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.
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!