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Exotic chanting and the ringing of bells drifts from the corners of the dark room. All around are Buddhist statues darting sharp glances; paintings of buddhas and bodhisattvas in bright primary colors; and erotic and grotesque depictions of intertwined male and female deities.

This isn’t a Tibetan monastery, but the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, where an exhibition titled “Mandala: Deities of Tibetan and Nepalese Buddhism” aims to introduce different aspects of Buddhism as it is practiced overseas to people more accustomed to the beliefs and imagery found in this country.

With more than 300 exhibits from Nepal, Tibet, India, Mongolia and Bhutan, the primary focus of the exhibition is on the mandala, a symbolic diagram used in sacred rites and meditation in Buddhist Tantrism. The mandala visualizes the world of the buddhas in an easy-to-understand way and shows that the universe and the self have the same structure.

According to Musashi Tachikawa, professor of Indian and Buddhist studies at the museum and one of the creators of the exhibition, mandalas project a symbolic microcosm of the universe through whose contemplation Tantric monks are able to equate the universe and the self, realizing that they are essentially one and the same.

Some of the careful design and ordering of the world of the mandala is reflected in the layout of the exhibition itself. Statues and paintings are arranged so that visitors walking through the exhibits follow the hierarchy of the Buddhist pantheon, starting with Buddhas and bodhisattvas (compassionate beings that postpone their attainment of nirvana to assist mankind) and ending with Hindu deities.

At the center of the exhibition space is a large, box-shaped vajra-dhatu (diamond) mandala, in which images of buddhas and bodhisattvas are hung, with the Great Sun Buddha (Mahavairocana; known in Japan as Dainichi Nyorai) in the center.

There is also a large, stepped-pyramid mandala made of screens, with the bodhisattva of wisdom (Manjusri) atop the whole structure. Images of more than 200 Buddhist deities are drawn on the screens.

Visitors can enter both of these three-dimensional structures to experience firsthand the spiritual power of the mandala.

Upstairs is a meditation room, where visitors can contemplate what they have just seen and experienced. Another room invites visitors to sit down and, using art materials and sheets of paper patterned with diagrams and geometric shapes, create their own mandalas.

The mandala isn’t simply an esoteric device, Tachikawa explains; it contains a world of symbolism that retains its relevance even in the modern world. Mandalas depict the process by which the world and all living things in it are born, grow and disappear — instructing us that the whole earth is one large, living body.

Mandalas impart a holiness to life energy, and present the world as an aggregate of this energy, which is infinitely precious. If humans could only develop a proper awareness of this, explains Tachikawa, that awakened realization would have the power to halt our destruction of the environment — and maybe end warfare.

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