Previous Image | Sacred Visions | Next Image

45. Mandala of Vajradhatu

 Mandala of Vajradhatu

45. Mandala of Vajradhatu
A Nepalese artist
Central Tibet, ca. late 14th century
Distemper on cloth
102.2 x 77.5 cm (401/4 x 301/2 in.)
The Kronos Collections

Vairochana in his four-faced, eight-armed form presides over this mandala of Vajradhatu (the Diamond Realm), which is almost certainly based on the Sarva Tathagata Tattva Samgraha Tantra (STTS), a text translated into Tibetan by Rinchen Sangpo (958-1055). Lokesh Chandra, who has studied the twenty-four mandalas described in the STTS, notes that the Vajradhatu was one of the earliest mandalas to appear in Tibet during the Chidar (the Later Diffusion); some of its mandalas appeared in the main temple at Tabo (dated ca. 996-1042).1 The iconographically similar Diamond World mandalas, commonly seen in Esoteric Japanese Buddhism, also stem from the STTS, which was translated into Japanese by Amoghavajra (705-774).2

This mandala is meant to convey Vairochana's sambhogakaya (Body of Perfect Rapture), said to be characterized by radiance and emptiness (shunyata), a state directly perceptible only to advanced tenth-level bodhisattvas.3 Nine encircled deities are arranged in three registers within the mandala's primary court (kutagara). In the center is Vairochana, one pair of hands at his chest held in a gesture of adoration (anjali mudra), another upward-turned pair held in his lap in meditative gesture (dhyana mudra).4 Other hands hold the bow and arrow, a rosary, and a wheel. Surrounding Vairochana and placed at the cardinal points of the compass are four symbols of the "families" (kula) associated with the four transcendent Buddhas (Tathagatas): the ritual thunderbolt (vajra, Akshobhya), the gem (ratna, Ratnasambhava), the lotus (padma, Amitabha), and the crossed vajra (vishvavajra, Amoghasiddhi).

The four Tathagatas are themselves at the centers of the four adjacent circles: Akshobhya in the east, Ratnasambhava in the south, Amitabha in the west, and Amoghasiddhi in the north. Each is surrounded by four attendants.5 In four circles marking the intermediate points of the compass are four goddesses associated with offerings made to the mandala's central deity: Vajramala (southwest; garland), Vajragita (northwest; song), Vajranrtya (northeast; dance), and Vajralasya (southeast; amorous dance). Four further offering goddesses appear at the corners of the second, larger court: Vajrapuspa (southwest; flower), Vajradipa (northwest; lamp), Vajragandha (northeast; perfume), and Vajradhupa (southeast; incense). Each quadrant contains two hundred and fifty bodhisattvas who are associated with the Tathagata presiding over each of the four cardinal directions.

Outside the sacred circle of the central mandala, at the four corners of the painting, are four further circles of deities. In the top register is a series of celestial and historical figures associated with the teachings of the Vajradhatu mandala. The first Tibetan in the series (the sixth figure from the left) may be Rinchen Sangpo,6 noted above as the Tibetan translator of the STTS. Without identifying inscriptions, the other historical figures cannot be named with certainty. The bottom register includes a Tibetan monk seated before implements and objects of ritual worship, and sixteen protector deities.

It is difficult to imagine how the aesthetic vision that inspired this work - with its vibrant, beautifully juxtaposed colors; its masterfully controlled, wire-thin line; and its lithe, luminous figures - could be more perfectly rendered. The same symmetry that informs most of the works in this catalogue appears here, but it is especially remarkable because of the composition's enormous complexity. Large numbers of figures, architectural elements, and ritual implements are meticulously arranged to form a complex, symmetrical tableau. Even the scrollwork follows perfectly regular rhythms and helps to impart this beautiful vision of a vast harmonious realm.

This painting can be dated to the late fourteenth century when compared with firmly dated fifteenth-century mandalas, such as the three paintings in the Vajravali series, dated about 1429-56 in this catalogue (cat. no. 47). Although this work compares closely with the Vajravali series mandalas, it differs from them chiefly in its more fluidly drawn scrollwork and more subtly graded palette. Here, foliate scrolls are wider; so too, the rich foliage connecting the upper throne backs of figures in the top and bottom registers is more fluidly presented, the forms fuller and less given to angular patterns. Despite these distinctions, the line, figural proportions, and many architectural elements in this work are so close to the style of the Vajravali series (executed by Newari artists; see cat. no. 47, below), that, most likely, Newari artists also painted this work, either for Ngor or another religious site in central Tibet, toward the end of the fourteenth century.     JCS

1. Tucci, Spiti and Kunavar, 1988, p. xiii; on the dating of Tabo, see Pritzker 1989 and Klimburg-Salter 1994. [back]

2. New York 1997, pp. 29-30, 116-17. [back]

3. In traditional Indian theology, the distinction between a tenth-bhumi bodhisattva and a Buddha is slight. In the Prajnaparamita literature, including the Suramgamasamadhi Sutra and the Mahavastu, there are descriptions of the ten stages (bhumi) through which a bodhisattva progresses in his or her career, the last stage being the tenth bhumi. Tenth-bhumi bodhisattvas have already perfected the paramitas (virtues such as patience and charity) and have mastered the ten  powers of the Tathagata. According to the literature, they are tied to the phenomenal world only by their great compassion for sentient beings. See LaMotte 1960. [back]

4. For identification of this deity, see Chandra and Raghu Vira 1991, no. 1000, p. 372. [back]

5. Their names are cited in Lokesh Chandra's introduction to Tucci, Spiti and Kunavar, 1988, p.xix. [back]

6. Personal correspondence from David Jackson, January 5, 1997. [back]

all text & images © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Previous Image | Sacred Visions | Next Image