In tibetan buddhism, a mandala is a diagram depicting the relationships between man, world and divinity. Often created with dyed sand, and then dispersed to underline the fleeting nature of existence, it always contains a circle and a square (elaborately ornamented to reresent the diversity of the universe), connected by the image of a deity. Since Buddhism began spreading north from India in the 7th century, Tibet's culture and civilization have been deeply rooted in religion. Rich in symbols, metaphors and allegories, the art too is exclusively sacred in nature, and to the devout the images retain their divine powers wherever they are displayed. Like a mandala, the exhibition of Tibetan art at the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, Switzerland, takes visitors on a journey through the mystic universe of Buddhist deities, monks and saints.
The show, which lasts through the end of October, presents one of the most important collections of Tibetan art in the world. It was gathered over three decades by a German theological scholar, Gerd-Wolfgang Essen. Now 70 and living in Hamburg, he says failing health prompted him to sell the collection: "I was sorry to let it go, but I am happy that it is now in a museum in Basel, in the heart of Europe. It's the best place for it."
Like many ritual objects rescued from the ravages of China's Cultural Revolution, these works have found their way to the West from monasteries and from the homes of prosperous Tibetan families. The more than 700 items on display include religious sculptures, ritual objects, musical instruments and monastic utensils, as well as cloth scroll paintings, or thangkas, images of deities and saints. In the words of the Dalai Lama, who opened the exhibition in May, to a Buddhist the sacred images are a "source of inspiration ... and enlightenment."
Scroll paintings, for example, portray the Buddhist conception of the world and, to the initiated, reveal codified mysteries. Usually painted on cotton or silk brocade with colors made from mineral and vegetable dyes, the image on the thangka undergoes a consecration ceremony in which the deity represented comes to dwell in the painting. Among 200 scrolls on display is a 19th century image, probably third of a series of four, of a 14-15th century reformer of Tibetan Buddhism, Tsongkhapa. A student of tantra who saw visions of buddhas, or enlightened beings, he is portrayed on the scroll presenting instructions on how to follow his spiritual path.
The exhibition also features a series of statues representing buddhas. One 16th century sculpture is based on the Jowo Rinpoche, a gilded image of Sakyamuni Buddha-the historical prince Siddhartha Gautama, who attained enlightenment after years of searching and meditation-that is housed in Tibet's main temple and was said to have been modeled during the Buddha's lifetime.
It is fitting that such an impressive collections of Tibetan art found its way to the Basel museum because Switzerland's Tibetan exile community, numbering some 2,500, is the largest in Europe. In the early 1960s the country was the first in Europe to grant Tibetan refugees immigrant status, and part of the exhibition is dedicated to the lives of those exiled. An important element of Tibetan culture and spiritual life in Switzerland is the Monastic Institute in the town of Rikon. When the first refugees started arriving there four decades ago, the Dalai Lama sent several monks and an abbot to provide them with spiritual care. Today the monastery continues to preserve and promote Tibetan culture.
The monks, with their lifelong study of the Buddha's teachings, have always been at the heart of Tibet's religion. Living in isolation from secular concerns and dedicating themselves to meditation, they are able to achieve the enlightened state-Nirvana-necessary to help liberate others from illusion and suffering. Parts of the Basel exhibition offer a look at the monks' lives, spiritual practices and rituals, which include astrology, medicine, music, dance and painting. One musical instrument featured in the exhibit, the stemmed drum, was used to invoke deities or to accompany the monks' singing.
Over the centuries monks, as well as other anonymous Tibetan painters and sculptors, created works of art in the service of their religion, expecting their contributions to bring them merits on the path to enlightenment. Art and skilled crafts have come virtually to a standstill since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the early 1950s, so it is those works by anonymous artists that will, says the museum's director, Clara Wilpert, "help prevent Tibetan culture from being lost to the world forever."