The Rubin
Kavita Shah plays the  elements

Have you ever heard the music of a painting? On January 6, jazz performer Kavita Shah will present a concert inspired by the five elements of Tibetan Buddhist culture. According to Shah, “the elements of nature bind us humans across cultures, civilizations, and chronologies,” a view that closely aligns with traditional Buddhist teachings and artworks.

Shah says that the idea to present a program in tune with the elements of nature first came to her after a performance at the Rubin last year. She spent some time amongst the galleries and was struck by the visceral connections she felt between the agricultural and spiritual societies of the Himalayas and those she has encountered in my own life: from the Sacred Valley of Perú to the lush fields of Maui to her grandmother’s village in Northwest India and her own imagined landscapes. This experience inspired her to weave together a group of stories and soundscapes held together by the common thread of reverence for the natural world.

Shah’s performance will connect to Tibetan Buddhism’s five elements: earth, water, fire, wind, and space. These elements play a fundamental role in understanding the world and they are the essential substances that compose both the universe and the self. Buddhist teachings and the Rubin Museum’s artwork also commonly refer to these elements. Each element has an associated color, an associated member of the Five Buddha Families, a related direction within a mandala (North, South, East, West, Center), and significance within the Tibetan Medical tradition.

Read on to learn about each of the different elements and the role they play in Tibetan Buddhist culture and experience a sonic interpretation of the elements at Kavita Shah’s Jazz at the Rubin concert on January 6, 2017.


Earth

Buddha Ratnasambhava with Wealth Deities Tibet; early to mid-14th century Pigments on cloth Rubin Museum of Art C2005.16.39
Buddha Ratnasambhava with Wealth Deities Tibet; early to mid-14th century Pigments on cloth Rubin Museum of Art C2005.16.39
  • Associated Buddha: Ratnasambhava
  • Associated Color: Yellow
  • Associated Direction: South
  • Where it’s Found in the Body: Physical matter such as bones, teeth, and flesh

Water

Buddha Akshobya Tibet; 14th century Pigments on cloth Rubin Museum of Art Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin C2006.66.627
Buddha Akshobya Tibet; 14th century Pigments on cloth Rubin Museum of Art Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin C2006.66.627


  • Buddha: Akshobya
  • Color: Blue
  • Direction: East
  • Where it’s Found in the Body: Fluids connecting all parts of the body together

Fire

The Buddha of Immeasurable Light Amitabha Buddha Eastern Tibet, Palpung / Situ Painting School, 17th century Ground Mineral Pigment, Fine Gold Line on Cotton Rubin Museum of Art Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin C2006.66.130
The Buddha of Immeasurable Light Amitabha Buddha Eastern Tibet, Palpung / Situ Painting School, 17th century Ground Mineral Pigment, Fine Gold Line on Cotton Rubin Museum of Art Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin C2006.66.130
  • Buddha: Amitabha
  • Color: Red
  • Direction: West
  • Where it’s Found in the Body: Energy, particularly in the process of digestion and changing food into nutrition the human body can use

Air/Wind

Buddha Amoghasiddhi (fragment, decorative banner) Tibet; 15th century Pigments on cloth Rubin Museum of Art C2006.46.1
Buddha Amoghasiddhi (fragment, decorative banner) Tibet; 15th century Pigments on cloth Rubin Museum of Art C2006.46.1
  • Buddha: Amoghas
  • iddhiColor: Green
  • Direction: North
  • Where it’s Found in the Body: All movement within the body both physically and mentally

Space

Space is the ultimate element since it contains all other elements within it

Buddha Vairochana Tibet; 14th century Pigments on cotton Rubin Museum of Art Gift of Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation F1998.3.6
Buddha Vairochana Tibet; 14th century Pigments on cotton Rubin Museum of Art Gift of Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation F1998.3.6
  • Buddha: Vairochana
  • Color: White
  • Direction: Center of the mandala
  • Where it’s Found in the Body: While other elements can wax and wane in environments or bodies, space stays constant as a backdrop to all of existence. It is closely identified with orifices and cavities

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