The All-Knowing Buddha: A Secret Guide

THE RUBIN MUSEUM OF ART-- An exemplary and unusual series of album leaf paintings from 18th century China are the focal point of The All-Knowing Buddha: A Secret Guide at the Rubin Museum of Art. This rare collection of paintings, about which many questions remain, was believed to have been commissioned by a Mongolian noble during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). A guide to the meditation practice of Sarvavid Vairochana, a celestial Buddha of Tibetan origin, the 54-leaf album was first brought to the West from Inner Mongolia in 1923 following its acquisition by a Christian missionary. It is now recognized as one of only two known visual depictions of its kind.

Viewed by practitioners of Vajrayana Buddhism as the Bliss Body of Siddhartha Gautama, Sarvavid Vairochana is conceptualized as the primordial center of the Five Wisdom Buddhas. With the aid of the album on view, students of Vairochana’s meditation practice during the Qing Dynasty were guided through several stages of meditation involving visualization, the recitation of mantras, prostrations, and the practice of sadhana. These elements of practice are beautifully depicted in the paintings which comprise this esoteric album. With shockingly bright colors and minute detail, the works are undoubtedly as beautiful as they are intriguing.

The curatorial treatment of the exhibition is masterful, presenting to viewers in tandem both insights into the religious symbolism of each painting, as well as clues to the album’s wider historical and anthropological context. As we walk through the exhibition, we learn of the scholarly debate surrounding cross-cultural influences to be noted in the artwork. For example, while Buddhist practitioners are most commonly pictured in Tibetan Buddhist dress, at times they appear in the religious vestments of Qing-era India, China, and Mongolia. The curators tell us this inconsistency raises questions not only about the album’s origin but also about the trade in religious, artistic, and cultural ideas that characterized the region in the 18th century.

Historically restricted to oral transmission among an initiated Buddhist elite, Vairochana’s esoteric meditation teachings are here rendered in visual form. In addition to appreciating the arresting beauty of the paintings themselves, the thought-provoking textual commentary provided us by the Rubin serves to position the works both within the religious and historical context. Collections of this nature are rare indeed.