The Tantric form of Buddhism prevalent throughout the Himalayan region is an esoteric practice that places great importance on the relationship between a teacher, often a high level monk, and the adherent, or devotee. An example of the highest level of teacher is Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, who in the sixth century BCE taught the dharma, or truth, that would lead to complete understanding and freedom known as enlightenment.
Great monks throughout history are regarded as reincarnations of deities and perform the duties of teachers both through example and direct instruction. Drom Tonpa, recognized as the first Dalai Lama, was the disciple of Atisha, the Indian master who brought essential teachings of Buddhism to Tibet in the mid-eleventh century. Both men are represented in this exhibition, one in paint, the other in gilt bronze.
Teachers of the Geluk sect and their lineage, represented in a set of seven paintings, helped establish schools of thought that became codified, and eventually gained political importance. The Fifth Dalai Lama, who constructed the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, is seen in this exhibition in a sumptuously embroidered thangka surrounded by the Eight Auspicious Emblems, a work that may have come from an Imperial workshop.
Three of the revered teachers of the Karma Kagyu sect, whose honorary title is Karmapa, are represented in individual thangkas showing their lineage and, in some instances, the hand and footprints of the individual. These rare works shed light on the esteemed value placed on the teacher within Tibetan Buddhist tradition.