The museum -- originally a center established by Marchais in the 1940s -- is set out on grounds replicating the topography of a Tibetan monastery, ascending high up a hill, with as many stairways as plots of level ground. As you'll see in some of the pictures below, rains had driven petals from the flowering trees like wet, soft confetti all across the slate stone grounds and outdoor furniture of the museum complex. We were able to walk some of the grounds -- not down so far as the meditation cells -- but the main attraction for us was the collection. And, for me, who years back had been afforded the chance to introduce prison students semester after semester in World Religions to a few of the distinctive practices and beliefs, and even to selected portions of the intricate, startling, expressive artwork of Tibetan Buddhism -- the culmination of several weeks devoted to Buddhism -- the most gratifying parts of the entire collection was being afforded to examine, from multiple angles, several different statues of one of the great protective beings of Tibetan Buddhism, Yamantaka, the protector who faced down, and literally scared to death, Death himself.
Much more could be said about Yamantaka, of course -- but I'm not by any means a specialist in Buddhist thought, practice, or artwork. On the one hand, Yama himself possesses roots in Hinduism antedating the Buddhist reaction and radical rethinking of dharmic religion, and there exist stories in which Shiva fights against Death, liberating his believers and worshipers. Earlier, non-Tibetan statuary of Yamantaka is striking in its simplicity -- sometimes a mere respectable four arms, sometimes only two -- and even more interesting, Yamantaka is depicted with Manjusri, as his attendant, a spiritual sidekick, you might say. In the Manjusrimulakalpa, so I'm informed, Yamantaka is on the one hand portrayed as a powerful being who was converted to Buddhism, bound by oaths, serving by gathering beings, by force or coercion if necessary, to listen to the Buddha's sermons, sent off on his tasks commissioned by Manjusri placing a hand upon his head -- and on the other hand, he is a fearsome, aggressive manifestation of that very boddhisatva. Various texts accord Yamantaka the status of a protector of the devout, a clearer of obstacles, a warden of ill will.
So, I'll simply return to the image of Yamantaka central in the story recounted above -- the killer of death, the ending of the irreversable ender. I suppose what I find so particularly fascinating about that figure is not what at first I had thought -- its effect upon the imagination. Allowing one's gaze and glances to linger and follow the contours of the arms, to count and consider the hands -- one great advantage of being able to examine statuary in the sort of setting into which Jacques Marchais placed this sacred artwork of distant realms -- is noticing how many different objects, each of them imbued with its own significance, some of them again with age old-roots older still than Buddhism, are gripped and wielded by Yamantaka in his confrontation with death, with ignorance, with temptation, with each and any of the obstacles he is eminently armed against. Faced with a still statue, though, one must exercise the imagination, so as to be able to envision those emblems of force -- for not only the artifacts but the multiplied arms themselves indicate and embody power -- in movement, coordinated perhaps, or alternately chaotic.
The symbol, the statue, for me, exercises its attraction, however, not only through the imagination, but beyond that faculty -- for death, strictly speaking, can't be pictured, can't be pinned down to a presentation or place. The notion of death being an enemy to subdue, for a divine being to render powerless, to transcend, though, does call for and receive some sort of imagery, even if always remaining inadequate. The paradoxical notion of death itself being brought into encounter with what not only could resist it, or banish it, but which knows it inside an out, better perhaps than even death knows itself, presenting it with a reduplication of its very non-being -- that too suggests the need for supports in story, in artwork -- but cajoles the mind towards a contemplation transcending what can be understood through the senses and the categories by which they make sense.