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.

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.

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