Archive of Posts by Jeff Durham

Visualizing Consciousness: Hybrids, Fractals, and Ritual

Enter the Mandala gallery view

Mandalas are geometric maps of Vajrayana Buddhist visionary worlds. Whether painted or sculpted, they typically consist of nested squares and circles whose fractal geometries define the center of the cosmos and the four cardinal directions. Minutely detailed and saturated with philosophical meaning, mandalas are a feast for the eyes and the mind.

For Buddhist meditators, however, mandalas are not just images to view, but worlds to enter. To work with a mandala, practitioners first re-create it in their mind’s eye, and then imaginatively enter its world.

For museum visitors, our question is this: is it possible to recreate this kind experience without years of meditative discipline, while remaining as authentic as possible in our presentation?

The Asian Art Museum’s mini-exhibition Enter the Mandala says ‘yes.’ In this exhibition, three historically important, largely unpublished 14th century paintings from an original set of five align gallery space with the cardinal directions, thus virtually transforming open space into an architectural mandala. In this way, visitors can literally ‘enter the mandala,’ exploring dimensions of Buddhist art and philosophy in a manner that is simultaneously immersive and transformative.

One of the most important aspects of mandala-oriented artwork is its emphasis on fractal geometries. Formally, a fractal is an image composed of microcosmic copies of itself. Under these conditions, the image in question repeats at multiple scales. Beautiful fractal imagery such as the famous Mandelbrot set is generated from an iterated mathematical formula. Such patterns appear throughout nature, from the structure of the nautilus shell to the California coast.

Fractal geometries are also a key component of Buddhist art production across time and culture, too. Perhaps the best example of Buddhist artwork employing fractal geometry is the mandala. The intricately nested squares and circles that comprise mandala space are hypnotically beautiful. But there is a big difference between something like the Mandelbrot set and the mandala.

For Buddhist meditators, the mandala is not merely an image to view, but a world to enter. In mandala practice, meditators first visualize the mandala precisely in their mind’s eye. Subsequently, they imagine themselves as entering the geometries of the world created in this manner. Typically, such procedures involve intense training undertaken over many years.

For museum visitors, our question is this: is it possible to recreate this kind experience without years of meditative discipline, while remaining as authentic as possible in our presentation? In other words, can we use traditional artworks to create a situation where visitors find themselves inside the nested geometries of the mandala, such that they experienced themselves as immersed in a fractal? We think so, and we also think that an exhibition conceived in this manner is quite authentic to prominent perspectives within Buddhist tradition.

Indeed, the creation of an immersive, fractal environment such as that of the mandala has a long history in Buddhist meditative culture. Perhaps best known are ‘immersive’ cave environments at Dunhuang in China’s Gansu province. These caves were excavated in order to catalyze visionary realizations corresponding to those described in certain Buddhist texts. Here, mirrors were placed around meditators to create infinitely receding, mutually embedded perceptions of oneself. This was apparently done in an effort to help meditators perceive the fundamental structure of awareness, such that the entire environment becomes a “mirror hall that bounces the reflections of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas in all directions and projects the visualizing individual’s own presence to the Buddha assemblies,” according to Harvard Buddhologist Eugene Wang (1995: 265).

Enter the Mandala’s installation is obviously not an attempt to reconstruct any specific physical or architectural environment like the Dunhuang caves. However, the nature of its construction does create a visual parallel to Wang’s description of the Dunhuang mirror-meditation environment. Standing at the center of the mandala gallery, visitors can see reflections of the gilded Nepalese Stupa recede infinitely in all four directions, mandalas in mandalas as far as the eye can see – a situation in which visitors themselves are immersed. In this way, visitors not only experience an exciting visual effect, they can potentially learn a powerful lesson about awareness from the environment: that it always refers to and contains itself, and thus mirrors the situation visually perceived in the mandala room.

Tonight, I will be speaking with visual artist Saya Woolfalk at UC Berkeley about creative influences and religious content in the exhibition and the performance made in response to it. One of the things that has excited me most about Saya’s work is how effectively it dovetails with and sheds light upon some of the most important aspects of the Vajrayana – especially its emphasis on transformative virtual environments that prominently feature the fractal phenomenon. Just as so many of Saya’s work involves large-scale imagery composed of smaller elements of itself, it has much in common with the nested, fractal geometries characteristic of the mandala environment.

Beyond formal considerations, I’m fascinated by Saya’s idea of the hybrid beings she calls the Empathics. Their key characteristic is that the term Empathics refers both to a species hybridized from human and non-human elements, and to the artworks that facilitate such hybridization. For as it turns out, Vajrayana artworks like mandalas are also all about hybridization. For example, many of the images found in mandalas represent composite beings, a type of imagery that reflects the fundamental Buddhist philosophy that all modes of existence, from the mineral to the plant to the animal, are potentially inter-connectible. Indeed, one of the purposes of the ou-topia, the “non-place” of the mandala environment, is to allow the meditator to visualize enlightened beings, and in the wake of the practice actively and physically to identify with the visualized being. Under these conditions, the meditator becomes a hybrid, part human and part something more “awake” (which is the verbal root the word “Buddha” comes from).

There is another parallel here, this time between Saya’s artwork and the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism as a whole. That is, Saya’s emphasis on hybridization of beings parallels the fact that the Vajrayana is itself the product of a hybridization of Asian cultures. In fact, it might also be called a meta-tradition, since it transcends – on its own understanding and in its own history – any specific culturally-defined religious system. Similarly, Saya’s Empathics also transcend species specificity. Accordingly, the Empathics are a parallel example of a meta-being, one whose constitution transcends that of any specific natural kingdom. Finally, the notion of an Empathic is compelling as well, since a similar awareness of the sentience of others (called karuna in Sanskrit) forms one of the linchpins of Vajrayana Buddhist philosophy and practice. For all of these reasons, I look forward to a fascinating “meta-dialog” between these ostensibly diverse worlds of contemporary and traditional artworks – a project essential to developing models of artistic creation and usage that apply across what we typically recognize as contexts.

The Twilight Zone: Visionary and Geographic Space in the Mandala

Enter the Mandala gallery view

When you enter the mandala, you are entering a kind of twilight zone. Certainly this is literally true of the lighting in the gallery. Beyond this, though, the system of Buddhist practice that informs so many objects in the exhibition is based on a kind of language called “twilight” speech. This is symbolic language, twilight in the sense that it is halfway between the metaphorical and the literal, just as the gallery itself is halfway between light and darkness. For example, in the “twilight language” of esoteric Buddhist practice, a ritual bell (ghanta) stands simultaneously for the female reproductive apparatus and mystic insight into the truth of emptiness (shunyata). Similarly, the stylized lightning bolt called a vajra stands both for the male reproductive organ, and for the strategies (upaya) used to realize that emptiness. Under these conditions, art, philosophy and physiology mutually inform and illumine each other. In this sense, then, you might say that twilight language stands at the threshold between concrete image and abstract insight.

In an analogous way, the Enter the Mandala gallery lies at the threshold between the geographic space of ordinary experience, and the visionary space of meditative experience. Consider the mandala shape, which consists of a central axis surrounded by the four cardinal directions. Now an architectural mandala structure in physical space would typically be oriented towards magnetic north, but Enter the Mandala is not so configured. Why? The answer is simple: in the visionary space of the mind’s eye, there is no magnetic north that might correspond to conventional geography. Instead, the directionality of the visualized mandala is predicated solely on the mandala form itself, with no external referent. In such a space, the four directions are relative to one another and to the mind of the meditator, rather than to any objective touchstone. Enter the Mandala is thus both architectural and visionary, again lying in the twilight zone between apparent opposites.

Enter the Mandala straight view

In our ordinary daily experience, twilight is halfway between day and night; it is neither just light nor just darkness. Instead, it concentrates both of these apparent opposites within itself. In a similar way, the goal of esoteric Buddhist mandala practice is to consciously experience a vision that is devoid of any actual physical substance (it is “empty,” shunya in Sanskrit) and yet still appears to the perceiver. In esoteric Buddhism, a vision of this type is a hieroglyph of the ultimate reality of the cosmos, which consists in the following insight: there is no physical substance in existence, but still appears to the mind. Precisely this insight is deemed to produce full awakening (bodhi) in meditators, dissolving the illusion of objectivity and catalyzing the insight that mind (not matter, which does not exist in visionary space) is the central formative reality in the cosmos. And with “enter the mandala,” we hope to give our visitors  a taste of what it might be like to find oneself halfway between opposites, at that magical point where we wake up to our actual situation as  consciously creative beings.

What is the Vajrayana?

The Vajrayana is literally the “Lightning Vehicle” of Buddhism. The Sanskrit word yana means “vehicle” – a means of transport capable of taking the practitioner from ordinary awareness to the experience of awakening (bodhi).  For its part, the word vajra means “lightning,” a translation that emphasizes the power and swiftness of its methods.

Although the term vajra does signify lightning, Vajras don’t typically look much like typical lightning bolts. In fact, some of the earliest images of vajras in Indian art come from Gandhara; a strangely Zeus-like figure carries the cudgel-like vajra in an important frieze in Gallery 1 (below). Eventually, the vajra took on its classical Vajrayana appearance, which you can see in the Southeast Asian galleries.

Architectural fragment showing the offering of the handful of dust and Maitreya and attendants, approx. 100-300. Pakistan. Schist. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S594.

Architectural fragment showing the offering of the handful of dust and Maitreya and attendants, approx. 100-300. Pakistan. Schist. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S594.

Look closely at a classical vajra below and you’ll notice a characteristic form at each end: a central axis surrounded by four cardinal directions. You can immediately tell that the form of the vajra and the form of the mandala echo one another – both consist of a central axis with four radiating directions. So it will be little surprise to discover that Vajrayana techniques involve a journey through the geometric meditation maps called mandalas, along with an emphasis on verbal formulae called mantras and hand gestures called “seals” (mudra). Employed together, these interwoven, multi-media meditation techniques are deemed so advanced that they can produce enlightenment “in this very life,” instead of the eons it takes through ordinary practice.

Ritual thunderbolt, approx. 800-900. Indonesia. Bronze. Gift of Walter Jared Frost, 1990.5.2.

Ritual thunderbolt, approx. 800-900. Indonesia. Bronze. Gift of Walter Jared Frost, 1990.5.2.

From a historical perspective, the Vajrayana was the last of the three great Buddhist systems to emerge; its texts were compiled only by the seventh century. On the surface, you might think that its relatively recent vintage would be a problem for the Vajrayana’s legitimacy. On the contrary, though, the Vajrayana understands itself as the most comprehensive and advanced of Buddhist systems, at least partially because its philosophy includes that of other schools.

The most important meditative technique of the Vajrayana involves visualization. In the first stage of Vajrayana meditation, practitioners build up an image of a mandala-dwelling deity – usually a form of the Buddha – in their mind’s eye. In the second stage, practitioners visualize themselves as that same Buddha. In this way, the meditative procedure or “path” explicitly involves seeing oneself as already in possession of the “goal,” namely obtaining the body, speech and mind of a Buddha. In Vajrayana thought, this procedure is therefore called “taking the goal as the path.”

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.

Yoga: The Art of Transformation

The Theosophical Body, from The Chakras: A Monograph, 1927, by Charles W. Leadbeater (1854–1934). Illinois. Courtesy of General Collections, Library of Congress, Washington DC, BP573.C5 L4 1972.

The Theosophical Body, from The Chakras: A Monograph, 1927, by Charles W. Leadbeater (1854–1934). Illinois. Courtesy of General Collections, Library of Congress, Washington DC, BP573.C5 L4 1972.

When the Freer Sackler first approached us with the idea of creating an exhibition of yoga-oriented art, I was intrigued, but had lots of questions. What role did art play in the formation of yoga traditions? Did art inform philosophy and practice, or vice versa? And did the imagery of the yoga tradition change over time in response to historical and social circumstances? As I have learned, the answers to these questions can be very surprising.

For example, I had wondered when the full spectrum of yoga postures, asana in Sanskrit, was first depicted. Like many other yoga enthusiasts, I had assumed that they were present “from the beginning” of the tradition. But like so many of my preconceptions, this assumption was destined to be overturned. Far from emerging fully-formed, like Athena out of Zeus’ head in the famous Greek myth , many complex postures first appear in a 16th century treatise called the Bahr al-Hayat (“Ocean of Life”) – a millennium and a half after the Indian sage Patanjali compiled the yoga sutras. And there were more surprises. As it turns out, the Bahr al-Hayat’s accompanying text is not penned in any Indian script; instead, it represents a translation from a Sanskrit original into Persian by a Sufi (Islamic mystic) scholar. In this exhibition, you’ll have a chance to examine the imagery of the Bahr al-Hayat in detail; some of the postures will be familiar, and other may present you with your own puzzles to decipher.

As the exhibition took shape, I began wondering about how traditions of yoga art would depict the invisible aspects of yoga experience. How, I wondered, might artists envision an abstract concept like the Brahman, the impersonal deity of the Hindu texts called Upanishads? I was just as curious about the tradition began to depict the so-called “subtle body,” the network of energy centers and channels that yogis manipulate. I had assumed that these key yoga ideas appeared very early in the development of the tradition – but again the art of yoga surprised me.

Three aspects of the Absolute, page 1 from a manuscript of the Nath Charit, 1823, by Bulaki. India. Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper. Courtesy of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS 2399.

Three aspects of the Absolute, page 1 from a manuscript of the Nath Charit, 1823, by Bulaki. India. Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper. Courtesy of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS 2399.

Several paintings from Man Singh’s Jodhpur court appear prominently in this exhibition. In the early 1800’s, the king of the Indian city of Jodhpur, Maharaja Man Singh, commissioned a large set of paintings that depict both invisible and subtle aspects of yoga; one of these paintings, Three aspects of the Absolute, depicts the Brahman directly as a shimmering field of undifferentiated gold. Another series of Jodhpur paintings reveals different configurations of the “subtle body,” the interior system of energy centers and channels that figures so prominently in contemporary hatha yoga thought. Almost life-size, these Jodhpur paintings make it easy to see how the subtle, energetic body might map onto the physical body. A third set of Jodhpur paintings show the transmission of these teachings from guru to student in the Nath order of yogis. Such teacher-student contact was essential to the continuity and thus legitimacy of a lineage of yoga practitioners.  A final set of paintings from Jodhpur reveal that Man Singh commissioned these paintings for simultaneously political and religious reasons: the king understood his seemingly miraculous ascension to the throne of Jodhpur as the direct result of Nath intervention in history. In this way, Man Singh positioned his secular as having the legitimacy of divine sanction.

Chakras of the subtle body EX-2014.2.001

The chakras of the subtle body, page 4 from a manuscript of the Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati, 1824, by Bulaki. India. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Courtesy of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS 2376.

Another question that intrigued me is how imagery focused on the “subtle body” was assimilated into Western discourse and culture. As I have learned, there are at least two ways this happened: through mysticism, and through medicine. Charles Leadbeater’s image of the chakras initially looks similar to the imagery on Man Singh’s “subtle body” paintings, but closer examination reveals that Leadbeater’s image derives from Western attempts to map the seven planets of the Ptolemaic universe onto, or perhaps into, the physical body. Perhaps because such images have a long history in European mysticism, they could serve as a bridge between two quite different kinds of mystical systems – yoga and astrology. Similarly, yoga entered western medical discourse by mapping the subtle body onto the anatomical body. One marvelous book, Chakras of the Subtle Body, contains an image that makes this equivalence explicit.

Yoga: The Art of Transformation has challenged my preconceptions about the relationship between art and yoga in many ways, but nowhere so much as regards the question of authenticity. I used to wonder: what is an authentic teaching or image, and what is spurious? Do lineages guarantee the integrity of a given teaching, or is there some other factor – maybe efficacy – at work? As with my other questions, the answer is often “yes” – in its transformations, the art of yoga can frequently be seen to occupy the middle ground between true and false, peaceful and violent, genuine and derivative. And it is that transformational zone between pairs of absolute opposites that I have come to recognize as the real homeland of this kaleidoscopic array of traditions we are pleased to call yoga.

Art and Science: Shrine of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

We tend to think we see everything about an object when we look at it with our naked eyes. This gem-encrusted shrine from Nepal is a great example. Above, you see the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in a miniature shrine, with two attendants on either side. From amidst a sea of swirling filigree elements, they emerge from two dimensions into three as bodhisattvas literally made from gems.

At first you might think that the large colored stones might be rubies or sapphires. But the color of many of these stones is an illusion—they are simply transparent quartz crystals with colored foil placed behind them. And if you look at the shrine from the side, you can see how the illusion works.

However, the redness of the many small ruby-like stones on the plaque is no illusion. But are they really rubies? Ultraviolet photography reveals the truth: many of them glow yellow instead of red, which shows that they are foil-backed crystal. The real rubies glow red under UV light, and as you can see these gemstones have been strategically placed in the crowns of the two side figures. There are also real rubies in the parasol at the center of the shrine, and in the eyes of the makara, or mystic crocodile, who occupies the summit of the shrine. The rest are just rock crystal.

UV image of the shrine of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

UV image of the shrine of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

Exactly why the artist chose rubies in certain locations and crystal in others remains a mystery. Were these side figures more ‘sacred’ than the others? Or was the artist concerned with symmetry rather than any specific meaning?

While we can’t be sure about the rubies, we do know something about some of the other stones here. Red coral, for example, symbolizes the sun, and it turns lavender under UV light. Turquoise, for its part, turns pale blue under the UV light; in Tibetan medicine, this stone is thought to purify the blood and remove toxins from the liver. It is also seen as an index of health: the bluer and clearer a piece of turquoise, the better the health of its wearer. From this perspective, the shrine incorporates medical powers into its structure. And why not? After all, the central figure is Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist figure who protects believers from all fears.

As museum researchers continue to examine this shrine and others like it in the collection, we’ll share our findings with you. But in the meantime, stop by the museum and examine this shrine in person. Who knows what details you’ll discover.

Mystery of the Five Buddhas: Decoding Three Tibetan Paintings

All knowledge begins with a mystery, and there are plenty of them at the Asian Art Museum. Over the past several weeks, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the labyrinth under the museum, where some of our greatest mysteries reside. Among the most intriguing are a set of three Tibetan paintings, each one superficially identical to the others. At the center of each thangka sits a Buddha;  around him appear a host of red-haloed mini-Buddhas. But a closer look begins to reveal telling details.  Body color and hand position differentiate each central Buddha from the others – and this is the crucial clue that tells us we are missing two thangkas from what was once a five-thangka set.

Mysteries abound in the Buddha images on this Tibetan thangka from the Asian Art Museum's collection.

In the original set, each of the five, differently-colored Buddhas presides over one of the cardinal directions, with an additional Buddha at their center. I’ve included an image of these Five Buddhas as they would appear in a complete set. As you’ll immediately see, the museum is missing the blue Buddha of the east, and the red Buddha of the west. I’ve been able to trace the blue Buddha (his name is Akshobhya, the “unshakeable one”) to Honolulu, but the red Buddha is still at large, perhaps in the Tibetan monastery where it was originally created – a place called Sakya, one of the most important institutions in the Himalayas.

The field of Buddhas behind each central Buddha might seem haphazardly arranged, but this is not the case. Looking closely, you’ll see that they occur in a regular sequence: red, yellow, white,  blue, and green, repeated ad infinitum. This fivefold pattern recapitulates in microcosmic form the fivefold structure of the original set of thangkas. Distributed regularly on the thangka’s surface, the field of haloed Buddhas reveals a bilateral symmetry in which diagonals consisting of a single Buddha-color flow downwards at 45 degrees.

Inside the central section of each painting appear 16 small figures. These too might seem randomly distributed, but again this is not the case. In fact, these figures, like the central Buddhas they surround, occupy one of the cardinal directions. When mapped out onto a ground-plan, the form hidden just behind the surface of the thangka becomes clear: our three Sakya paintings (and the two missing ones as well) each represent one quarter of the meditation aid called a mandala.

In the next post, I’ll show you the precise mandala from which these Tibetan images derive, and teach you how to read it. Then, we’ll be in a position to explore the imagery on some of the Asian’s more complex thangkas.

Until then, look closely and patiently at the thangkas, and see what kinds of insights emerge. When you start with a mystery, you may be surprised at what you can discover!