- One of the ‘Five Buddhas of Wisdom’
Tibet 14th century
Gilt bronze H. 14 cm
The Nyingjei Lam Collection
On loan to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1996–2005
On loan to the Rubin Museum of Art, New York 2005-2018
鎏銅金 高 14厘米
Akṣobhya is one of the ‘Five Buddhas of Wisdom’ sometimes referred to as the ‘Five Transcendent Buddhas’ and he is said to abide in the eastern realm of the Abhirati heavens. His colour is blue but of course, in the case of bronzes this is not possible to achieve. Nevertheless he is always to be envisaged as blue in meditation.
The group of five Buddhas, also sometimes called ‘The Buddhas of the Five Families (Tibetan: Sangs rgyas rigs lnga -སངས་རྒྱས་རིགས་ལྔ། ),lies at the core of Tibetan Buddhism and is at the heart of all tantric meditational structures. Together the five are believed to make up the totality of the perfect Universe in which everything is revealed to be in a state of balance and perfection.
A belief developed in later Mahāyāna Buddhism which was carried through to later tantric developments, that a person’s negativities and psychological flaws were not to be avoided but instead were the very tools through which a person might best achieve Enlightenment. The Vajrayāna aimed at immersing the seeker so deeply in the senses and dangers of the world that it was precisely through exhausting those possibilities that they might end their sufferings more swiftly and easily revealing the state of things as they really are.
The role of these Buddhas of Wisdom is to assist in creating the mental requirements to bring about such ‘reversals’ in an accomplished practitioner. In the case of Akṣobhya his specific role is to transform all hatreds and dualistic ways of thinking into a state of Total Wisdom, a state which reflects all phenomenal things as they really are in contrast to how we see them through our unclear and dualizing minds. This realization is one of the most profound truths of Buddhism – that all things are in fact the same.
A small supplication to Akṣobhya summarises what Tibetans believe him to represent:
O Vajra Akṣobhya, who possesses the Great Wisdom, Mighty and learned One who resides in the Vajra (indestructible) realm, I offer to you my deepest respect and to the three realms of indestructible reality and the triple cycle of (offering) maṇḍalas, As well as to the most secret Vajra realm itself.
(Tibetan Iconographic text Bod brgyud nang bstan lha tshogs chen mo (People’s Publishing House, Sining 2001, p.215. my translation)
This rich and sumptuously decorated image is depicted in a similar way to that of Śakyamūni Buddha, that is, with the middle fingertip of his right hand touching the earth to witness his Enlightenment while the other hand is in his lap showing that he is in deep meditation.
He wears the so-called ‘Princely attire’ which is to highlight his regal nature and it includes a beautiful crown containing a sun and moon motif at its front, royal ornaments including massive ear-rings, necklace, decorated arm and wrist ornaments and richly decorated and inlaid garments. The inlay is achieved largely with turquoise and natural rock crystal as well as what appears to be raw ruby in his necklace and his ‘eye of enlightenment’ in his forehead.
He sits on a fine lotus base and his upper area is surrounded by a simple aureole. His eyes look inwardly and there is a trace of a smile on his lips. Akṣobhya’s once blue-coloured hair, now black due to oxidation, is well-displayed at the rear of the image where the folds of his diaphanous robes are seen to be neatly arranged. The relatively undecorated rear of the image shows the physiognomy of a strong and youthful regal figure.
The style of this image is possibly from south-central Tibet and there are certain indicators such as the aureole and the facial style which suggest that it might have been made in a Nepalese atelier in Tibet or by Nepalese- inspired workmanship. The stylistic clues lie in the face with its slightly firm chin and clearly aquiline nose and the large and prominent ear-rings which are reminiscent of the early Malla-style images found in Von Schroeder, Ulrich. Buddhist Sculpture In Tibet Volume1. p 527, image172B.
The ‘importation’ of Nepalese (usually Newari) craftsmen was a very common practice in southern Tibet between the 9th and 17th centuries and much of their stylistic aesthetic was transmitted to their Tibetan students, so exact precision is problematic. However it is known that some of the craftsmen found their way from western Nepal (especially around Jumla and Sinja which seem to have been centres of Khasa Malla style image making) and worked in both Mustang (Tibetan: Lo sMon thang) and Dolpo where images with stylistic similarities such as the chin and the ear-rings are found.
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