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Mandalas: Mirrors of the Cosmos, Pathways to Enlightenment

Vajrayogini Mandala, Tibet; 18th century, Courtesy Rubin Museum of Art

Reviewed by Bobbie Leigh

Just as painted Russian icons are not intended to be  solely artistic  representations of  saints, but objects of meditation and veneration, mandalas   — at least for the initiated —  are   magic windows, pathways to  the deepest possible Buddhist  understandings of the cosmos and the self.   The 70 staggeringly beautiful mandalas  in the Rubin Museum of Art (RMA) show, "Mandala: The Perfect Circle,"  are among the rarest in the world. Some are from the Rubin's own collection, others from the Met, the Musee Guimet in Paris, and private collections. 

    In  simplest terms, the Buddha taught that life is perpetual suffering.  The only way to be liberated from human suffering is to set aside desire, to be liberated from human wants and needs, and achieve a state of enlightenment or  Buddhahood. As Dr. Martin Brauen chief curator at the RMA  says, the tradition teaches that the Buddha is within us, but we have to find it.  He also emphasizes that  Buddhahood is no easy ideal.  In fact, it's immensely complicated, requiring  a devoted teacher and disciple  involved in lifelong practices leading to enlightenment.
     "The basic teaching is that one has to control his or her emotions, not get angry about stupid things, feel compassion for others. It's a complicated path to achieve that through mandala exercises," says Brauen.    

     For the casual visitor to this intriguing exhibition, it's helpful to recall one of  the differences between Christian and Buddhist ideologies. A Christian will never say in contemplation of a religious painting or icon, "I am Christ," but only as Paul writes, that Christ lives within him or her. Yet a Buddhist who uses the mandala  as an aid to meditation and inspiration,  recognizes that he or she can ultimately realize  the Buddha  within him or herself, released from suffering for the benefit of all human beings. 


 Amitayus Mandala. Tibet; ca. 14th century, Courtesy Rubin Museum of Art 

     The museum has wisely included four computer-generated explanations of the strict  geometrical basis of  mandalas created by  wizards at Cornell and Zurich Universities to satisfy the mathematically minded.  Basically, mandalas are concentric circles within squares, squares within circles,  six-pronged stars, or inverted crossed triangles. In some, a central figure often entwined with a partner is  placed in the middle of  the central disk,  surrounded by a panoply of  deities.  It's tempting to think what a gifted  math teacher could do with the concept, making   simple mandalas  with rulers and compasses  in   geometric compositions.    

    As for the exhibition, you  may have to be a Buddhist scholar to understand who's who in the bewildering pantheon of Buddhist deities, but for the rest of us, the mandalas  are  works of art that  dazzle the  eye with their sumptuous  yellows, reds, greens, and blues, dancing deities,  hungry ghosts and menacing demons reminiscent of Hieronymous  Bosch.     


Yama Dharmaraja Mandala. Tibet; 18th century. Courtesy Rubin Museum of Art

    Among the 70 paintings, sculptures, and computer animations on view, are centuries-old  instruction books for monks,  reliquaries, and amulets. The oldest mandala dates from the 8th c.   Loaned by the Guimet (one of the great museums of Asian art and not to be missed if you are in  Paris), the painting was discovered in the caves of Dunhuang, a Silk Road town at the edge of the Gobi desert in Northwest China. The most recent is a contemporary  sculpture on loan from New York's  Tibet House. Decorated with criss-crossed yarns in  geometric patterns, it  is a modern interpretation of the traditional mandala palace. As a rule, according to Dr.  Brauen, one basic  form of the mandala can be understood as  an architectural  floorplan as well as an  elevation of a palace, a  home to various gods and goddesses. And as Brauen suggests, the term "mandala"  can  also  be  a visual manifestation of the entire cosmos.   

     "The Cosmos Offering Mandala," an 18th c bronze and gold sculpture from Northern China, and one of the highlights of the show, is in effect a miniature  cosmos, crowned  by Mt. Meru, the sacred  center of the Buddhist universe, surrounded by dancing deities and religious artifacts.  One of the most visually complicated is a 15th c Tibetan painting whose central deity is a green faced deity entwined with his dancing consort, surrounded by eight goddesses in the central disk and many more beyond that.  From Mongolia,  17th or early 18th c, is a surprisingly delicate sculpture  of a lotus flower with eight petals. It  looks like gold but is  actually a  gilt copper alloy.  The central figures who sit within the open petals are couple in a  tender sexual embrace  surrounded by five deities. When closed, the lotus leaves enfold the mandala to form a  beautifully shaped globe  an example of some superb engineering  as well as fine craft.  

    All of the various deities, auspicious symbols, and celestial assemblies in this collection of  rare mandalas  allow the visitor to  witness another culture and  another way of  visualizing our world.  They also represent an art form that we rarely have the privilege of  seeing.

    "Mandala: The Perfect Circle:  is on view through January 11, 2010.  It is the first of three shows whose aim is to explore the different ways that the universe has been visually represented.  The second in the series,  "The Red Book of C. G, Jung, Creation of a New Cosmology, " is on view October 7, 2009 to January 25, 2010. The third, opening December 11, 2009 and on view through May 10, 2010 is "Visions of the Cosmos: From Milky Ocean to Black Hole.

Rubin Museum of Art,  17th Street at 7th Avenue, New York, NY
BOBBIE LEIGH has written for many national publications
including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures.
Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.

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  1. Carrie
    December 31, 2009 at 2:57 pm — Reply

    Have you heard about the Universe itself actually BEING A perfect hyperdimensional mandala?
    Such a notion certainly would lend credence to the notion, long held by Tantric Buddhists and Hindus, that mandalas are microcosms of the whole Universe–symbols for ALL THAT IS!
    Pretty interesting stuff:

  2. January 22, 2018 at 10:52 am — Reply

    When we create a Mandala we propagate the energy from the universe and its manifestations into the canvas.
    The symbols are indeed very important however the mandala itself becomes a vehicle of this cosmic energy.

  3. April 25, 2021 at 5:30 am — Reply

    Mandala Paintings and Thangkas are the purest art form of Buddhism. People believe that having one of these Mandala arts and Thangkas will eliminate all the negative energy around their owners.
    They were produced in Tibet, India, Nepal, China, Japan, Bhutan, and Indonesia and date from the 4th century to the present.

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