Explore inside the Rubin’s Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room installation with Curator Elena Pakhoutova. Learn what objects, images, and offerings are found in these sacred spaces, and find out more about deities and historical figures important to the Kagyu tradition, which this iteration of the Shrine Room represents.
Stop 1 (401.1) Introduction to the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room: Kagyu Tradition
Stop 2 (401.2) To Your Left: Naropa and the Kagyu Refuge Tree
(left) Mahasiddha Naropa;Kham Province, Eastern Tibet; 19th century; pigments on cloth; Rubin Museum of Art; previously in the collection of Navin Kumar, New York; C2005.20.4 (HAR 65496) (right) Vajradhara and the Great Adepts (Mahasiddhas);Kham Province, Eastern Tibet; late 18th–early 19th century; pigments on cloth; Rubin Museum of Art; C2005.10.1 (HAR 65420) If you look to the left, you will see thangka paintings that portray some of the masters of this tradition. Close to the entrance is the image depicting the Mahasiddha Naropa. Naropa is among the most famous of the84 mahasiddhas, or tantric practitioners known for realizing their enlightened potential within one lifetime. He had exceptional devotion to his teacher. Stories of how he received his teachings from his master are still very popular in Tibetan Buddhist culture to this day. Many practices that are now practiced in the Kagyu traditions still go back to Naropa as the source teacher of this tradition. What we see in this painting is that this master is seated;he has long hair, adornments, and a meditation belt across his torso, portrayed as a tantrica or yogi. A folded scholar’s hat perched on his head refers to his vast knowledge and wisdom. When you’re facing this central wall, the left side of the wall contains another thankga, above the elaborate wooden stand with white offerings of tormas or butter sculptures. This thankga represents the field of accumulation of merit, or symbolic representation of the three jewels of Buddhism:the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Such refuge trees are used as the focus for devotional practices. They combined all of the enlightened qualities of specific traditions masters. This painting is specific to the Kagyu tradition and depicts meditational deities, teaching lineages of successive masters, and guardians of that tradition arrayed within the branches of this refuge tree. The central buddha is Buddha Vajradhara, the primordial tantric buddha, exemplary in the Kagyu tradition. The teachers around the central figure are the Fifteenth Karmapa and other masters who are typical ofthe Kagyu lineage
Stop 3 (401.3) To Your Left: Naropa and the Kagyu Refuge Tree
(left) Seated Lama Figure (Marpa);Tibet;ca. 13th century; bronze inlaid with copper and silver; long-term loan from the Nyingjei Lam Collection; L2005.9.69 (HAR 68487) (right)Lama (Teacher) Milarepa;Tibet; 18th century; stone; Rubin Museum of Art; gift of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation; F1997.52.4 (HAR 700037)
When facing the central wall, you will see a cabinet on which multiple sculptures are assembled to the left of the central cabinet. In the front row are two very famous teachers in the Kagyu tradition:Marpa and Milarepa. Marpa was a famous translator, andheis considered the progenitor of the Kagyu traditions in Tibet and the main teacher of the famous yogiMilarepa. He was very adept in languages and first studied with Tibetan translators, but then traveled to Nepal and India several times to receive transmissions of practices from tantric masters, Mahasiddhas, and scholars there. He translated over 20 works from Sanskrit into Tibetan and then instructed his students in the Six Yogas of Naropa and Mahamudra, which became signature practices of the Kagyu tradition.
Next to Marpa is Milarepa, whom you could probably recognize by his gesture of his right hand raised to his ear as though he is listening. Heis considered the greatest Tibetan yogi and especially treasured in the Kagyu tradition. His legendary life story of hardships, drive, magical powers, disillusionment, and perseverance is known across all Tibetan Buddhist traditions. However, there is no historical certainty about his death. Still, his profound teachings and practices traced to his songs ofrealization and to his disciples flourish in Tibet far and wide. One of his main disciples, Gampopa, founded a Kagyu monastery and the lineages that spread throughout Tibetan regions during the period of Tibetan Buddhist renaissance. His name comes from mila, the cotton clad, and he is usually depicted in white, though you cannot really see that in the sculpture. Many Tibetan practitioners still recite his songs of his visionary experiences to this day.
Stop 4 (401.4) - To Your Right: Vajrayogini and the Protectors
(left) Vajrayogini;18th century; Kham Province, Eastern Tibet; pigments on cloth;Rubin Museum of Art;gift of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation; F1997.3.3 (HAR 61) (right)Black Cloak Mahakala;Tibet; 19th century;pigments on cloth;Rubin Museum of Art; gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin; C2006.66.562 (HAR 1044) When you look to the right of the central wall, you will see a small thankga painting that depicts a very important female deity: Vajrayogini. She is one of the most important female tantric deities in Tibetan Buddhism in general, and also very essential in the Kagyu tradition. In this painting she takes the form of Naro Kechari specific to the Drukpa Kagyu tradition. Sheis red in color with one face and three eyes, drinks from the white skullcup held in her left hand, balancing a vajra-tipped Katanga stuff on her shoulder. Adorned with a crown of skulls, bone girdle and bracelets, and garland of freshly severed heads, she stands atop the bodies of subdued gods Kaliratri and Black Bhairava. Usually practice of Vajrayogini is interpreted as the symbolic overcoming and swiftly and successfully transforming practitioners’ negative qualities into enlightened ones. The curved knife symbolizes her ability to cut through all attachments.Tasting the nectar of great bliss from the skullcap represents her realization of non-duality. You can also see her image in a sculpted form on a cabinet in the front row to the right of the central shrine cabinet. When you look to the right wall in the corner that connects it with the central wall, you will see a thankga on a black background, which depicts an important protector of the Karma Kagyu tradition, Black Cloak Mahakala, and Sri Devi. Even though the painting is quite small, this specific thangka is quite unusual. Normally the male deity is the main figure who faces the viewer while the female consort faces the male. As always, Sri Devi rides her mount, a mule. Sheis in the front center with Bernagchen riding on her lap and looking at her. Abovethe couple is the second Karmapa Karma Pakshi, hierarch of the Karma Kagyu tradition. Bernagchen is a special protector of the Kagyu tradition and especially of the Karmapas.