‘Enter the Mandala’: Buddhism at the Asian Art Museum

Kenneth Baker
March 12, 2014

  • "The cosmic Buddha Amoghasiddhi" (c. 1275-1350) Tibet, Sakya Monastery, is part of the one-room exhibition looking at the symbolic structure of the painted mandala. Photo: Unknown

    “The cosmic Buddha Amoghasiddhi” (c. 1275-1350) Tibet, Sakya Monastery, is part of the one-room exhibition looking at the symbolic structure of the painted mandala. Photo: Unknown

Words such as “mandala” and “mantra” have moved from Asian cultures into colloquial use in the modern West, but few of us grasp their roots. The Asian Art Museum redresses that lack with a small exhibition, opening Friday, titled “Enter the Mandala: Cosmic Centers and Mental Maps of Himalayan Buddhism.”

This one-room show will use some of the Asian’s rare antiquities to evoke in real space the meditation exercise of entering mentally into the elaborate symbolic structure of a painted mandala. Jeff Durham, the museum’s associate curator of Himalayan arts, spoke about the show by phone.

Q: Has this type of museum installation been done before?

A: No, not to my knowledge.

Q: Do mandalas take architectural form?

A: You do find them. … But fundamentally a mandala is intended as visual aid in meditation and is to be entered with your mind’s eye. What we’ve done is taken works in the collection and used them to form a counterpart to that process.

Q: Are the mandala’s origins known?

A: The first ones are esoteric Buddhist, but they’re Indian. Most of them disappeared in the 12th century with the consolidation of temples. Many were transferred to Nepal and Tibet. So while it’s an Indian form it gets developed in Nepal, Tibet and even Japan. It’s quite a cosmopolitan tradition.

Q: Does it continue?

A: Yes. … There are mandala forms being constructed here in Northern California. Tarthang Tulku is building a giant one at his retreat center north of Salt Point (State Park in Sonoma County). … Shingon Buddhism preserves mandala forms, and in Tibet also, though there are all sorts of difficulties associated with Tibet, as you can imagine.

Q: Will the show be about revealing the symbolism and hidden meanings?

A: Yes, but people who’ve seen mandalas can be daunted by them because the details are so complex, so I wanted to give people a feeling of what it would be like to be inside the nested geometry, visually as opposed to verbally. … In this context, I mention the word “fractal” only semi-metaphorically. You can see that thangka art and the mandala do incorporate the concept of fractals, which means the whole is present in the parts.

If you go

Enter the Mandala: Cosmic Centers and Mental Maps of Himalayan Buddhism: Opens Friday. Through Oct. 26. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. $8-$12. Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin Street, S.F. (415) 581-3500. www.asianart.org.


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