SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- Mandalas are geometric maps of Himalayan Buddhist visionary worlds, created by and for practitioners of Vajrayana Buddhism (Lightning Vehicle Buddhism), a system of meditation that is profoundly dependent on art and artists. Minutely detailed and saturated with philosophical meaning, these mandalas (most often paintings or sculptures) are a feast for the eyes and the mind.
The Asian Art Museum has configured 15 artworks from the museums collection to transform its Tateuchi Gallery into a three-dimensional mandala for the special exhibition Enter the Mandala: Cosmic Centers and Mental Maps of Himalayan Buddhism. On view through Oct. 26, Enter the Mandala creates a mandala that can be entered physically, which is one goal of Lightning Vehicle meditation itself. Museum visitors who enter the mandala will get a virtual taste of what it might be like to find oneself inside its nested geometries.
For Buddhist practitioners, mandalas are not just images to view, but worlds to exploreafter recreating the image in their minds eye, meditators imaginatively enter its realm. A mandalas basic form can be described as a quincunx, a center surrounded by four symbolic directions, like the five spots on a dice. In Lightning Vehicle Buddhism, each direction is presided over by a color-coded Buddha, each of whom represents a psychological defect (pride, delusion, frustration, hatred and lust) and the means of its transformation into fuel for enlightenment. By reciting the verbal formula (mantra) and forming the hand gesture (mudra) of the Buddha who epitomizes a practitioner's characteristic defect, the meditator transforms that defect into a corresponding insight.
In Enter the Mandala, a series of mandala paintings align the gallery with the cardinal directionsnorth, south, east and westtransforming the open gallery space into an architectural mandala. Three of these paintings are richly detailed and red-toned in the Nepalese style; they were originally part of a set of five paintings. These three worksall in the Asian Art Museums collectionform what is perhaps the most complete set of its kind outside of Tibet.
Each of the five paintings portrays one of the five cosmic Buddhas. In the southern sector of the mandala, the first of the original paintingsportraying the yellow Buddha Ratnasambhavarepresents the transformation of pride into an intuition of equality. In the center of the mandala, the second painting depicts the white Buddha Vairochana, responsible for transforming delusion into knowledge of reality. The northern sector features the third painting, the green Buddha Amoghasiddhi, who transforms frustration into success. In the eastern sector, the blue Buddha Akshobhya, who transforms hatred into wisdom, is represented by a photo reproduction from the Honolulu Museum of Arts eastern mandala. The whereabouts of the sets original painting for the western sector remains a mystery. For this exhibition, the red Buddha of the west, Amitabha, appears in a 14th-century Japanese painting and transforms lust into insight.
At the center of this gallery stands a symbolic replica of the Svayambhu Stupa, perhaps the best-known example of a monumental Lightning World mandala today. Stupasmonuments created to enshrine the sacred remains of enlightened beingsoriginated in India as mounds for marking sacred sites or containing religious relics. In Lighting Vehicle Buddhism, the stupas architecture echoes the basic form of a mandala, with a central axis surrounded by four directions. Visitors can find other artworks related to Lighting Vehicle Buddhism on the museums Lighting Path gallery tour.