Tibetan Thangka: Enter The Mandala

The cosmic Buddha Vairochana, thangka, circa 1100-1200, Tsang, Tibet, colours on cotton, 39 1/2 x W. 28 7/8 inches. Acquisition made possible by the Avery Brundage estate, Sharon Bacon, Mona J. Bolcom, Dr. Edward P. Gerber, Jane R. Lurie, Margaret Polak, Therese and Richard Schoofs, Dr. and Mrs William Wedemeyer, and anonymous friends of the Asian Art Museum 1992 © Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

THIS EXHIBITION OF cross-cultural esoteric Buddhist art, comprising predominantly Himalayan works of art, including Tibetan thangka, from the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s collections, illustrates a unique concept whereby for the first time in a museum’s history, the curator Jeffrey Durham, has ‘reconstructed’ the mandala space.

He has reversed the de-contextualising dynamic in the standard displays of Tibetan ritual art in museum spaces and instead, has created conditions within the museum space to produce a contextual setting in which the works of art can perform some of their original function within a three-dimensional yoga tantra mandala. This has been achieved by configuring Tateuchi Hall’s space in the museum as an architectural mandala, so that visitors can actually enter it as opposed to only looking at the mandala itself.

Three 14th-Century Tibetan Thangka

Three 14th-century Tibetan thangka paintings of the dhyani Buddhas, or the colour coded ‘cosmic Buddhas’, form the highlights, displayed in each of the cardinal directions rendered in the red palette which characterises the Nepali influence on Tibetan thangkas. These three paintings are amongst the last of their kind and represent the most complete set of five dhyani Buddha paintings in a Western museum, which in its completion would have formed the Vajradhatu, or ‘Lightning World’, mandala.

The predominant religion in Tibet is the Vajrayana, or ‘Lightening Vehicle’, form of Buddhism. Tibetan religious art therefore depicts Buddhist subjects, serving as an expression of the Buddhist doctrine and primarily fulfilling a devotional purpose as a means to achieving enlightenment. The primary function of a Tibetan Buddhist thangka painting, or sculpted figure, is to serve as a support, or rten, for the deity and for the devotees’ visualisations to aid in meditation and initiation practices. The artists’ aesthetic abilities therefore become extensions of the spiritual teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism in art.

Mandala Are Cosmograms

Mandalas are cosmograms, or maps, of Buddhist visionary worlds, translated from Sanskrit to mean ‘world in harmony.’ They are drawn in a two-dimensional format illustrating a host of deities and symbolic iconogaphic features according to which Buddhist teaching it corresponds to, as prescribed in the texts known as tantras. They can also be produced in a three-dimensional format from grains of sand known as dul-tson-kyil-khor, or ‘mandala of coloured powders’.

Mandalas are contemplated upon during meditation practice whereby the Buddhist practitioners recreate the image in their mind’s eye and imaginatively enter its realm from the East. Upon reaching the centre of the mandala, the practitioner visualises and identifies with the deity and the qualities that the deity represents and transforms from wisdom to compassion.

Exhibition Offers An Experience of  Prayer

The exhibition seeks to offer this form of experience to the uninitiated practitioner who can experience the paintings and deities they represent by walking through and physically entering this architectural mandala in order to be immersed in the midst of the cosmic symbols and feel as if they are being transported into another world, for mandalas have outer, inner and esoteric meanings.

On the outer level, they represent the world in its divine form whilst on the inner level, they represent a map through which the human mind can be transformed into the enlightened mind and on an esoteric level, they predict the primordially perfect balance of the subtle energies of the body and the clear light dimension of the mind.

The Four Symbolic Directions

Surrounding the epicentre of a mandala are the four symbolic directions, each cardinal direction being presided over by a colour-coded dhyani, or ‘cosmic’, Buddha. Each of these Buddhas represents a psychological defect such as pride, delusion, hatred, frustration and lust, and the means to transform these defects into wisdom and thereby, enlightenment aided by reciting sacred verbal chants called mantras and performing specific hand gestures known as mudras of the Buddha which epitomises the practitioner’s psychological defect.

From the Eastern Direction

Entering the mandala from the eastern direction is a high-resolution digital print of the original 14th-century painting from the Honolulu Museum of Art representing the blue Buddha of the East, Akshobya, who transforms hatred into wisdom.

Although this deity illustrates the same earth-touching hand gesture as the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, upon enlightenment, there are distinct iconographical features such as the initiation crown he wears indicative of a directional Buddha from a Vajrayana Buddhist mandala and unlike the historical Buddha he is coloured blue, surrounded by elephants on his throne’s pedestal.

The Historical Buddha Shakyamuni

In contrast, in the eastern section of the gallery, there is also a 16th-century Tibetan thangka on display of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni performing the bhumisparsha mudra, or earth touching hand gesture, in reference to the Buddha’s calling of the earth as a witness when he overcame the illusion that is the demon Mara to attain enlightenment whilst seated underneath the Bodhi (Bo)Tree, or the ‘Tree of Awakening’, whilst facing the eastern direction.

The Mahabodhi temple was constructed at Bodh Gaya to commemorate this auspicious event, examples of which were produced in Southeast Asia and are on display in the southern section of this mandala in the gallery.

To the South

To the south, is a 14th-century thangka of the yellow Buddha Ratsnasambhava, resplendent in five kinds of jewellery to symbolise the five directional Buddhas with his five-part crown repeating the symbols of the five cosmic Buddhas. In Vajrayana Buddhist thought, he is associated with the attempt to transform pride into an intuition of equality and is associated with the skandha of feeling, or sensation, and its relationship with consciousness.

Two Burmese 11th/12th-century terracotta tablets are displayed to the south of the gallery as well, illustrating the seated Buddha performing the bhumisparsha mudra, surrounded by worshippers with the central axis of both tablets being formed by depictions of the Mahabodhi temple. These votive tablets signify the importance of making copies of the Mahabodhi temple in different forms outside of India, such as these votive tablets, so that the worshippers may bring the centre of the universe into their own countries.

Plaques Illustrating the Buddha

There are two more plaques illustrating the Buddha, a 15th-century plaque from Thailand illustrating a walking Buddha which is unusual to find outside of Thailand, but common in the sculpture of the Sukhothai Kingdom in northern Thailand, which would have been housed in Thai Buddhist temples, and a 11th- to 13th-century Indian stone plaque from Bihar.

This plaque shows one of the scenes of the life of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, or jataka. One of these jataka tales relays the auspicious moment Shakyamuni touches the earth and asserts his victory over Mara at Bodh Gaya, when he attained enlightenment.

To the West

To the west of the gallery space is a 14th-century Japanese painting on silk of the red Buddha Amitabha, who transforms lust into insight, painted amidst the Western Paradise of the Pure Land, or Sukhavati. He is illustrated performing the meditation hand gesture, or dhyana mudra, and is associated with the skandha of perception, or samjna.

He is painted red, the colour that symbolises love, compassion and emotional energy as well as the warm colour of the setting sun which sets to the west, seated on a lotus throne of whose attributes of gentleness, openness and purity with which he is associated.

To the North

To the north is a 14th-century Tibetan thangka of the green Buddha Amoghasiddhi, who transforms frustration into success. He is associated with the skandha of the conceptual mind and mental formations, performing the hand gesture of fearlessness and granting protection called abhaya mudra. His symbol is the crossed double vajra, or thunderbolt, representing his direction towards the accomplishment of all actions and the purification of evils. The green light, which he radiates, represents the light of accomplishing wisdom.

Also illustrated in this section is a thangka of Green Tara from a 13th-century, on a Chinese silk tapestry, kesi, from the lost kingdom of Xixia of the Tangut empire in northwestern China. Here, the Green Tara personifies compassion in action and is depicted in a posture of ease with her right leg extended as if she is ready to spring into action whilst her left leg is folded in a contemplative position on her lotus throne, symbolising the integration of wisdom and compassionate action.

To the centre of this mandala is a 14th-century depiction of the white Buddha Vairochana, or ‘Sun Buddha’, who presides at the centre of the universe where he can see all things, and thus he is known as the ‘all-seeing’, or sarva-vid, Buddha responsible for transforming delusion into the knowledge and wisdom of reality as taught in the Buddhist teachings or dharma. He is also seen as the embodiment of the Buddhist concept of Emptiness, shunyata, as a reminder that all existence is empty and without a permanent identity. Moreover, he forms the sum of all the dhyani Buddhas, who combines all of their qualities.

Replica of the Svayambunath stupa in Kathmandu

At the centre of the exhibition space is an 18th-century, gilded-copper replica of the Svayambunath stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal, the original of which has the large primordial all-seeing eyes of the Buddha painted onto its surface. Buddhist stupas, the dome-shaped architectural monuments used to house the sacred relics of enlightened beings, reflect the basic form of the mandala with its central axis surrounded by the four cardinal directions.

A simulation of the Kalachakra mandala is available to explore on an accompanying monitor (courtesy the Rubin Museum of Art), which illustrates how a visualisation process works with a similar basic form of mandala as illustrated in this innovative exhibition which offers a unique visitor experience. It inspires visitors to explore the question, ‘Am I in the mandala, or is the mandala in me?’.


Enter the Mandala: Cosmic Centres and Mental Maps of Himalayan Buddhism, until 26 October at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin Street, San Francisco, www.asianart.org