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A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts | April 27–August 18, 2019
The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco | January 17–May 03, 2020


This narrative text was prepared by curators Dr. John Henry Rice and Dr. Jeffrey Durham as they were preparing the narrative theme of the Awaken exhibition. We feel this page will give the visitor a feeling for the creative process involved in preparing this very unusual exhibition.

all text & images ©, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and The Asian Art Museum except as where otherwise noted

A Buddha, literally, is one who is Awakened. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it is possible for anyone to attain enlightenment, to become a Buddha, to wake up. The pathway to enlightenment is, however, fraught with danger and excitement, attraction and awe.

Awaken is an immersive exhibition that guides its audience along such a journey. Inviting visitors to be both viewers and participants, it asks them to engage with world-class Tibetan Buddhist art and, through it, possibly to discover more about themselves and the nature of the mind.

Art and visuality are central to Tibetan Buddhist practice. An initiate’s journey to awareness is, in part, facilitated through visualizations that require models. The fantastic landscapes and beings along the road to enlightenment—sometimes blissful, sometimes terrifying—make for a dramatic visual repertoire unrivaled in the world of religious art.

Structured as a quest, Awaken takes us on a journey through this rich imagery and into the transformative realms it reveals. Following a brief introduction, where the fundamental dilemma—that we are asleep to the true nature of reality—is presented through a bombardment of contemporary imagery, the exhibition unfolds through a series of engaging spaces, each corresponding to a different phase of the quest narrative.

Visitors learn some of Buddhism’s essential teachings, meet a guide, are joined by allies wise and fierce, obtain equipment for the journey, and receive a map of the expedition ahead. On a visionary journey to the center of the mind, they must overcome trials, face fears, and eventually confront the ultimate ordeal, death itself. The payoff is a glimpse into reality’s true nature and a culminating vision of clarity as powerful as the confusion with which the journey began.

1. The Quandary

In this initial corridor, we learn the exhibition’s premise: that the clamor of the ordinary world lulls us asleep to reality’s—and one’s own—true nature. We must run a gauntlet of modern-day video imagery meant to overwhelm with the mundane. At the corridor’s end we’re confronted with a single object: a contemporary Tibetan painting, embodying the dazed, confused waking-dream state of ordinary experience and foreshadowing the exhibition’s dramatic highpoint.

2. A Way Out

In an intimately scaled space, meant to reinforce the visitor’s individual experience, we encounter a pair of objects: a 9th-century stone image of the historical Buddha, shown at the instant of his enlightenment, and a painting depicting one of that moment’s revelations: the Wheel of Existence, a mechanical diagram of mortal dilemma. This encounter demonstrates Buddhism’s proposition: that there lies a path to nirvana—the cessation of the impermanent states that keep us bound to and asleep in the ordinary world—through Buddhist knowledge and practice.

3. The Teachings

Before we can embark on this pathway toward awakening, however, we must learn more about Buddhism and its history. In a large space conveying both the vastness of Buddhist thought and the communal character of its institutions, we are briefly introduced to the Buddhist teachings, their historical development, the forms they assume in Tibet, and the ways they are transmitted through time.

The Three Vehicles


Tibet’s Four Streams

Karma Kagyu


Transmission of Knowledge

4. Preparing for the Journey

Better informed, one must now prepare for the inner journey ahead. Here, the visitor is provided with a personal guide, the teacher, and outfitted with equipment for the expedition. These tools—weapons, armor, musical instruments—are ritual implements from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, each meant to aid the spiritual journeyer. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the initiate receives a map. This map, a painted mandala, is not a depiction of geographical terrain, but rather a chart of the psychic topography that lies ahead.




4. (continued) Preparing for the Journey

Luckily, the visitor will not be going it alone on the spiritual quest but will be accompanied by allies, both mild-mannered supporters and battle-ready fighters. This band, drawn from Tibetan Buddhism’s vast pantheon, includes three important bodhisattvas—embodiments of wisdom, compassion, and power—and representatives from Tibet’s tradition of the divine feminine—the nurturing goddess Tara and fierce Dakinis who speak truth to power.

Tibet’s Three Protectors

Benevolent Female - Tara

Fierce Female - Dakinis

5. Approaching the Mandala

Guided by the mandala-map toward the destination at its center, the visitor arrives at the first of a series of ordeals. Encircling the mandala are fierce guardians who protect its wisdom from the unworthy. First among them is Yama Dharmaraja, a wrathful emanation of the bodhisattva Manjushri. The spiritual journeyer must overcome fear and aversion to this terrifying, repulsive deity. Fear and aversion are—no less than greed and attraction—obstacles to release from worldly suffering caused by craving.

6. Entering the Mandala

Having confronted Yama Dharmaraja, the visitor can proceed into the mandala itself. But it is no walk in the park. The harrowing trek requires one to brave fences of fire and lightening and traverse gruesome boneyards populated by freakish sages, dismembered corpses, and scavenging animals. And then one must scale a lotus of cosmic dimension to reach a four-sided celestial palace, with only one of its four doors open to entry.

7. Within the Palace Walls

Inside the celestial palace, guarding its gateways and chambers are more wrathful protectors. Aspects of the deity at the structure’s center, they can be understood as forms of Himalayan Buddhism’s enlightened protector par excellence, Mahakala. The Great Black One’s terrifying forms are meant to repulse and destroy the enemies of Buddhism’s teachings and the truths they reveal. His main enemy is our own ego, which obscures our true identity and progress to enlightened understanding. Our test, then, is to let go, to trust the wrathful deity, to allow him to attack, to destroy not us but our egos, so that we may pass, cleansed of its obfuscations.

8. The Central Chamber

The visitor’s expedition culminates beyond a macabrely painted door that once guarded a monastery’s innermost shrine. Within a dark, dramatically lit room corresponding to the mandala’s central chamber, one confronts the ultimate ordeal: our mortality. Greeting the visitor is the exhibition’s star piece, a massive sculpture of the buffalo-headed Vajrabhairava. It was he who appeared— fragmented—in the initial hallway. Cosmic emanation of Manjushri, he is known as Yamantaka, Slayer of Death. His ferocity and the weapons in his 34 arms are turned against the enemies of the enlightenment-seeker. With his aid, and through his wisdom, the visitor can conquer the greatest of attachments, the fear of death.

9. Awakening I: Nonduality

Freed from attachments, the spiritual seeker wakes to revelations of reality’s true nature. The first of these eye-openers is a vison of nonduality, the dissolution of the binary oppositions by which we fool ourselves into thinking we can define and understand the world: good/bad, sacred/profane, relative/absolute, subject/object. This concept is illustrated through a variety of painted and sculpted examples of one of Tibetan Buddhist art’s most characteristic image types: yab-yum, male and female deities conjoined in sexual union.

10. Awakening II: Being a Buddha

In a concluding experience of crystalline vision and personal contemplation, the visitor meets, in a stark-white room, a sublime 12th-century stone sculpture of a standing Buddha. A visual rejoinder to the seated sculpture at the exhibition’s beginning—showing the Buddha at the moment of his waking—this crowned, resplendent, and fully enlightened Buddha appears as a reflection of the visitor who stands before him.

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