Apr 24, 2012

The Story of Yamantaka: Death by Infinite Reduplication

jacques marchias museum tibetan mongolian chinese buddhist artwork statues mandalas yama yamantaka protector death fear religion buddhism world religion
After driving down to New Jersey the day before -- to present a paper on St. Anselm's moral theory at the 6th Felician Ethics conference and then to say a few words, again about Anselm, at the 40th anniversary of St. Anselm's parish -- we made a slight detour to Staten Island, where we visited the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, a small, but very interesting collection not only of Tibetan, but also Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian Buddhist statuary, mandalas, tapestries, and artifacts.  Jacques Marchais was actually an actress (given a boy's name since her mother had wanted a son), working in the early 20th century, devoted to study of the world's religious traditions, but particularly attracted to Buddhism, and to Tibetan Buddhism specifically.

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.

jacques marchias museum tibetan mongolian chinese buddhist artwork statues mandalas yama yamantaka protector death fear religion buddhism world religion
I must admit that, since I came across it in carrying out research to extend the scope of my World Religions classes as far as could be done past the meager resources afforded by the available textbooks, I've always found the story of Yamantaka fascinating for more than one reason.  Looked at from a certain vantage point, Tibetan Buddhism -- sometimes called in older literature "Lamaism" -- the schools of Buddhism that continued their own expansion missionary-wise to Mongolia and even Japan -- represents a kind of culmination of that incredibly reflective, dialectical, insightful way of life, view on the cosmos and what lies beyond, and body of ongoingly-developing thought.  To the three refuges of (in some respects) more traditional Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism -- the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha -- they add, or rather esoterically interpret, the three roots, one of which is the Yidam, or "meditational deity" -- and Yamantaka is by far (again, at least for me), the most fascinating of those, of the "wrathful deities."

jacques marchias museum tibetan mongolian chinese buddhist artwork statues mandalas yama yamantaka protector death fear religion buddhism world religion
Yama, a deity coming originally from Hinduism -- Death personified -- is himself one of the wrathful deities, the Dharmapalas, "protectors of the teaching," you might say.  These are beings depicted indeed with fearsome, sometime even horrifying aspects.  One might wonder why anyone would consider them good, even call upon them as intercessors.  But, in Hindu and Buddhist art, one of the interpretative principles which has to be occasionally invoked is that, when a divine being appears to be aggressive, violent, threatening, that quality must be understood as oriented towards, or rather against, the things, the temptations, the forces, the beings, which hold people back from enlightenment.  One can see this clearly in images of the various Hindu forms of Shiva or Shakti, represented not only as warlike, but in triumph over demonic forces. There's interesting aspects to the cycle of stories concerning Yama, but I'm going to skip those over in order to get to what I found so particularly captivating when I presented these wrathful deities years back -- the being who faced down, encompassed, replicated, and then overcame Death.

jacques marchias museum tibetan mongolian chinese buddhist artwork statues mandalas yama yamantaka protector death fear religion buddhism world religion
The story -- in short form -- goes that a Bodhisattva -- one of the beings who had attained and earned the state of release and enlightenment Buddhists term "Nirvana," but determined to stay back and aid other beings on their way to release from the suffering-plentitudinous cycle of death, reincarnation, birth, life, suffering, and death -- Manjusri, saw Tibet's human populace being cut down by sacrifices, and looked to the very cause of the problem -- Death himself.  So, he sought out Yama, to confront him head-on, and when he faced his adversary, he mirrored and reduplicated Yama's own appearance, multiplying arms, legs, heads, generating a figure far more fearsome than Death's own -- and threatening Death himself with destruction.  As the story goes on, Yama found himself shaken with fear, unable to stand against an intensification of what was actually his own self.  Yamantaka is thus the ender-of-death, the Buddhist higher being who puts an end to, who threatens, terrifies, and kills the seemingly inexorable force which itself reduces other beings to nothing -- or within a Buddhist perspective, ends their present life and reharnesses them to the cycle of birth, rebirth, and suffering.

jacques marchias museum tibetan mongolian chinese buddhist artwork statues mandalas yama yamantaka protector death fear religion buddhism world religionMuch 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.

jacques marchias museum tibetan mongolian chinese buddhist artwork statues mandalas yama yamantaka protector death fear religion buddhism world religion
Later, after Buddhism makes its way into the harsh, dangerous landscape and populace of Tibet, as commentaries multiply, reinterpretations and renewed rituals arise, the continual ongoing hermeneutic process so essential to the history and development of Buddhism proliferates meanings, speculations, certainties, allegories within allegories, experimentation with and assimilation of wisdoms from any available sources, Yamantaka both assumes the many-limbed form and function identified with this statuary of the wrathful protector of Buddhism in Tibet, and generates additional aesthetic forms associated with narratives, rituals, and listings which I must admit being barely able to follow -- at that point, it is like reading texts in a foreign language without a lexicon.  We're deep into vertiginous domains of symbolism heaped upon and intruded into more symbolism, following an internal and seemingly unfathomable logic like chasms and catastrophes, labyrinths of narrative, discourse, metaphysics, advice and explanation, invocation . . .  one could go on interminably.

jacques marchias museum tibetan mongolian chinese buddhist artwork statues mandalas yama yamantaka protector death fear religion buddhism world religionSo, 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.