Sacred Circles

Maps of Enlightenment

Joan Duncan Oliver

The Perfect Circle

Rubin Museum of Art
150 West 17th Street
New York, NY

through January 11, 2010

Mandala in TricycleWith their vivid colors, stylized images, and intricate geometric designs, mandalas are prized among Westerners as objets d’art. But to Tibetan Buddhists, these arresting figures are not just artwork but meditation tools: graphic representations of the cosmos, maps of the arduous journey to enlightenment.

“Mandala: The Perfect Circle,” an exhibit at the Rubin Museum of Art, in New York City, sets out to explain the complex symbolism of these mysterious forms, which are central to Tantric Buddhist ritual and practice. A number of pieces on display, such as those pictured on these pages, are from the Rubin’s permanent collection. Others include a rare eighth- or ninth-century scroll from the Dunhuang caves in China, on loan from the Musée Guimet, in Paris; a three-dimensional metal mandala from Namgyal Monastery, the Dalai Lama’s personal monastery, in Dharamsala, India; and a state-of-the-art computer-generated example that clearly demonstrates the mandala construction process. For those who can’t make it to the exhibit, there’s a 264-page illustrated catalog (Arnoldsche/Rubin Museum, $80 hardcover with color plates), an expanded version of a classic work on mandalas by the Rubin’s chief curator, Martin Brauen, who put together the current exhibit.

Mandala in TricycleThe word “mandala” comes from manda, Sanskrit for “essence,” and la, “container.” To Buddhist practitioners, a mandala is a container for the seed or essence of the Buddha, often represented by an emanation—a deity or symbolic object or sacred syllable placed at the center of the circle. The circular form itself suggests a related meaning, “completion”—the mandala as a diagram of the universe as a whole. Mandalas play a key role in Vajrayana Buddhism, as visual teaching tools. Tantric teachings are encoded in the elaborate iconography; the mandala serves as a crib sheet for remembering the forms and images in visualization practice—or as a blueprint for drawing the mandala, or creating it from colored sand. In embodying the deity or deities of the mandala, initiates awaken to their own Buddha-nature.

The Vajrayogini mandala, on the opposite page, is a mandala of destruction, housing a wrathful deity, a destroyer of illusions. Vajrayogini, who embodies the wisdom aspect of the Buddha, transforms ignorance into the bliss of awareness. She is visualized as a young maiden, bloodred in color, with a necklace of skulls. In one hand she holds a knife to sever attachments, in the other a skull cup of blood, representing supreme bliss.

Mandala in TricycleMandala-makers observe certain stylistic and symbolic conventions. The two outer circles of protection in the mandala of Yama Dharmaraja, found at the top of this page, are found in nearly every mandala: they comprise a circle of vajras, or thunderbolts, signifying the brilliance and indestructibility of the Vajrayana, and a circle of fire, representing purification of the mind. The wheel motif in this mandala represents the sharp-edged weapon that Yama Dharmaraja, a wisdom deity, uses to protect those who engage in tantric practices. The painting also contains the eight charnal grounds—signifiers of samsara [cyclic existence]—found in the mandalas of wrathful deities.

The mandalas of peaceful deities often include flower gardens like those in the mandala of the Buddha and the sixteen arhats—some of his earliest followers—at the bottom of this page. Here, a lotus flower on a pedestal stands in for Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, while the Buddha and the arhats are represented by lotus cushions arranged in a circle on the petals of a larger blossom.  

Joan Duncan Oliver is Tricycle’s reviews editor.

Image 1: “Mandala Plate of Vajrayogini According to the System of Eleven Yogas,” Tibet, eighteenth century, pigment on wood, 11.75 × 11.75 inches ©Rubin Museum of Art

Image 2: “Mandala of Thirteen-Deity Yama Dharmaraja,” Tibet, eighteenth century, pigment on cloth, 12 × 12 inches ©Rubin Museum of Art

Image 3: “Mandala of Buddha Sakyamuni and the Sixteen Arhats,” China or Mongolia, 1700-1900, ground mineral on cotton, 14.5 × 14.75 inches ©Rubin Museum of Art

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