Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment



In the fall of 1997, the Asia Society presented "Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment," the first exhibition ever devoted to the multiple manifestations of the mandala throughout Asia. A mandala is an ancient Hindu and Buddhist graphic symbol of the universe a cosmic diagram that functions as a powerful aid to meditation and concentration.

On view at the Asia Society from September 24, 1997 through January 4, 1998, this exhibition featured more than fifty mandalas and related objects, including sculptures and models of sacred spaces, from Tibet, Nepal, China, Japan, Bhutan, India and Indonesia. Co-organized by the Asia Society and Tibet House,"Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment" highlighted the stunning artistry and diversity of this ancient artform and explored the artistic genesis and religious role of the mandala in Buddhism.

In honor of the exhibition, a Kalachakra sand mandala was constructed at the Asia Society by monks from the Namgyal monastery, H.H. The Dalai Lama's personal monastery, it remained on view throughout the exhibition. Also during the run of the exhibition, a series of public events at the Asia Society explored the wide appeal of the mandala and its affinities with representations of sacred space in other religions and cultures.

The mandala is likened by some to a "floor plan of the universe." The type most familiar in the West is an intricately patterned painting on cloth or paper that often takes the general form of a circle within a square.

The word "mandala" comes from the Sanskrit verbal root "mand" (meaning to mark off, decorate, set off) and the Sanskrit suffix "la" (meaning circle, essence, sacred center).

The mandala's symbolic power can be traced back to millennia-old roots in Indian temple architecture, which created sacred spaces linking the worshiper to the larger cosmos. In these temples, time and space were represented in a vocabulary of circles and squares. Similarly, a mandala helps believers visualize the universe and their place in it, often in relation to a specific deity found in the center of the image.

The mandalas on display at the Asia Society tracked the evolution of the symbol throughout Asia under the influence of various religious and artistic traditions. Some were exquisitely complex; others quite simple.

A portable soapstone model of a stone temple found in tenth-century India is one kind of mandala; another is the Tibetan assemblage of miniature bronze deities that resembles a sacred chess set.

A 15th-century silk scroll from Japan might be mistaken for an elegant nature-study of a lone deer except for the cloud-borne gathering of deities just below the mandala moon.

More contemporary mandalas made from thread and sand offered proof of the continuing vitality of the mandala and its role in Buddhist devotions.

Co-curators of Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment are Robert A. F. Thurman, Professor of Religions at Columbia University, and Denise Patry Leidy, Associate Curator/Administrator, Department of Asian Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment and related programs are co-organized by the Asia Society and Tibet House and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Henry Luce Foundation, Michael Marsh, Mary Livingston Griggs and Mary Griggs Burke Foundation, The Woodcock Foundation, Ellen Bayard Weedon Foundation and Frank and Lisina Hoch. Support for the Asia Society Galleries exhibitions and education programs has been provided by the Friends of Asian Arts, The Starr Foundation, The Armand G. Erpf Fund, and the Arthur Ross Foundation.

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