Secrets of the Seated Buddha

Seated Buddha, Tibet, late 14th century. Museum no. IM.121-1910

The Buddha Sakyamuni, Tibet, late 14th century. Copper, with gilt and paint. Museum no. IM.121-1910

Like a medieval time capsule, the contents of this seated Buddha have revealed hidden details of its production and worship in Tibet. When images are consecrated in Tibet, written or printed prayers (mantras) and other holy objects are inserted into the body cavity and sealed in with a base plate. Sometimes, as in this case, these consecration objects include drawings or paintings.

A first set of 13 pen and watercolour drawings of deities dating from the time of consecration was found a number of years ago in the base of the Buddha. More recently, during conservation, it was noticed that other folded paper objects had fallen into the base from the inside arm or head spaces. It was possible to extract these using a pair of tweezers from a gap under the base plate without opening the base again.

When opened the bundles proved to be a further set of nine drawings forming a lineage of the Black Hat or Karmapa order. This shows that the Buddha was commissioned and initially worshipped by members
of that order.

The style of the Buddha and the first set of drawings are both Nepalese, but the use of gold applied as a paste to the face in a cold, rather than a fire gilt, form is a characteristic Tibetan consecration practice. What this implies is that a Tibetan Karmapa patron commissioned this image from a Nepalese metalworker, probably living in Tibet.

The Buddha was bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum from a London gallery in 1905 at a sale of objects obtained during the 1904 Younghusband expedition to Tibet.

'Dusum Khenpa', ink and gouache on paper, Tibet, 14th century. Found inside the seated Buddha, Museum no. IM.121-1910. Dusum Khenpa (1110-70) founded the Karmapa order

'Dusum Khenpa', ink and gouache on paper, Tibet, 14th century. Found inside the seated Buddha, Museum no. IM.121-1910.
Dusum Khenpa (1110-70) founded the Karmapa order

'Naropa', ink and gouache on paper, Tibet, 14th century. Found inside the seated Buddha, Museum no. IM.121-1910. Naropa received the Buddha's teachings in India in the 11th century and instructed the Tibetan Marpa

'Naropa', ink and gouache on paper, Tibet, 14th century. Found inside the seated Buddha, Museum no. IM.121-1910.
Naropa received the Buddha's teachings in India in the 11th century and instructed the Tibetan Marpa


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