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Images of Enlightenment

A book review by Andrew May

First published in The Middle Way, May 2007

IMAGES OF ENLIGHTENMENT: Tibetan Art in Practice, by Jonathan Landaw and Andy Weber, Snow Lion, Ithaca, NY and Boulder, CO, 2006 edn., ISBN 1 55939 258 4, pp. 272, 16.95.

This book, originally published in 1993 and recently reissued, centres around a series of paintings produced by Andy Weber during the 1980s in the style of Tibetan thangka scrolls. These paintings, the originals of which hang in the Manjushri meditation centre in Cumbria, have seen wide circulation over the years in the form of posters and cards. They are reproduced in full colour in this book, the aim of which is to answer the simple question: What do the paintings mean? This is a question that gets asked quite often, since many of the paintings can appear outlandish to anyone unacquainted with the methods of Tibetan Buddhism.

One of the most striking images shows a naked, blue-skinned creature with bestial features and a rampant sex organ, adorned with a garland of severed heads and clasping a fearsome array of weapons in its numerous hands. Is this meant as a warning to sinners of what awaits them in hell, or is it a scene from some Himalayan horror story, or a demon worshipped by a malevolent cult? As the authors explain, it is none of these things. It is a compassionate, enlightened being whose only enemy is delusion. His weaponry represents desirable qualities such as wisdom, his gory necklace symbolises purity of speech, his erection indicates bliss and his lack of clothing denotes an unobstructed mind.

The emphasis throughout the book is on the practical aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, by which students are led by their guru through a process of transformation and self-development. Seemingly bizarre deities symbolize the potential for enlightenment that is inherent in every individual. Their visual representations can be used by the guru as a mnemonic teaching aid and by students as an object of meditation.

The book covers many of the most important figures encountered in Tibetan Buddhist art, ranging from Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to historical personages such as Padmasambhava and Tsong Khapa. There is a brief description of the beliefs and spiritual characteristics associated with each of these figures, as well as their physical attributes and visual representation.

Andy Weber's paintings are compositionally simpler than their Tibetan counterparts, often with just a single central figure against a stylised background in place of the host of supporting characters and scenes encountered in true thangkas. This simplicity is a welcome aid to understanding the essential symbolism of the images, but it does tend to dilute the powerful emotional impact that the genuine article can have on the viewer. As such this is a book for people who are interested in the practical use of Tibetan Buddhist art rather than its aesthetic appeal.

Copyright © 2007 Andrew May

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