The All-Knowing Buddha

Sarvavid Album Leaf 38, Inner Mongolia, 18th/19th century, pigments on paper, 26.3 x 27 cm, MAS/ Museum aan de Stroom, Antwerp

IN 1923, the Belgian missionary, Father Rafael Verbois then resident in Inner Mongolia, was offered 54 paintings by a monk at the imperial monastery of Wangzimiao in the former province of Jehol. More than 50 years later, the paintings were acquired from Father Verbois by the Ethnographic Museum of Antwerp, now known as the Museum aan de Stroom. Although they had been subjected to intermittent research, the paintings’ contents were so rare that they were only recently recognised as dealing with the meditation on the ‘All-Knowing Buddha’.

The All-Knowing Buddha: A Secret Guide at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York is the first presentation of this unique set of paintings in the US, where Karl Debreczeny, curator, and Elena Pakhoutova, assistant curator, who investigated them since 2012, have contributed to significant new scholarship. By reordering the album’s sequence, they reconstructed its artistic sources and historical context, revealing every painting’s complex ritual and visual content. Every leaf is painted with colourful pigments on paper, and measures approximately ten-inches square. When mounted together, all 54 leaves become a step-by-step ritual instruction manual in picture-form.‘We know very little about the Antwerp album or its history,’ says Dr Debreczeny. ‘These paintings provide unusual insight into aspects of Tibetan Buddhist meditation and ritual, instruction normally restricted to oral transmission by a teacher to his initiated disciple and thus suggests something of its patronage. Visualisation is central to meditative practice and ritual in Tibetan Buddhism but it is rarely, if ever, spelled out visually in such a literal fashion.’

Most of the prominent Buddha images depicted have been identified as those belonging to the Tibetan Buddhist deity, Sarvavid Vairocana, or the ‘All-Knowing Buddha’. An important figure in the Buddhist pantheon, he is the personification of enlightenment and a higher manifestation of the Buddha Shakyamuni, the Buddha of our world and time. Also conceived as a Buddha of cosmic dimensions, the All-Knowing Buddha is intimately connected with the emergence of Esoteric Buddhism. These paintings are unorthodox and might have been created for someone outside the Tibetan tradition, ‘such as a Chinese, Mongolian, or Manchu patron’. Moreover they are one of only two sets known. ‘The closest comparison I could find is the illuminated manuscript, Vajra Wisdom Tantra of Deep Meditation (dated 1428) at the National Palace Museum, Taipei,’ says Dr Debreczeny. ‘This three-volume text mounted accordion style with 209 folios and 106 illuminations, is the only other example that spells out visualisation practice in such an explicit manner and even employs much of the same visual language.’‘Although these sets of paintings are stylistically comparable, their visual narratives are different and reflect the nature of the subject matter depicted in two different groups of paintings,’ says Dr Pakhoutova. ‘The Taiwan album is a fully assembled album whereas the Antwerp paintings are a visual rendering of the gradual process of a specific practice – ritual, meditation and visualisation – which illustrate a step-by-step process. They are in a Chinese album leaf format – not commonly found in Tibetan painting – normally accompanied by text and captions – and not always bound,’ she adds. ‘The ritual visual content suggests 30 per cent of the paintings are missing but it is possible to tentatively reconstruct the sequence of the paintings.’

They may be incomplete, but the paintings contain important contextual information about themselves, offering insight into their provenance, production and dating. Much of their visual content suggests important Chinese engagement with Tibetan Buddhism, introduced by the Mongols as one of the official religions of Yuan China (1279-1368). Kublai Khan had made the Tibetan cleric, Phakpa (Phags pa) his highest religious authority, and the court was heavily invested in Tibetan Buddhism whose religious and cultural landmarks dotted the empire. In 1301, a monumental Himalayan-style architectural form, the Baitasi, ‘Great White Stupa’ was built on Wutaishan, Shanxi. The Nepalese artist, Anige (1244-1278/1306) recommended by Phakpa for court service, was credited with it and also left an entire school of painting. The white stupa on Leaves 39 and 42 is thus an icon for Wutaishan, a famous pilgrimage site and the earthly abode of Manjusri, ‘Bodhisattva of Wisdom’, very popular with Mongolians.

Comparing the album to stylistically similar specimens might help establish a time-frame for its production. A few of these date to the Ming (1368-1644) when the emperors Yongle (r.1403-1424), Xuande (r.1424-1436) and Chenghua (r.1465-1487) were avid patrons of Tibetan-Buddhism. Their imperial sponsorship endorsed a Sino-Tibetan court style fusing the Tibetan artistic tradition with the Chinese, best illustrated on wall paintings at the temples, Qutansi in Amdo (Qinghai) and Fahaisi in Beijing, and on extravagant handscrolls and manuscripts celebrating highlights in Sino-Tibetan relations. The occasion of the Tibetan patriarch, the Fifth Karmapa’s 1407 visit to the Linggusi, Nanjing’s largest temple, was commemorated for instance, by a monumental 50-foot long, Delivering the Soul of Ming Taizu Long handscroll in honour of the Yongle emperor’s parents. It bears some similarities to the Antwerp sample although the closest equivalent remains the illuminated manuscript, Vajra Wisdom Tantra, from the Xuande era mentioned earlier. In the Chenghua era, two sets of album leaves of wall paintings (dated 1483) copied from the Chongshansi temple, Taiyuan, Shanxi, also suggest a Ming-inspired style.

When the Manchus conquered China in the mid-17th century, Tibetan Buddhism re-emerged one of the official religions of the Qing (1644-1911) dynasty. More critically, it was designed to bring alienated Mongolians back into the realm of a multi-ethnic empire of four official languages – Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan – whose cultures mingled extensively under imperial patronage. Significant Mongolian engagement with Chinese culture is suggested by the visual references in Leaf 38 where three circumambulating Mongolian monks – portrayed for the first and only time – take centre-stage. Dressed in their distinctive red monastic robes with long narrow sleeves, blue belts and yellow hats, they front a symbolic Tibetan reliquary stupa surrounded by Chinese monks. Specific Mongolian elements in the painting provide possible clues for dating, patronage and production: The mass conversion of Mongolians to Tibetan Buddhism commenced only around the end of the 1500s and most Tibetan monasteries in the Aokhan area of Inner Mongolia were not constructed until the late 1700s, when an influx of Han settlers brought Chinese artisans to work for Mongol patrons.

The latter period is largely identified with the Qianlong emperor (r.1736-1795), who personified both Tibetan Buddhism and artistic production. He was tutored from childhood in Buddhist scripture and Tibetan by the future state chaplain, Changkya Rolpai Dorje, later chief religious advisor to the court. Rolpai Dorje oversaw the imperial workshops’ production of sacred images and established a school of thangka painting. He was also identified with a workshop at Dolonnor, the seat of the Changkya lamas west of Jehol province, one of the most important Qing production sites for Tibetan Buddhist art works circulating throughout the region. Artistic production in the Qing period however was notorious for the ‘culture of the copy’. ‘This legacy has often made it difficult to separate the original from the copy and nowhere is this truer than in the court of the Qianlong emperor,’ says Dr Debreczeny. ‘He was famous for having his favourite paintings in the imperial collection copied and given to people as a sign of imperial favour – especially those that served Buddhist ritual and contemplative needs – much like the Antwerp album being considered here.’

It is not known if the album was a Qianlong copy, but its pictorial conventions of architecture, landscape and imagery speak of a strong Chinese aesthetic. Recurring elements of Chinese palatial architecture are most pronounced in Leaf 2, where the practitioner on the left at the foreground of the Vairocana’s palace venerates the enthroned teacher of the lineage on the right. The light emanating from the central structure is the radiance of the All-Knowing Buddha, known also as ‘Illuminating All Aspects of Reality’. Telltale signs such as the badly aligned gatehouse roof brackets at the bottom reveal the painters did not understand the principles of jiehua, ‘architectural painting’, and were not from the imperial court.

Another Chinese palace setting on Leaf 30 features the Buddha-to-be reborn in the human realm for the last time. Descending from the realm of Akanistha, ‘None Above’ in a dream, he is on a white elephant in Chinese convention as opposed to the Tibetan where only the animal is shown. Several leaves portray the young prince Siddhartha as Chinese rather than Indian; on Leaf 32 he is indulging in princely games against opulent Chinese-style architecture. Blue-green rockery typical of Chinese ‘archaic’ landscape painting forms the background to many leaves, most visibly on the last Leaf 54 which concludes the final rites with a thanksgiving feast. Eight Daoist immortals offering symbolic peaches, gourds and sacred fungus, wear leafy attire characteristic of ancient sages. By contrast, much of the Tibetan Buddhist subject matter here and elsewhere, do not correspond to the religion’s artistic conventions. The important worthies in three flaming haloes, the Buddha Vairocana, Vajrasattva and Mahakala – both the principle protector of the Sakya tradition and state protector of the Mongolian empire – are clumsily executed. In Leaf 15, the practitioner holds the ritual implements of the bell and vajra in the wrong order, while the eight offering goddesses on lotus pedestals were direct copies from sculpture. However, clues to dating offered by the practitioner’s flat head and over articulation of eye sockets, suggest typical post-Qianlong period painting.

Even the practitioner’s reciting of the mantra of the Vairocana on Leaf 18, is expressed within a largely Chinese cultural framework. The sound penetrating all three realms of existence appears as concentric circles of Tibetan script dispersing rainbow light in all directions. These circles float above turbulent waters representing the ocean of existence, encompassing the realms of desire, form and the formless realm. Making obeisance is none other than the Chinese Dragon King, a worldly deity who rules the oceans, lakes and rivers. The wave patterns stylised in the Chinese manner, carry a coral-offering turtle and a clam with a pearl. The album’s general visual narrative has appeared inconsistent throughout, pointing to different hands at work. ‘Even when similar or clearly related scenes were painted, none of them were the same in their setting, composition and the manner of pictorial execution – which made it quite difficult to arrange, in addition to the absence of text and any indication of their order,’ says Dr Pakhoutova.

Although there are obvious differences in Ming and Qing architecture, a basic misunderstanding of Chinese building structures and details in Leaves 26, 46 and 53 suggest possible workshop production by various artists. In Leaf 27, the palaces radiating light refer to the various sections of the mandala while the full moon disc represents the ultimate reality or emptiness. However the four-faced Vairocana in classical Indo-Tibetan form representing the ‘all-knowing aspect’, who is painted white and bedecked in Indian princely jewellery, bears no resemblance to the fleshy pink one on Leaf 28.

Other sources of circumstantial evidence drawn from local Inner Mongolian gazetteers, also offer possible scenarios for the album’s patronage and place of production. We now know the Tibetan Buddhist monastery Wangzimiao, was founded in 1707 during the Kangxi era (r.1662-1722) by the local Mongolian ruler, third prince Jamsu of the Aokhan Banner, Inner Mongolia. It was the largest monastery in the area, partly subsidised by the imperial court and said to have been visited by Kangxi himself. Around 1729, a local prince married a Manchu princess who brought highly trained Chinese artisans to the area, augmented as we have seen by the advent from the late 1700s of newly settled Han.

Sometime around the mid-19th century, the ninth Aokhan prince moved his residence and gave the palace to the monastery. He enlisted his son there as a lama, hence the name Wangzimiao, ‘the Prince’s temple’ where local Aokhan princes were sent thereafter to study Tibetan Buddhism. In the early 20th century, during the period of Father Verbois’ appointment, the 15th Aokhan prince was said to have brought artisans from Beijing and elsewhere to renovate the monastery. Around 1918, nearer the time of the gift, a Tibetan Buddhist monk and talented painter was described as living with the local ruler. Nothing however remains of the Wangzimiao which was destroyed by fire in 1947.

Under these circumstances and in view of the Antwerp album’s provenance, content and high quality: ‘It is likely to have been commissioned from a Chinese painting workshop under the guidance of a Tibetan Buddhist lama for a Mongolian prince of the Aokhan Banner in Inner Mongolia,’ says Dr Debreczeny. ‘Such an unusual mixture of content and style from an amalgam of sources suggests a local product from a region in the periphery of the major productions sites of Tibet and China.’

Still, many questions remain unanswered that are compounded by the difficulties of dating. Among the most pressing are why the paintings were commissioned at what was a particularly turbulent period in Chinese history, and why their contents are stylistically comparable to the Xuande era Vajra Wisdom Tantra crafted four centuries earlier. This exhibition, a fascinating convergence of Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese painting and Mongolian patronage is therefore timely, and an exceptional preliminary study that lays the groundwork for future scholarship.

BY YVONNE TAN

The All-Knowing Buddha: A Secret Guide is at the Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, New York, NY 10011 until 13 April. www.rubinmuseum.org