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Home Newsletters OCBS News Jan 2013 - Recent Lecture Series

OCBS News Jan 2013 - Recent Lecture Series

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by David Pritzker and Walter Arader.


When it comes to the study of Tibetan Buddhism, one soon finds that art and practice have been inseparably linked since the region's conversion in the 7th century CE. For the uninitiated as well as for long time scholars in the field, however, it can be difficult to identify and contextualize the complex array of deities found in Tibetan art. In fact, very few have ventured into this thorny bramble of a subject and even fewer have attempted to teach it in a systematized manner for beginners. That's to say, until now! Every Monday evening during Michaelmas Term at Balliol College, on the invitation of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (OCBS) and with funds from the Ti se Foundation, visiting scholar Jeff Watt has presented a simple and efficient system to analyze Tibetan art.

Through the online organization Himalayan Art Resources (, over the past 15 years Mr. Watt has created a unique methodology to identify and understand Vajrayana Buddhist iconography in Tibetan art. Using Tibetan textual sources and visual forms,  Mr. Watt has developed several categories to approach an art work, including number sets, groups and the  "eleven figurative forms", which provided the backbone for this term's course.

The "eleven figurative forms" or appearances -- Buddha, Arhat, King, Monastic, Lay, Mahasiddha, Bodhisattva, Peaceful, Semi-peaceful Semi-wrathful, Wrathful and Animal-headed --  were shown as single paintings or as part of sets. Participants were taught how to navigate these iconographic compositions, or programs, starting from simple to more complex, building their ability to read the visual text of even the more challenging groupings in Tibetan scroll paintings. As Jeff Watt stated, "Just like teaching mathematics to children, you first have to learn your numbers and how they combine before you can begin to do addition and multiplication."

"Number sets" were also introduced as a way to understand the context and meaning of Tibetan paintings. Among other sets, we looked at iconic representations of the three vehicles of Buddhism: Shakyamuni Buddha and the sixteen arhats, representative of original Buddhism in Tibet; the Buddha and thirty-five Confession Buddhas or the Eight Great Bodhisattvas, alluding to Mahayana Buddhism; and Vajradhara with the eighty-four Mahasiddhas, representing Vajrayana. The study of these and hundreds of other groups gave shape to the entirety of the course.

The lecture series, despite its daunting nature, filled the room throughout the eight weeks.  Drawing slightly different crowds each time, questions varied considerably from religion to iconography, to history and art. Early on in the term, Mr. Watt, Professor Gombrich, and Professor Zacchetti even had a debate on the nature of reality. Most stayed clear of that bramble but, as always, the lecture continued on to nearby Italian restaurant Gino's, and as always all were welcome.

Overall the course was a great success - a sure sign of Jeff Watt's ability to convey this material in an accessible way and the strong desire of the Oxford community to follow on the topic of Buddhist art and iconography. I look forward to following the work of Mr. Watt on and to joining future lectures by OCBS.



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