Asian Art Newspaper explores the world of Tibetan Buddhist art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, in the exhibition Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment

This exhibition of Tibetan Buddhist art, previously on show at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, explores how integral artistic endeavour is to Tibetan Buddhist spiritual practices, underscoring art’s power to focus and refine our awareness. By immersing visitors in fantastic Buddhist landscapes of Tibetan Buddhism and introducing the enlightened beings that appear there, Awaken provides a taste of what awareness might be – if only we would wake up. Dr Jeffrey Durham, the co-curator of the exhibition and Associate Curator of Himalayan Art explains, ‘The landscapes of Himalayan Buddhism, along with the powerful entities that populate them, make for a dramatic visual repertoire unrivalled in the world of religious art, allowing the exhibition journey to culminate with a powerful moment of visual and spiritual clarity made manifest by a blend of art and experience’.

On show are almost 100 objects of Tibetan Buddhist art, to help the visitor navigate a pathway from the business of daily life to the calmness and serenity of ‘awakening’. The exhibition unfolds through an orchestrated series of gallery spaces arranged as a quest. The exhibition begins with a visual assault: a modern-day video meant to briefly overwhelm in order to remind us of the central problem that Tibetan Buddhist art is designed to address – that we are lulled asleep by the ordinary world’s clamour and therefore blind to the true nature of reality.

Buddhism’s Essential Teachings

Further into the exhibition of Tibetan Buddhist art, visitors learn some of Buddhism’s essential teachings, meet a ‘guide’ represented by a painting of 15th-century Tibetan philosopher Gorampa Sonam Senge and view a map in the form of a painted mandala from Gorampa’s monastery, Ngor. Visitors meet fearsome guardians, then explore the range of spiritual tools and weapons that symbolise and aid aspects of the meditative process, including a flaming skull trident from 18th-century Tibet.

The journey of Tibetan Buddhist art continues to the centre of a gallery where visitors encounter a 500-year-old sculpture of the Lightning Terror, Vajrabhairava – the Destroyer of Death. Finally, visitors emerge into a luminous space, where they ‘meet’ a 12th-century stone sculpture of a crowned Buddha who, despite his mass, seems to defy gravity and subvert our ordinary conceptions of solid and weightless – a visual metaphor for enlightenment.

In addition to major historic works, Awaken also features three contemporary paintings by Tsherin Sherpa, who trained in traditional Tibetan thangka painting with his father, Urgen Dorje, a renowned thangka artist from Ngyalam, Tibet. Sherpa is known for his eye-catching ability to split, melt, or otherwise reconfigure large-scale neo-traditional paintings to effectively express the complex mental tactics that Tibetan Buddhism deploys to sharpen the mind and focus the attention of adherents.

At the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, asianart.org. The museum is currently closed due to Covid-19, however, to watch a video on one of the objects in the exhibition used for meditation, a ‘flaming trident’, view on this link , or via the museum’s YouTube chanel, Asian Art Museum.