The second exhibition in the new Focus Gallery explores the concept and characteristics of Tantra in the Buddhist context through art from across Asia. Among the most familiar Sanskrit terms to enter the western imagination, Tantra carries vague resonances of forbidden and culturally subversive religious practices. Twenty works of outstanding aesthetic quality, ranging from the seventh to the 17th centuries, will introduce key elements of tantric art and show how it was used to reach the Buddhist spiritual goal of enlightenment and bring an end to suffering in the world.
Tantra refers to a system of esoteric techniques used for attaining enlightenment more quickly than can be accomplished within conventional social or religious structures. Tantric practices center on visualization in yogic meditation, repetition of codified syllables called mantras, the performance of rituals, and prolific use of diagrams and images.
Tantric art and rituals are tools of accelerated methods of reaching enlightenment that require training and skill. They are based on the idea that visualization is a powerful way to control the mind. The use of weapons in tantric art does not subvert the pacifist teachings of the Buddha; they are used metaphorically to conquer psychological impediments. The sexual imagery of tantric art depicts personifications of Wisdom, the female, and Compassion, the male, whose union results in the bliss of the enlightened state.
This exhibition presents Tantra in some of its earliest identifiable representations from India along with works that reveal the importance of these traditions from as far away as Indonesia, Cambodia, and Japan. Some of the most important surviving works in the history of tantric Buddhist art are in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, highlighted in this innovative Focus exhibition.