Buddhism originated in India where the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, was born and preached the doctrine leading to enlightenment. As the religion developed and spread throughout Asia, images of the Buddha and of other deities, such as Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion and Mercy, proliferated. In Japan, household shrines like the intricate and complex butsudan offered opportunities for private worship. Drinking tea to focus attention during meditation led to special accoutrements for tea preparation and service. A large and colorful censor documents the practice of burning incense. In Tibet, another form of Buddhism emerged based on esoteric scriptures, yogic meditation, and elaborate rituals. Paintings and ritual objects were essential to this practice.

Thangka, 1000 Buddha’s, 18th cy., ink and colors on cotton, 60” x 43” framed

Thangka, 1,000 Buddhas

Tibet, 17th–18th centuries
Ink and colors on cotton
DBC 10681.1

This large, detailed thangka or painting features a seated image of Amitayus, the Buddha of endless life surrounded by 1,000 smaller Buddhas who embody the omnipotence of the central deity. The hands of Amitayus are in the dhyana or meditation mudra. It was used in a monastery as an aid to meditation and indicates the complexity of the Buddhist pantheon in Tibet.

Tripod Censer, glazed stoneware

Tripod Censer

China, Ming Dynasty, 1368–1644
Glazed stoneware, fahuaware
DBC 11245.1/2

The size, quality, and complexity of this incense burner are amazing. Each octagonal section has applied rosettes, and the cover has an applied floral motif and a guardian lion. The cabriole-shaped feet have animal faces. The turquoise, yellow, purple, and green glazes are typical of fahua ware. The form is based on the ancient ritual bronze vessel type, ding.

Buddhist Shrine, Meiji Period, 1869-1912, wood, lacquer, bronze, brass, gilt

Buddhist Shrine

Japan, Meiji Period, 1869–1912
Wood, lacquer, bronze, brass, gilt
DBC 11231.1

This large household shrine, a butsudan, has a central standing Amida Buddha surrounded by a myriad of decorative accessories. Two scrolls hang to the rear of the Buddha, and a pair of black lacquer vases contain gold lotus flowers. Lanterns, pendants, and a five-piece altar set (incense burner, candle holders and flower vases) further embellish the shrine. The interior is elaborately

Priest’s Robe, 19th cy., silk brocade

Priest’s Robe (Kesa)

Japan, Edo Period, 1603–1868, 19th century
Silk brocade
DBC 10570.1

This stunning robe has a black silk ground with gold metallic thread decoration. The motifs include chrysanthemums and leaves and roundels with coiled dragons.

Figure of Jinrickshaw Driver and Carriage

Iki Ningyo of a Jinricksha Driver and Carriage

Japan, Meiji Period, 1869–1912, ca. 1880
Wood and gofun
DBC 10331.1

Iki Ningyo means living doll and refers to the expressive, realistic features of these figures. This example shows a young man pulling a ricksha. Realistic details include inset glass eyes, ivory teeth, carved hair, and loin cloth. His musculature is well defined and the cart has detailed mechanisms, an upholstered seat, and retractable cover.

Tea Ceremony Covered Box, wood, lacquer

Tea Ceremony Covered Box (Chabako)

Japan, Meiji Period, 1868–1912
Wood, lacquer
DBC 10452.1

This finely woven and lacquered box is exquisitely decorated with pine branches. It once contained paraphernalia used in the formal tea ceremony.

Bamboo Ikebana Vase

Ikebana Vase

Noguchi Ushu
Japan, 20th century
DBC 10491.1

This delicately woven vase contained flowers to decorate the tokonoma (alcove) in the area used for a tea ceremony. It is signed on the base and was exhibited in 1977 at the 18th annual Kyoto Bamboo craft show and won a special medal from the mayor of Kyoto.

Pear-shaped Bottle, Koryo Dynasty, 14th cy., glazed stoneware


Korea, Koryo Dynasty, 14th century
Glazed stoneware
DBC 10743.1

This pear-shaped bottle is a rare example of temmoku glaze which is usually found on Chinese and Japanese stonewares. The thick, mottled brown glaze pools toward the base.

Tea Bowl, stoneware with tortoise shell glaze,

Tea Bowl

China, Southern Song Dynasty, 1127–1279
Jizhou ware, stoneware with tortoise shell glaze,
DBC 10532.1

A dark brown glaze with golden splashes, the tortoise shell glaze was also hard to achieve.

Saggar and Tea Bowl, stoneware with Hare’s Fur glaze

Tea Bowl
Saggar and Tea Bowl

China, Northern Song Dynasty, 960–1127
Jian ware, stoneware with hare’s fur glaze,
DBC 10478.1, 10457.1

Bowls like these were used by Buddhist monks for their tea ceremonies. Later they were taken to Japan by Zen monks and were referred to as Temmoku. The stoneware body is covered with a thick, dark brown glaze streaked with iron oxide to create a pattern reminiscent of hare’s fur, an extraordinarily difficult effect to achieve. As the glaze flowed downward during firing, it left the lip almost unglazed. Bowls were fired in saggars to protect them. When not properly placed, the bowl adhered to the saggar; misfired pieces like this are usually discarded, making this example unusual.

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhist worship practices, called Tantrayana, Vajrayana, and other names, are complex involving yogic meditation and the worship of wrathful deities using cups made from the crania of illustrious monks and trumpets made from femur bones. These offer a direct connection to spiritual potency. Bells, horns, and drums accompany the chanting of ritual mantras. The goals are the accumulation of merit and the transformation of delusion into perfect wisdom.

Embroidered silk hanging tapestry in decorated with small brass disks, several imperial lions, and pomegranates.

Altar Cloth

China, Qing Dynasty
Embroidered silk
DBC 11227.1

This elaborately embroidered altar cloth features several lions and pomegranates. The Buddha’s voice is said to have sounded like a lion. Pomegranates are fertility symbols. The couch stitch and small brass disks create the distinctive design.

Sakyavajra, copper alloy inlaid with silver


Tibet, 16th century
Copper alloy inlaid with silver
DBC 10139.1

This Buddha sits on a double lotus base which is inscribed in Tibetan “I pay homage to the life image of the best jewels Sakyavajra.” The right hand is in the giving (varada) mudra and the left holds a flaming jewel. Casting an image like this would have gained merit for the devotee.

gilt bronze statue Lama Milarepa, 1040-1123, 17th-18th cy.

Lama Milarepa

Tibet, 17th–18th centuries
Gilt bronze
DBC 10781.1

Lama Milarepa (1040–1123) spent his life wandering throughout Tibet performing miracles, converting people to Buddhism and writing his 100,000 songs. He sits on a gazelle skin with his right hand to his ear as if listening and holds a begging bowl in his left hand. Repa means cotton clad and is an early term for a Tibetan yogic practitioner.

Mandorla Fragment with Treasure Mongoose, 15th cy., gilt bronze,

Mandorla Fragment

Tibet, 15th century
Gilt bronze
DBC 10637.1

This was part of a halo surrounding a Buddhist deity, possibly Jambhala, and is important because of its early date. The mongoose standing on an elephant disgorges jewels, bestowing wealth and conquering avarice.

Vajra, 19th cy., bronze, 6” L.


Tibet, 19th century
DBC 10529.1

The vajra or thunderbolt symbolizes supreme wisdom as well as the male principle of fitness of action. This example is decorated with dragon heads.

Bell and Vajra, 17th-18th cy., bronze

Bell with Vajra

Tibet, 17th–18th centuries

This well-worn bell topped by a vajra was used in Buddhist rituals and represents the female principle of intelligence.

wood and silver Mazek Bowls


Tibet, 19th century
Burlwood and silver
DBC 10113.1/3

Probably made of rhododendron burlwood, these bowls were used by nobility to eat. Silver was believed to protect the user against poison.

Skull Cup on Stand, 18th cy., human skull, copper & bronze, Kanling Trumpet, femur bone, silver, coral and turquoise

Skull Cup on Stand

Tibet, 18th century
Human skull, silver, copper, bronze
DBC 10124.1/2

Skull cups, kapala, were used in tantric rituals to represent the transformation of delusion into perfect wisdom and for offerings to fierce deities. This skull is probably that of an important Buddhist priest or Lama. Its exterior is inlaid in silver and copper with a double-vajra, ribbon-tied chopper, bell, and dagger. The tripod stand has small skulls and feet terminating in five-pronged vajras. The vajra is the ritual thunderbolt used in Buddhist rituals, especially in Tibet.

Skull Cup on Stand, 18th cy., human skull, copper & bronze, Kanling Trumpet, femur bone, silver, coral and turquoise

Femur Horn

Tibet, 19th century
Bone, silver, coral and turquoise
DBC 10848.1

Skull Cup on Stand, 18th cy., human skull, copper & bronze, Kanling Trumpet, femur bone, silver, coral and turquoise

Conch Shell Horn

Tibet, 19th century
Bone, silver, coral and turquoise
DBC 10848.1

A symbol of the Sacred World, the conch shell is highly prized in Tibet. It is used to summon monks to prayers to appease fierce deities. The repoussé decoration includes various Buddhist motifs such as the Wheel of the Law.

Prayer Wheel, 19th cy., wood, bone, metal,

Prayer Wheel

Tibet, 19th century
Wood, bone, metal
DBC 10653.1

The drum contains a rolled up scroll on which is written a Buddhist sutra or sacred text. While chanting a mantra, the worshipper twirls the handle and chain to rotate the drum and disseminate the prayers contained inside. This is a means to accumulate merit and purify one’s karma.

Portable Shrine, 18th-19th cy., repousse silver, copper, fabric,

Portable Shrine

Tibet, 18th–19th centuries
Silver, copper, fabric
DBC 10550.1

A Tibetan Ghau is a “hidden box” or locket traditionally worn by pilgrims to protect them from evil and bring good luck. In the center of the lotus petal, the polychrome painted deity is surrounded by repoussé silver with the eight Buddhist emblems. They include the conch, the dharma wheel, the pair of golden fish, the endless knot, the parasol, the lotus, the treasure vase, and the victory banner.

Tibetan woven wool tiger rug,

Tiger Rug

Tibet, ca. 1750
DBC 10517.1

This rug depicts the fully flayed skin of a tiger. It is a rare example of “single stripe with rainbow border” design. It incorporates the unusual Chinese pattern of “mountain, sea, and cloud at the end border. The subduing of wild animals symbolizes the conquering the untamed energies within, an important concept in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. Actual flayed animals as well as animal carcasses were offered to fierce deities.

Carved wood and paint decorated child’s cradle.

Infant’s Cradle

Tibet, 18th century
Carved and painted wood
DBC 10186.1

This unusual, complete cradle, painted with colorful flowers, birds, and figures, was made for a high born child. Beneath the sleeping platform are two compartments for song birds to sing the baby to sleep.

Ceremonial Trumpet, copper, brass, silver,

Ceremonial Trumpet

Tibet, 20th century
Copper, brass, silver
DBC 10671.1

Ritual music was a powerful element in Tibetan ceremonies and an important aid to spiritual pursuits. The profound and unique sound produced by Tibetan ritual instruments played together has no parallels in Asian music and creates a mystical experience transcending the noises of the “real” world.

Drum, 19th cy., wood, tanned hide


Tibet, 19th century
Wood, tanned hide
DBC 10116.1

This drum was used in the elaborate Tibetan Buddhist ritual ceremonies which included the chanting of mantras, sacred Sanscrit symbols.

Hat, gilt lacquer with coral and silver finial


Tibet, 18th–19th centuries
Gilt lacquer with coral and silver finial
DBC 11251.1

Hats were not originally part of Indian Buddhist monks’ attire but figure prominently in the official and ceremonial equipment of Tibetan monks. This rare example is finely painted with scenes of wrathful deities, lotus flowers, and dragons chasing the sacred pearl.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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