Dodging the Sacred

MODERNITY OFFERS SECULARISTS TWO SEDUCTIVE HEDGES: aestheticism and Buddhism. New York’s Rubin Museum yokes them together in a pictorial fantasia on the New Age-y theme of universal spirituality. No divisive truth claims mar the view from the $100 million monument to Multi-Plan founder Donald Rubin’s own purchasing power and those acquisitive cravings that Buddhist doctrine decries. All contradictions and irreconcilable differences disperse in the solvent of art appreciation, that distinctly Western ideology at the heart of museum culture.

Embodying the Holy: Icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism is a visually splendid, conceptually shallow, exhibition. Organized to illustrate parallels between the two sacred traditions in function, subject matter, and story telling “strategies,” it pairs Orthodox icons with Tibetan thangkas (devotional paintings on cloth scrolls). The couplings follow a simple, thematic formula that shrinks the complexities of given symbols and the radical self-understanding that they generate. The particularity of Christianity dissolves in a superficial comparative religion jaunt.


Icon of the Theotokos (Mother of God)


An icon of the Christian Trinity accompanies an image of the Buddhist trinity, three divine bodies representing three aspects of buddhahood. Padmasambhava, patriarch of Tantric Buddhism, is attributed with magical powers, just like St. Nicholas the Wonderworker and St. Spyridon, a founding father of the Orthodox Church. Christ Pantocrator, born of a virgin, instituted one religion. Buddha Shakyamuni, born from a lotus, instituted another. Episodes from the life of one are as pictorially fruitful as the other. Each lays enchanted ground for what Plato called “dreams for those who are awake.”

Both traditions personify Divine Wisdom. See her on a Tibetan thangka here, and as St. Sophia on a Russian panel there. Both revere images of the Divine Feminine, synonymous with love and compassion. Christians have Mary; Buddhists have Tara, worshipped in 21 different forms—White Tara, Red Tara, Green Tara, et alia. Mary, in her multiple manifestations as Theotokos, Queen of Heaven, Our Lady of Sorrows—plus a myriad of other allegorical and devotional titles—corresponds functionally to the multifarious Tara.


Green Tara

A single sentence embedded in a wall text cautions viewers that the full meaning of these symbolic forms can be grasped only by believers of each tradition. One brief caveat, however, is no match for the impact of the theater of iconography. By the time contemporary viewers, accustomed to pedagogy by images, complete the tour, the inescapable impression is that Christians and Buddhists dip into the same kettle for their idea of the holy.

As an enthusiastic docent phrased it: “People are getting the spirit in all kinds of cultures.” Fair enough, but without reference to the character of the spirit in play, consumers of spirituality are helpless to distinguish one religion from another. They all say the same thing. It is a benign blur, with truth cheerfully and evenly distributed.

The single rupture in this hurrah for syncretic harmony is a vitrine displaying an enameled crucifix next to a chorten (stupa in Sanskrit). You do not have to be adept in the intricacies of Buddhist metaphysics, the presuppositions of Buddhist meditation or its various sects to grasp the gulf between the two traditions. One careful look at the cardinal symbol of Christianity alongside that of Buddhism is enough.

Variable in size and shape, a chorten is a domed, mandala-like mound that originated in India to hold sacred remains. A charged symbol, its encompassing symmetry represents the enlightened mind of a buddha. In keeping with Donald Rubin’s expressed desire to keep scholarship from intruding on the “emotional rush ”of the visuals, the exhibition tutorial stops at that. The contents of a buddha’s mind and the nature of nirvana are left attractively vague.

While Buddhism has its deities, what the Dalai Lama calls “the God-theory” is irrelevant to the Buddhist system. Neither fear nor love of God, linchpins of Christian and rabbinic tradition, applies.
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There exists only an impersonal reality, the divine Whole which absorbs and extinguishes illusions of individual identity.
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The ordered equilibrium of the chorten signals the Buddhist imperative to deliver oneself from the awful cycle of rebirth. It summons to nirvana: self-salvation through the dissolution of personality. Contrary to popular misconceptions, nirvana offers release into absolute nothingness. Ultimately, the shrinelet is a symbol of annihilation, of the succor of extinction. To eyes conditioned by biblical sensibilities, it is an appalling thing, ugly beyond the reach of formal concerns and the status of art.

The contorted corpus on the Russian crucifix depicts a radically different salvation story. It tells of a transcendent, personal God who assumed the clay of His own creation to ransom you and me from the death-grip of our iniquities (Sin, too, is a nonexistent concept in Buddhism.). The chasm between Buddhist conviction and biblical intuition was put succinctly by Will Herberg in Judaism and Modern Man: “In one case, salvation is from life and from the world; in the other, it is for life and for the world.” One finds its apotheosis in stupas, the other in the Cross.

The terrible love of the Cross and the detached compassion of smiling buddhas are contradictory realities.

Their material symbols affirm divergent orientations. Showcased together as objets d’art—equal candidates for delectation—both are falsified. Evan Connell’s 1974 novel The Connoisseur caught the subtle deceit of free-range Western aestheticism imposed on the relics of nonwestern cultures. Connell’s aspiring connoisseur, insurance executive Muhlbach, is bored by his tour of a collector’s private museum. While the collector brags about the quality of his pieces, Muhlbach decides: “But finally, what matters is whether or not you identify with the spirit of a work.”

Those who stake their lives on the Cross can only choose against the discordant spirit of Tibetan Buddhist ritual art. Undeniably, thangkas are interesting and, yes, decorative. But that does not make them beautiful. The distinction cuts to the heart of commitments larger than formalist sympathies and superficial analogies.


Embodying the Holy: Icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism at the Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, 212.620.5000. This commentary appeared initially in First Things, November 9, 2010.


© Maureen Mullarkey