Buddha in Paradise Fleming Museum visits the Buddhist peace of Tibetan art

By Anne Galloway, Times Argus Staff, November 7, 2008

Vermont, USA -- The architecture of the Fleming Museum's Marble Court at the University of Vermont was created in the over-the-top mode of the Victorian era. Its features include an enormous staircase, a balustrade and gobs of marble in the form of flooring, steps and even columns.

Though the court features a best-hits display of the collection including an Assyrian relief panel, an Eric Aho painting and a marvelous abstract figural sculpture by Ed Owre, it effectively serves as grand hallway for the museum's permanent collections and its two rotating galleries.

Recently though, the court was the scene of a very different sort of display. A space was cleared to make way for a creative act of singular impermanence: a sand mandala.

The museum commissioned two Tibetan monks to create the mandala, an elaborate, two-dimensional pattern of Buddhist symbols contained in a circle that represents a three-dimensional space, the divine residence of the Buddha of Great Compassion.

The weeklong event was an extension of the museum's show of historic Buddhist artwork in the Wolcott Gallery (just off the Marble Court), "Buddha in Paradise: Tibetan Art from the Rubin Museum."

Buddhists believe mandalas may bring peace and harmony to a place. Creating a mandala is an act of meditation, and though the patterns are largely predetermined, they are not traced: The monks re-created them from memory. The Dalai Lama has only recently allowed monks to create them in public as a way of introducing Tibetan culture.

Hundreds of visitors came to the court to observe the two monks who came from the Namgyal Monastery in Ithaca, N.Y., (the North American headquarters of the Dalai Lama) create the four-foot-diameter sand mandala. Clad in orange robes, the two monks worked in silence, carefully using tin funnels to direct the brightly colored sand into fine lines and smooth surfaces.

By the time they had nearly finished it, the mandala was a spectacular, crystalline confection of color. Just a day later, on Oct. 22, the monks dismantled the mandala in a special ceremony. And that was the plan all along: The temporary nature of the artwork is a big part of the Buddhist message. No matter how beautiful the creation, its existence in the corporeal realm is short.

The Buddhist tradition has, however, left behind a legacy of instructional paintings and bronze sculptures that bring to light the relationship of humanity to the divine. A number of excellent examples of this religious art are on loan to the Fleming from the Manhattan-based Rubin Museum of Art, which specializes in Himalayan works. The show, "Buddha in Paradise," is on display in the Wolcott Gallery through Dec. 19.

Tibetan Buddhism's version of paradise is different from the Christian interpretation. Instead of one sublime otherworld, it includes many layers of "pure lands," where ordinary people go after death. Sometimes, depending on the person's path, those places can alternately be divine, akin to purgatory or even a living hell. And there are varying degrees of existence within those realms.

The Fleming show includes a "Wheel of Becoming," a complex, circular painting that details the continuous cycle of birth, life and death and the ways in which people can liberate themselves from that cycle and attain enlightenment. In the center of the painting on cloth, the three obstacles of enlightenment are depicted: the pig (for ignorance), the snake (for hatred) and the cock (for desire). These basic human flaws are the foundation of all human suffering, and Buddhist teachings are all about transcending them.

In another painting, the 12 miraculous deeds of the Buddha Shakyamuni are depicted. His virgin birth, princely youth, renunciation of the world, his transformation into a guru, his death and eventual nirvana are portrayed as vignettes that fill a counterclockwise circle with a large, idealized image of the Buddha in the center.

The imagery, though Eastern in style, reminds me of Medieval European stained glass and illuminated manuscripts. The very different religious ideals (with equally complex narratives) are told in visual symbols ordinary people can understand. One of the main differences artistically has to do with the level of detail rendered. In Western religious paintings, individuals are important, their faces dominate and though there may be landscapes and symbols surrounding say the Virgin Mary or St. Stephen, it is the unique personality of the sitter and the figure they represent that's most important.

In Tibetan art, scenes of people are seen through a bird's eye view. Even the Buddhas are often small. The sense is that individuals are less important than the fabric of life they are a part of.

It is to the Fleming's credit that this show and the sand mandala project are a prominent part of the fall program. Both have helped to educate the public about the story of Tibetan Buddhism. And maybe, just maybe some of that good karma will have penetrated the staid marble of the court.

If you go

"Buddha in Paradise: Tibetan Art from the Rubin Museum" is on view at the Robert Hull Fleming Museum through Dec. 19. The museum, located on the campus of the University of Vermont in Burlington, is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Events associated with "Buddha in Paradise":

Nov. 9: Film, "Mystic Vision, Sacred Art," 3 p.m.
Nov. 12: Lecture, "China-Tibet relations," 12:15 p.m.
Dec. 7: Film, "Mystic Vision, Sacred Art," 3 p.m.