NYC Day 21: Himalayan Art (Only in New York…)


We were at the Rubin Museum of Art, which has the largest Western collection of religious art from cultures of the Himalayan mountain range.


My mind was on teaching and learning. As it often is. 


The All-Knowing Buddha: A Secret Guide” is an extraordinary exhibition at the Rubin Museum. It consists of 54 paintings from 18th-century China that offer step-by-step guidance to visualization of Sarvavid Vairochana, a primordial Buddha central to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. They depict visually a secret esoteric practice, typically restricted to oral transmission by a teacher to his initiated disciple. Only two sets of such pictures exist and neither has ever been on exhibit in the United States.


I was taken with the 54 colorful, detailed paintings. Also by commentary such as this:


This group of thirteen paintings depicts the visualization and ritual in which the practitioner imagines himself as the All-Knowing Buddha Vairochana in order to possess the qualities of the buddha. The practitioner sits on a blue lotus amid a limitless ocean suggestive of “the ocean of suffering,” a metaphor for the cyclical existence of death and rebirth known as samsara. He contemplates the All-Knowing Buddha, and by reciting the depicted mantra, he imagines himself transformed into this form of Vairochana. He purifies and removes obstacles throughout the worldly realms of existence.


The practitioner then manifests the Five Buddhas and establishes a fence made of ritual scepters around his mandala. He then meditates on emptiness — the ultimate nature of reality — represented by a moon disk. In several stages of such meditations he envisions the inner palace, with himself as Vairochana at the center, and the outer palaces of his mandala. Light rays emanate from his head and penetrate all realms, and with the sound of his mantra, all beings are freed from unfortunate rebirths.


Wait a sec.


In Buddhist practice, a teacher puts his student on a path that, if all goes well, ends in enlightenment. Meanwhile, I am supposed to teach my students “critical thinking skills.”


In Buddhist practice, the initiate is made to understand that he is embarked upon a lengthy, uncertain, challenging process of self-discovery. In a typical college course, by contrast, I am allowed to meet with my students for 75 minutes twice a week for about 15 weeks. For training in “critical thinking skills.”


In Buddhist practice, the student contemplates the nature of reality. He imagines himself transformed into a supernatural being who “purifies and removes obstacles throughout the worldly realms of existence.” And maybe in this process he also acquires some “critical thinking skills”?


Okay, okay, I know perfectly well that the comparison is not apt.


But you can see how my mind went from “enlightenment” to “inspiration” as a goal of pedagogy to some despair about the degree to which our schools are oriented to preparing young people for employment in a market economy.


So we focus on developing our students’ ability to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems, while ensuring that, if possible, they also acquire some applied knowledge in real-world settings. That’s what we understand employers to be saying that they want, and they’re all wonderful things to have.


Are those all the attributes that good citizens need, though? What about good parents? A good spouse?


What if you are a young firefighter standing at the bottom of a burning skyscraper, and a woman emerges from a stairwell, looks at you, and says, “Don’t go in there. There’s nothing you can do.” What do you need at that moment?


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