Wisdom and Compassion: Sacred Art of Tibet

An exhibitionTamara Wasserman Hill

Wisdom Collection

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An exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (April 17 to August 18, 1991), and at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art, New York (October 15 to December 28, 1991)

STRAINS OF LONG SILVER TRUMPETS and the deepthroated chanting of monks greeted the arrival of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in April. The religious and temporal leader of Tibet's exiled Buddhist population had come to grant a special blessing, initiating the creation of a large-scale sand mandala for the opening of "Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet." This stunning exhibition of Tibetan paintings, sculpture, and tapestries dating from 900 to 1900 C.E. has been assembled from prominent museums and private collections in North America, Europe, and the Soviet Union. Notably, none of the pieces were borrowed from either institutional or official sources in the People's Republic of China, to which Tibet has been politically bound for more than thirty years. The unaccustomed pageantry and the venerable presence of the Dalai Lama signaled an exhibition that was intended to be distinctly different from the usual objective presentation of works of art in a "neutral" museum space.

A Kalachakra Mandala. Sand mixed with mineral pigments, in situ. Diameter about 84 inches

While public recognition of the value of Tibet's culture is belated, this exhibition seeks to reinstate a certain spiritual dimension to rare treasures of fine art that have been forcibly ejected and poignantly cut off from their own spiritual and cultural setting. Aiming to illuminate the dramatic beauty and historical importance of these works from the perspective of their symbolic significance, the curators combined didactic, spiritual, and aesthetic objectives, demonstrating the art's function within a sacred context. These goals were furthered by informative wall labels in each gallery and a thorough, beautifully illustrated catalogue with essays by an international group of scholars, including Marilyn M. Rhie and Robert A. F. Thurman, which elucidated the iconographic details and provided an instructive backdrop of stylistic and religious developments in Tibet's 1,300-year Buddhist history.

The exhibition was conceived as an experiential pilgrimage predicated on the symbolism of the mandala, a circumscribed ritual area, sacred circle, or palace. The particular mandala used here is the Kalachakra, or Wheel of Time. The theme and the arrangements of individual pieces within each room of the exhibit supposedly replicate the structure of such a "cosmic map." The intention of the map is to lead the viewer through successive phases of Buddhist ritual and symbolism (pointing out different waves of historical development along the way), while simultaneously prompting the viewer to shed the role of passive observer—to experience the art as a Tibetan believer or initiate might—in a more interactive, spontaneously devotional and meditative manner.

Mahakala Panjaranatha, circa 1500
The Zimmerman family collection

THE KALACHAKRA mandala is seen as a square, jewel-bedecked palace, or mansion, denoting the self or microcosm, at whose center is the diamond throne, the seat of the deity or Buddha, as the focus of meditation. In addition, the throne refers to Mount Meru, the center of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. The palace is surrounded by five circular bands, or halls, representing various elements, aspects of psychological development, obstacles along the path, stages of consciousness, and so on.

The meditative and ritual practices of Vajrayana (or Tantric) Buddhism incorporate and rely upon the arts on many levels. Symbolic imagery is the basis for imaginative visualization, fostering the processes of self-transformation that are its goal and motivation.

Shadakshari Avalokiteshvara, circa 1700
Folkens Museum, Etnografiska, Stockholm

Powerful, consciously designed imagery is intended to inspire the individual not only to seek eventual enlightenment but to look beyond the self in the here-and-now in order to identify with the entire universe and to extend enlightened principles into the thoughts and actions of daily life. The bewildering, complex mandala diagrams and the multitude of awesome, even terrifying or oddlooking deities are simply dramatic manifestations and embodiments of the two complementary aspects of liberated mind—wisdom and compassion, defined respectively in Buddhist terminology as the direct awareness of reality and as the natural expression of wisdom toward all beings. Together they give rise to the dynamic interplay that exists at the root of all Tantric symbolism. These two forces activate all the images and icons that deeply affect the psyche and so assist the practitioner to make profound mental, physical, and spiritual changes, which in turn convert negative energies—destructive emotions and psychological obstacles—into creative forces and actions benefiting others. This is inspirational imagery that leads through and beyond individual self, or ego, to an expansive, empowering awareness. The Buddhist conviction is that all beings are inherently buddhas and that our world is a potential mandala-paradise, if we can only recognize it as such.

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