Enter the Mandala

The cosmic Buddha Vairochana, approx. 1275–1350. Tibet, Sakya Monestary. Thangka; colors on cotton. Museum purchase, City Arts Trust Fund, 1991.1.

The cosmic Buddha Vairochana, approx. 1275–1350. Tibet, Sakya Monestary. Thangka; colors on cotton. Museum purchase, City Arts Trust Fund, 1991.1.

Here at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, we conserve a wide variety of artworks related to mandalas – geometric meditation maps designed by and for practitioners of esoteric Buddhism. From a crowned Buddha in the shrine arches of a Pala-period stupa to a Chinese Buddha in whose open robes the universe appears, many of our art objects have a place in the history of the mandala. But what exactly is that place? At the risk of stating the obvious, it isn’t always easy to tell. For these objects come to us from across cultural and geographic space, and often their original contexts are obscured by time and its attendant ravages. So the question for us and our significant collection of mandala-related artwork is this:  how do we treat this immense diversity in a simultaneously integral and authentic way?

Svayambhu Stupa, 1700-1800. Nepal. Gilded copper. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60B212.

Svayambhu Stupa, 1700-1800. Nepal. Gilded copper. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60B212.

In exploring our collection several years ago, it occurred to me that the answer to this sphinx-like riddle lay within the collection itself, this time in the form of three Tibetan thangka paintings from what was originally a set of five Buddha images. Dating to about the year 1300, these paintings feature the deep detailing and cinnabar-red palette that characterizes the Nepal-influenced style; it became important in Tibet after the decline of the North Indian monasteries about a century before. Among the last and finest of their kind, these three paintings also represent the most nearly complete set of Five Buddha paintings known to exist in western museums. And when complete, they would have comprised a mandala known as the Vajradhatu or “Lightning World.” In their original context, the Five Buddhas configure architectural space as the cosmic space of the mandala by articulating the cosmos’ five symbolic directions: a central axial region surrounded by the four cardinal directions, with a Buddha representing each, in a form like the five-spot on a set of dice. So it occurred to me: could we find a way to let our paintings reveal their original, intended function of setting up a mandala-like space?

Taima mandala, approx. 1300–1400. Japan. Hanging scroll; ink, colors and gold on silk. The Avery Brundage Collection, B61D11+.

Taima mandala, approx. 1300–1400. Japan. Hanging scroll; ink, colors and gold on silk. The Avery Brundage Collection, B61D11+.

Like the fivefold form of the mandala itself, the answer to this question was startling in its simplicity. First, find a roughly square gallery and array our three Buddha paintings in the center, north and south – the regions they would have originally represented. Then, find great mandala-oriented artworks from across esoteric Buddhist cultures and place them in the mandala regions with which they might be most readily associated. The result would be an architectural mandala that you can actually enter, rather than merely look at. I found this to be an elegant solution in another way, for such “entry into the mandala” is precisely the practice that Himalayan Buddhists use to develop insight into the nature of reality and our experience of it. First they visualize a specific mandala, then in the mind’s eye they enter it in full three-dimensional detail. As a result, I reasoned, the “enter the mandala” exhibition would not only give our visitors a taste of the immense range and genius of esoteric Buddhist art across cultures, it would provide simple, basic insights into an experience that would under ordinary conditions require decades of meditation practice to master.

A gallery view of the Enter the Mandala exhibition. Picture by Kaz.

A gallery view of the Enter the Mandala exhibition. Picture by Kaz.

When you visit Enter the Mandala, you’ll find a variety of historical and visionary worlds to explore. On the gallery floor, we have created a virtual mandala that will familiarize you with geometries and regions of the Five Buddha mandala according to which we have organized the exhibition. We have also created a tablet computer interactive that reveals hidden patterns on the paintings themselves.

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