Ancient Buddhist Artworks Teach Us Not to Fear the Future

The Second Buddha taught his disciples that the future is one with the past and present.

Rachel Gould
Feb 3, 2018 · 5 min read
Scenes from the Life of Padmasambhava. Bhutan or Tibet; ca. 18th century. Pigments on cloth. | Courtesy of the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich

When time is linear, we learn to fear the consequences of each decision we make. Despite our best efforts to secure imminent wellbeing, the principles of linear time obliterate the possibility of a fate other than what we inevitably have in store.

But what if we could re-learn to perceive time not as fixed, but as fluid? The Second Buddha: Master of Time delves into the ancient legends of Padmasambhava, credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet, through nearly 900 years of art celebrating his teachings. Presented by the Rubin Museum in New York City, The Second Buddha imparts an optimistic wisdom that encourages a different, perhaps more forgiving perspective of time.

Padmasambhava and His Eight Manifestations. Tibet; 16th century. | Copper alloy. Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

Amid a low-lit exhibition space showcasing more than 40 treasures from 13th- through 20th-century Tibet and Bhutan, a relatable narrative sounds out from a nook. Inside, a video installation lays bare the traditional Western perspective of linear time, rife with the fear and anxiety of a fixed future outside of human control.

I think about time with a sense of urgency. “Do I have enough time?”

Time waits for no one. Its path is linear, continuous, unrelenting. It flows in only one direction. Past. Present. Future.

I can move from place to place, but not from time to time. The trajectory of my life is parallel with the continuous movement of time. Maybe this is why we are obsessed with measuring time — why I can’t stop worrying about the future. I don’t have any control over it.

Can I break free of my perspective?

Padmasambhava. Tibet; 19th century. Pigments on cloth. | Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

Through some eight centuries of paintings, sculptures, and textiles depicting the legends and teachings of the enlightened Padmasambhava, also known as the Second Buddha, the Rubin Museum says yes, you can alter your perspective of time.

“If you’re like me, you’re usually thinking about something that hasn’t happened yet,” writes the Rubin Museum’s executive director, Jorrit Britschgi. “Perhaps you’re excited about an upcoming journey, worried about an uncertain result, or simply curious about what lies ahead. Most of the choices we make, and the decisions we ponder, are directed toward what is yet to come, and humans have been facing the future for all of history. At the Rubin this year, we challenge you to create a new relationship with the future — to consider a future that is not fixed, but fluid.”

Vajrakilaya of the Eight Pronouncements. Tibet; ca. late 13th century. Pigments on cloth. | Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

The Second Buddha invites visitors into the ancient world of Padmasambhava, an eighth-century enlightened thinker who legend says traveled from India to Tibet and introduced the principles of Buddhism to the Tibetan people.

Believed to be all-knowing, Padmasambhava could foresee periods of turmoil, so he hid his “treasure teachings” (terma) in the future for reincarnated disciples (terton) to find and carry forth when the time was right. Uncovered as objects, thoughts, and revelations through time, the terma were transcribed and shared with their own disciples through the years. Today, Padmasambhava remains an exalted figure in Buddhist culture.

Padmasambhava as Nyima Ozer. Tibet; 18th century. Gilt copper alloy. | Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

“Tibetans tie their cultural identity to stories about this famous enlightened master, which have been written and rewritten over centuries and are still being told, retold, and expressed in diverse forms of visual and performed arts,” said the Rubin Museum’s curator of Himalayan art, Elena Pakhoutova. “The system of concealed treasure teachings continues to sustain the Buddhist tradition today.”

What ensued was not only an ontology, but an exquisite visual culture.

Padmasambhava as Orgyen Dorje Chang. Tibet; 19th century. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. | Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

From 13th-century stone carvings to 17th-century silk appliqués, 19th-century textiles and iron ritual scepters dating back to sometime between the 11th and 15th centuries, The Second Buddha showcases a breadth of stunning portrayals of Padmasambhava: a figure traditionally depicted sitting in the lotus position, wearing a lotus hat and holding a trident, a skull cup, and a vajra scepter.

“Such a representation reflects Padmasambhava’s unique role in Tibetan culture,” explains an exhibition label. “He is considered to be both an enlightened being, the Second Buddha, as well as a person.”

Ritual Dance Mask of Padmasambhava as Nyima Ozer (One of the Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche). Bhutan; ca. 18th–19th century. Papier-mâché and pigment, leather. | Courtesy of the Bruce Miller Collection

Padmasambhava teaches the art of time manipulation by which the future is entangled with the past and the present, lending a comforting fluidity to fate and fortune. “If I am an enlightened person, I see every moment as it really is — as both distinct and part of a whole dimension of time,” the Rubin Museum’s video installation continues. “Instead of passively experiencing time, I am able to actively engage with it.”

Organized into three sections, The Second Buddha introduces Padmasambhava as a cultural and a historical figure. The remaining space explores his teachings as they relate to time. Interactive AR technology nods to Padmasambhava’s concealed teachings while showcasing the future of exhibitions, as visitors can uncover hidden content through iPads stationed throughout the room.

Teacher and Treasure Revealer, Jatson Nyingpo (1585–1656) Eastern Tibet; 19th century. Pigments on cloth. | Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

With The Second Buddha, the Rubin Museum of Art — a Chelsea-based institution dedicated to the arts and culture of the Himalayan region — inaugurates their 2018 program of exhibitions and events dedicated to the future.

The Second Buddha: Master of Time opened on February 2, 2018, and will remain on view through January 7, 2019 at the Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, New York, NY 10011.

Originally published at, where you can read more of Rachel’s work.

The Omnivore

Prime cuts and hot takes on arts and leisure from the…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store