproduces a carefully chosen selection of paintings, scrolls, statues, shrines, amulets, tablets, and ritual implements dating as far back as the eleventh century…. Accompanying each illustration and adding depth to the volume are descriptions that situate the work within Buddhist iconography and the rich symbolism of the Tantric Buddhist tradition….

All of the artworks appear here for the first time in print, making this an essential addition to the literature on East Asian religion, culture, and art.”

Mongolia and Tibet have been deeply intertwined for hundreds of years, though their geography and language differ. Mongolian culture originates in the world’s largest steppe, where shallow rivers diverge to flow either north into the Siberian taiga or east into the plains of Manchuria and China, and where animal husbandry rather than agriculture has been the basis of life. The Mongolian language is Altaic, related to various Turkic languages spoken across Central Asia. Tibetan culture is centered in the Himalayan plateau, a region of the world’s highest mountains, containing agricultural river valleys and arid lake regions. The Tibetan language is related to cultures to the south of the plateau: Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken throughout the highlands of Southeast Asia. What Mongolian and Tibetan cultures share is a north-south border, and it is through that physical connection that the two have deeply influenced each other.

While there have been several major exhibitions built around artifacts from the Mongolian empire in the United States and Germany, none have focused on Tibetan Buddhism among the Mongols.

Tibetan religious leaders played an important political and spiritual role when Kublai Khan’s army unified China in the thirteenth century. But it was the military and spiritual alliance in 1576 between Altan Khan, a leader of the Eastern Mongols, and Sonam Gyatso, the head monk of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, that set the stage for what followed. The Mongol ruler bestowed on the Tibetan monk the title of Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan religious leader bestowed on his Mongol patron the legitimacy of a Buddhist ruler in the image of Kublai.

In the centuries that followed the incarnations of the Dalai Lama became the theocratic rulers of Tibet and spread their religious culture throughout the Mongol world. Pilgrims, teachers and cultural institutions flowed between Mongolia and Tibet from the time of Altan Khan to the early twentieth century. The Mongols at all levels of society adopted Tibetan literary, artistic, medical and religious culture, to varying degrees. Tibetan monasteries grew to become the educational, artistic and medical centers of the Mongol world. This was from its inception a transnational world, straddling the Chinese and Russian Empires, including what is now Mongolia as well as provinces of China and Russia as far north as the present Russian Buryatia and west of the Caspian Sea to the Russian Kalmykia. The end came abruptly. The anti-religion campaign in the Soviet Union was followed in Mongolia by a political and military action that destroyed, literally and figuratively, all Buddhist activity and institutions. The link between Mongolia and Tibet was severed.

As the Cold War began, Mongolia was closed to anyone outside the Socialist world and its Tibetan Buddhist heritage had been reduced to a single showcase monastery and collections of objects in a state museums. The rest of the artifacts that had once graced hundreds of monasteries, thousands of temples and millions of homes were hidden or had been reduced to ashes. The post-Soviet era brought an end to anti-religious policies and a resurgent interest in Buddhist heritage within Mongolia and Russia. The first major exhibitions of Mongolian art in North America and Europe took place in the 1990s. While there have been several major exhibitions built around artifacts from the Mongolian empire in the United States and Germany, none have focused on Tibetan Buddhism among the Mongols.

Buddha in the Yurt begins to bridge that gap, presenting the largest collection of painted scrolls and sculptures to ever appear in print. Comprised of two volumes with four hundred expertly photographed color reproductions, the book is remarkable for both its quantity and quality. Carmen Meinert, the Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist professor who edited this selection of paintings, sculptures, and ritual objects — which come from a previously undocumented private collection — provides a brief introduction with useful historical context. The anonymous collector has given her team the task of publishing the book, “to popularize Mongolian Buddhist art, to preserve it for future generations, and to invite specialists to further study the collection in the future” (p.28). To that end, the book is published in an English-Russian and a German-Russian edition. We have no further information about who put the collection together, where it resides, or what will become of it.

Meinert explains that the Tantrayana or Tantric Buddhism of Tibet is based on doctrines of the Mahayana tradition, the dominant form of Buddhism that spread throughout China, Korea and Japan. The Tibetan Tantric form is “characterized by a stronger emphasis on ritual and the corresponding meditative exercise (of visualization)” (p.20). Her book then documents these two- and three-dimensional visualizations: where and when they were created and the iconographic details they represent.

Buddha in the Yurt is a visual feast for anyone who appreciates the subtleties of Tantric Buddhist visual arts. Through the work of Meinert’s editorial team, the anonymous patron has accomplished his goal. We can all now appreciate these images from the Mysterious Museum of Mongolia, hidden somewhere in Europe.

Looking at Buddhist art from Mongolia is rather like looking at Catholic art from Peru. You can feel a powerful indigenous Mongolian tradition speaking through the Tibetan visual language, but it is difficult to know what comes from where. All the work reproduced in Buddha in the Yurt is authentically Tibetan-Mongolian, though it is the former and not the latter culture that established the templates these artists apply in each composition. Meinert has organized the book to bring the figures together and provides a good background at the first appearance of each character, including traditions of how and when each became part of the Buddhist pantheon. Certain figures are “protectors” that once threatened but were then converted to defend the Buddhist faith against its enemies. It is the presence of these figures — Mahakhala, Palden Lhamo, Begtze and the White Old Man to name a few — that make this collection particularly Mongolian.

Begtze, also known as Jamsaran in Mongolian, was the focus of many offering rituals. He always appears as a fierce coral-skinned three-eyed warrior armed with sword, bow and pike, wearing a crown of skulls and a belt of his enemies’ severed heads. In Buddha in the Yurt we see him in two- and three-dimensional form, as tiny amulets, sculptures and large paintings (pp. 504-527). Several works depict Begtze with his entourage, in paintings and as a group of wooden sculptures that would have adorned a large shrine. His coral-colored army of three-eyed warriors ride on bears and wolves, descend from the clouds into the mountains and onto the plains, each wielding his sword.

Of all the fierce guardian figures, Palden Lhamo is my personal favorite. She is the only female among the Eight Guardians of the Law. She goes by many names, each with its own variation of face and posture, all of them deeply terrifying images of eternity. Her saddle blanket is the flayed skin of her son, an enemy of Buddhism, whose head dangles beneath her foot. The mule she rides has an eye on its haunch that grew from a wound made by an arrow fired by her husband after she killed her son. She rides across a sea of blood, holding a club in one hand and a skull cup in the other. Meinert notes that she is “at once an incarnation of the ancient mother-goddess cult, keeper of the secrets of life and death and protectress of Lhasa, the Dalai and Panchen Lamas as well as of many monasteries in Mongolia and Buryatia” (p. 528). The Tibetan tradition has an unquenchable thirst for skulls, thigh bones and flayed human skins in their iconography. This seems to resonate with the Mongolian experience of living with, caring for and slaughtering animals.

What is uniquely Mongolian in these paintings and sculptures is the depictions of animals and daily life that find a place within the stylized language of Tibetan iconography. A remarkable example is “The Wheel of Life” (fig. 155, p. 292), an almanac-life block print of the Lord of Death holding a disc containing scenes of families caring for animals and celebrating festivals around their tents above an underworld filled with demons and hungry ghosts. Meinert notes the resemblance of this composition to the paintings of camp life by Marzan Sharav, whose “A Day in Mongolia” at the Fine Arts Museum in Ulan Bator is venerated today as a national treasure.

At the same time, many of the finest examples in the book are Himalayan art, not particularly Mongolian in either theme or style. An example is the very beautiful “Eleven-Faced Avalokitsvara” (fig. 112, p. 228), a thangka (scroll painting) of a six-armed white bodhisattva of wisdom with rainbow legs. He stands in the center of the composition, below to his left a Green Tara, to his right a White Tara and at his feet a blue Mahakala. Above his head are three seated lamas. The description also identifies elements we would associate with India in the composition: coral, elephant tusks and rhinoceros horn. This portable object might have hung on the wall of a monastery or in a family tent. It might also have been found in a temple in Nepal, Tibet or Bhutan.

In a similar way, the thangka painting of Green Tara chosen as the cover image for the book (figure 191, p. 375) is a common subject found throughout Himalayan art, but the luminosity of this figure makes it stand apart as a masterpiece. Meinert notes that Green Tara was venerated in monasteries throughout Mongolia and Buryatia. “Tara is appealed to as a saviouress who comes to the rescue the moment her name is sincerely uttered. The color green symbolizes the active nature and instant fulfillment of any benign request made by the believer. Those who repeat her mantra will defeat all demons, remove all obstacles and attain their heart’s desire” (p. 364). The body, brilliant eyes and jeweled crown of this female figure are entwined with curving plants, scarves, bracelets, earrings and necklaces. Like so many figures of this type, her eyes are focused downward towards the spot where the supplicant would be standing beneath the scroll hanging on the monastery wall. One could easily visualize a compassionate embrace focusing on her brilliant eyes and vermillion lips.

Also on the less visceral side of the tradition is the White Old Man. While many of the figures have their roots in the translation of magical Indian Tantras into Tibet, the White Old Man comes from a different source. Meinert introduces him as “lord of the land and localities, originally guardian of the animal and plant kingdoms – a Central Asian deity who was taken into the Buddhist pantheon” (p. 698). He was an important protector of the herds and game animals, the source of all life in northern regions. The collection includes several sculpted shrines depicting a man with a long white beard and bushy eyebrows surrounded by the animals and birds he protects. In the two paintings (fig. 378 and 382) included in the collection the White Old Man resembles a Daoist sage if he were not surrounded by Buddhist iconography. It is through the White Old Man that northern Buddhism incorporated the Master of the Forest and Animals venerated by Siberian people. As such he is perhaps the most uniquely Mongolian figure in the collection.

Buddha in the Yurt is a visual feast for anyone who appreciates the subtleties of Tantric Buddhist visual arts. Through the work of Meinert’s editorial team, the anonymous patron has accomplished his goal. We can all now appreciate these images from the Mysterious Museum of Mongolia, hidden somewhere in Europe.

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