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This audio guide will help lead you through the exhibition, Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment. Consisting of one track per gallery, this guide orients you to each section of material and sometimes directs you to take a closer look at certain objects.


Image: The Three Protectors of Tibet (detail), 2008, Tsherin Sherpa (Nepalese, born 1968), ink and colors on cotton, image 17 3/4 × 38 5/8 in. (45.1 × 98.1 cm). Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Acquisition made possible by the Tibetan Study Group, 2016.305

Welcome to Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment.

The title of the exhibition “Awaken” references the word “Buddha,” which literally means one who is Awakened. It is also meant as an invitation, a call to action. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it is possible for anyone to attain enlightenment, to become a Buddha, to wake up — even if the journey toward enlightenment is not easy.

Through the medium of Tibetan Buddhism’s dramatic art, Awaken invites you to join just such a journey. Artistic discoveries await you in the galleries ahead, but perhaps too, discoveries about yourself and your place in the world.

This audio guide will help lead you through the exhibition, from ordinary experience’s dissatisfactory cycles, to learning of Buddhism’s promise of a way out from them, to meeting a virtual teacher who prepares you for and then guides you on a meditative quest toward that goal, and finally to glimpses of what some aspects of the awakened state might look like.

Consisting of one track per gallery, this audio orients you to each section of material and sometimes directs you to take a closer look at certain objects.

An audio symbol accompanies the introductory text panel for each gallery, numbered 1 to 10. If you are using an audio wand, input the gallery number located on the text panel next to the audio symbol. If you are using your mobile device select the stop associated with the text panel for each room. Midway through the exhibition, between galleries 4 and 5, there is a space to take a break and gather your strength for the meditative journey that lies before you.

We hope that you will use this guide as an introduction to each gallery, and between tracks, we encourage you to go slow, take your time, delve more deeply into the artworks, and join the journey!


Image: Luxation 1 (detail), 2016, Tsherin Sherpa (Nepalese, born 1968), acrylic on sixteen stretched cotton canvases, each 18 x 18 in. (45.7 x 45.7 cm). Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund, 2017.195a-p

Daily life’s cacophony can be deafening, its speed dizzying, its set-changes kaleidoscopic. Its pace is stimulating, but it also disrupts our ability to pay attention to the here and now, to be fully aware of ourselves and the intricate patterns of the world around us, to be fully awake. Instead, we catch only fleeting glimpses of deeper meaning and only fragmented reflections of ourselves.

Presenting a vision of the chaos that permeates ordinary experience can be difficult. Artists from Himalayan Buddhist traditions, however, have over a thousand years of practice creating images of the otherwise indescribable.

Contemporary artist Tsherin Sherpa’s sixteen-panel painting suggests the incomplete and disconnected condition in which we ordinarily find ourselves. Individual pieces of the work make bits of sense, but we can scarcely discern what the full picture might be. Before our journey is finished, however, we will understand how these pieces fit together and encounter–in full–the figure who here appears only in fragments.


Image: The Buddha Triumphing over Mara (detail), ca. 800-900, India, probably Bihar, stone, 21 3/4 x 14 3/8 x 5 in. (55.2 x 36.5 x 12.7 cm). Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, The Avery Brundage Collection, B61S7

As long as people have lived, they have searched for a deeper understanding of their existence, wanting to know answers to questions about how, why, whence, and whither.

Roughly twenty-five hundred years ago, a north Indian prince-turned-philosopher named Siddhartha Gautama [sid-heart-huh Gow-tuh-muh] claimed to have figured it out. His search for those answers, though, was neither quick nor easy. It required many years of intensive examination and long journeys through both physical and visionary terrain.

What, specifically, Siddhartha sought was a way to slip out of the perpetual, dissatisfactory cycles of existence. His long quest to solve this dilemma eventually led him to sit under a tree, where, following an extended period of unimaginably intense meditation, he received a series of visions that would reveal to him how those cycles of existence actually work.

With the clarity of an engineer’s drawings, he saw the mechanics of the entire system: the poisonous mental states that are its fuel, the actions that drive its cyclical motion, the various realms into which beings are born and reborn, and the circular chain of dependence that keeps us bound to endlessly repeat the cycle.

Something important became possible upon Siddhartha having this vision. Perceiving the entire system at once and fully understanding its complex, intertwined workings, meant that he was able to discern a way out of it.

The word that Siddhartha used for the new understanding he gained beneath that tree was “bodhi” [bode-he] or awakening. Thus, at the very moment of those realizations—when he reached down with his right hand and touched the earth—he became a buddha, an awakened one.

The last thing he wanted was to keep those life-changing discoveries to himself. Rather, he chose to share them with others, so that everyone might have the opportunity to awaken, to become a buddha.

His teachings, known as the Dharma, outlined the methods to employ, and the pathways to take, for moving toward that enlightened state. He lectured on them throughout north India, gaining a great number of followers during his lifetime. And, of course, those teachings would eventually spread around the entire world.

The two objects in this space–Siddhartha under the leaves of the bodhi tree reaching down to touch the earth, and a depiction of the Wheel of Existence–are meant to capture that instant of the Buddha’s awakening.


Image: Prajnaparamita (detail), 13th-14th century, Central Tibet, copper alloy, silver and copper inlays, gemstones, traces of paint, 3 3/8 × 2 1/4 × 1 3/4 in. (8.6 × 5.7 × 4.5 cm). Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Berthe and John Ford, 91.521

It is difficult to determine exactly what were the Buddha’s teachings, or Dharma, because no contemporary records describing them survive. What is certain is that those teachings evolved significantly over Buddhism’s long history.

The artworks in this gallery illustrate Buddhism’s development from the historical Buddha’s earliest teachings in his native India, to the tradition’s flowering in Tibet. This complex account is summarized largely through a selection of the myriad individuals whose stories, collectively, comprise that history.

The chronicle, of course, begins with Siddhartha Gautama, also called Shakyamuni [shock-ya-moonee]: the sage of the Shakya [shock-ya] clan into which he was born. The beautiful Kashmiri bronze nearby shows him with his hands in the teaching gesture called the dharmachakra [dhar-ma-chuh-kruh], the “Wheel of the Dharma” mudra. With it, Shakyamuni is said to have turned, or activated, the Dharma for the first time.

That metaphor of turning the Dharma Wheel was applied to subsequent revolutions of the Buddhist teachings. Along the wall to the right of the long textile banner, the three most significant of those major movements, or “revolutions,” are briefly examined through the spiritual archetypes associated with each. Early Buddhism had its paragons, perfected beings called arhats [are-hots]. Later, the Mahayana movement introduced enlightened saviors known as bodhisattvas [bode-he-suht-vuhs]. And then, as a sort of cutting-edge response, the Vajrayana [vuhj-ruh-YAH-nuh] promoted maverick sorcerers called mahasiddhas [muh-HAH-sid-huhs].

That third form of Buddhism, the Vajrayana, or Lightning Vehicle—so-called because of the purported speed with which it could carry its practitioners to enlightenment—is what took root in Tibet. There it proliferated into a great number of rival orders, four of the most important of which are featured along the back wall of the gallery, under the banner. These four are examined through a look at figures associated with their founding.

Finally, along the L-shaped walls opposite the banner, Tibetan Buddhism’s great concern with the history of its teachings is examined. Those teachings’ authenticity is understood to be guaranteed by the lineages of teachers, called lamas, who transmitted them down through time. While direct transmission, from the mouth of the teacher to the ear of the student, is relatively easy to trace, more mystical modes of transmission—such as mind-to-mind or across long expanses of time without intermediaries—were also invoked to account for lineages that extended beyond the confines of history.


Image: Gorampa Sonam Sengge, Sixth Abbot of Ngor (detail), ca. 1600, Central Tibet, opaque watercolor on cloth, image 31 × 26 in. (78.7 × 66 cm). Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Berthe and John Ford Collection, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund, 91.514

Tibetan Buddhism’s teachings are passed down through long lines of teachers. If we are to join a Tibetan Buddhist journey toward awakening, we must, first and foremost, find a teacher, a guide who already knows the spiritual terrain to be traversed.

Luckily, just such a teacher is available. His name is Gorampa Sonam Sengge [go-rahm-puh so-nahm sen-gay], a highly respected abbot of the Sakya order. We have seen him in the previous room, as a student receiving teachings from one of his teachers. Now, just to the right of the large text panel, he turns to us, ready to impart that wisdom to a new generation.

That our teacher and guide could be a painting is not as strange as it might sound. Inscriptions on the back of such portraits make it clear that they were, in part, understood to be stand-ins for the figures that they represent. Gorampa’s capacity to be our virtual teacher is, in fact, conceivable within the tradition.

In readying us for the meditative journey ahead, he will first initiate us by performing a series of rites to purify our body, speech, and mind. Next, he provides us with specialized equipment: ritual implements ranging from weapons, armor, musical instruments, and objects to help focus our attention. With them, we may variously summon forces to our aid, drive distractions away, and vanquish obstacles to our progress.

Fortunately, our teacher explains, we will not be going it alone on the journey, and he introduces us to members of a spiritual support team who will accompany us. They include the trio of bodhisattvas in the alcove to the left of the panel, and the goddesses in the middle of the gallery.

Lastly, Gorampa presents us with perhaps the most important piece of equipment for our journey, a map. Called a mandala, it is the colorful, geometric painting near the door leading out of the gallery. Our teacher explains that it is a two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional realm that we will visualize ourselves entering during meditation. With him as our guide, we will methodically journey to its center. Don’t forget to pick up a copy of the map to carry with you.


Image: Mandala of Hevajra (detail), ca. 1400, Central Tibet, opaque watercolor on cloth, Image 32 × 28 1/2 in. (81.3 × 72.4 cm). Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Berthe and John Ford Collection, Gift of the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, 91.509

This intimate space allows you to take a break, study more closely your printed map, and gather your resources for the journey into the mandala.

You also have the opportunity to consider in greater depth two other Tibetan mandalas. While the basic structure of mandalas is similar—a nested series of squares and circles aligned to the four cardinal directions—each mandala is specific to a particular teaching. The deity at its center literally embodies the teaching’s central doctrines, and the surrounding imagery describes the methodical meditational steps required to reach their full comprehension.

In one of the room’s two alcoves is a mandala of a peaceful form of Bodhisattva Manjushri. This is the same bodhisattva who, in a wrathful form, occupies the center of our map. Observe how comparatively serene the imagery of the green-bordered mandala is. Also take a moment to consider the photograph of the back of the painting. These are the inscriptions that ritually bring to life every figure depicted on the front side.

In the other alcove, in blue silk borders, is a striking mandala made up of five smaller mandalas in a cross formation. At the center of each are the paired deities Hevajra and Nairatmya. Their complexion changes along with the colors associated with the five directions of space. In the adjacent wall case is a small, intricately sculpted image of this enlightened couple.

Take your time. Contemplate these paintings that are both feasts for the eyes and filled with meaning. And allow others space and quiet to do the same. Rest up; you will need all your strength for the demanding journey ahead.


Image: Mandala of Vajrabhairava (detail), 1650-1750, Tibet, Ngor Monastery, colors on cotton, image 16 1/2 x 15 3/4 in. (41.9 x 40 cm). Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, The Avery Brundage Collection, B63D5

If you haven’t already, take a copy of the printed map. It will help you track the stages of our journey. The graphic on the wall highlights the first of these zones, where we find ourselves now: around the edges of the painting, approaching but not yet inside the circle that defines the outer edge of the mandala proper.

Here, in the map’s corners, are four frightful figures. Protectors of the teachings contained within the mandala, they ensure that only the properly initiated are allowed to pass through this transitional precinct between our ordinary world of everyday experience and the visionary world of the mandala.

Each of these four figures has the head of a buffalo and also stands on a buffalo, an animal closely associated with death. They are indications to us, even before we have entered the mandala proper, that its teachings explore the subject of mortality.

The best known of these four figures is the one in the lower right corner, called Yama Dharmaraja [yuh-muh dhar-ma RAH-juh]. The objects in this gallery explore this wrathful enlightened being in greater depth. Don’t neglect to have a close look at the flaming trident near the center of the gallery, which is similar to the implements held by Yama Dharmaraja and his consort. Appropriate to the mandala’s exploration of mortality, this scepter’s symbolism reveals the solidarity within the twinned phenomena of sex and death.


Image: Mandala of Vajrabhairava (detail), 1650-1750, Tibet, Ngor Monastery, colors on cotton, image 16 1/2 x 15 3/4 in. (41.9 x 40 cm). Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, The Avery Brundage Collection, B63D5

What the four protectors at the corners of our map guard, of course, is the mandala itself. If you look closely at the painting, you will see that its outer edge is composed of a ring of fire that changes colors as you move around its circuit. Just inside this is a thin circle of pitch-black, around which gleam sixteen golden lightning bolts.

Our task is to cross these two forbidding barriers—the one of fire, the other of appearance and emptiness—and enter the mandala’s visionary universe. Once inside, we first encounter a ring of eight funereal grounds populated by bizarre sages, dismembered corpses, and scavenging animals. Inside these corpse-fields rise the multicolored petals of a great lotus as big as the universe itself. Lastly, upon the lotus’s circular upper surface sits a vast square palace, its gateways facing the four directions. We will approach the gateway that faces downward, the map’s east.

It is important always to keep in mind that our map is only a 2-dimensional representation of a 3-dimensional environment. The square palace sits high above the level of the first rings we crossed. As we make our way gradually toward the mandala’s center, we are, in effect, also climbing a great cosmic mountain. The sculptural mandala in the middle of this space helps to illustrate this dimensionality and to reinforce our visualization of transforming the flat map into habitable space. If somewhat simplified, it corresponds very closely to our map. See if you can identify some of the equivalent elements. And try visualizing the imagery of your printed map rising into three dimensions.

Finally, look ahead to the pair of pillars and the intricately embroidered hanging. They are meant to evoke the great eastern gateway into the palatial complex that looms ahead of us on the mandala-map and which we will next enter.


Image: Mandala of Vajrabhairava (detail), 1650-1750, Tibet, Ngor Monastery, colors on cotton, image 16 1/2 x 15 3/4 in. (41.9 x 40 cm). Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, The Avery Brundage Collection, B63D5

Having passed through the lower gateway into the square palace, we are now better able to discern its layout, which changes color in each direction. We entered on the side that is white, but, as we move clockwise around the space, the other quadrants are yellow, red, and green. At the level where we entered are large courtyards in each direction. Above, toward the center, rises a second level that is round, its walls constructed of human skulls and accessible only through one doorway.

Positioned at every doorway and in the rooms of the upper chambers are fearsome, six armed figures. Where we initially entered, he is blue, but—much like the palace itself—his color changes in other locations. He guards every space we must enter in our gradual progress toward the center of the mandala, protecting its teachings from those not sufficiently prepared to learn them. Luckily, we have the guidance of an expert lama who knows the route through the mandala’s labyrinth, and each of the guardians allows us to pass.

These multicolored figures closely resemble one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most prominent protectors, a six-armed form of the deity Mahakala [muh-HAH-KAH-luh]. The small sculpture in the center of this room, and the painting on the back wall both depict this enlightened protector whose name means both Great Black One and Great Time.

Mahakala actually appears in a great variety of forms, some examples of which are shown in this gallery’s other paintings. One of them, in the blue-and-green painting at the far left, is a form you have—probably unknowingly—already seen. Bernag Chen [bear-nog chen], or Black Cloak Mahakala, is the subject swirled up in the contemporary gold-ground painting you passed as you entered this room. The journey toward awakening is a continual process of discovery, recognizing what sometimes lies right in front of us.


Image: Mandala of Vajrabhairava (detail), 1650-1750, Tibet, Ngor Monastery, colors on cotton, image 16 1/2 x 15 3/4 in. (41.9 x 40 cm). Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, The Avery Brundage Collection, B63D5

Finally, only one part of the mandala-map remains to be explored: the square chamber at its center. Within its walls—and beyond the grinning skulls and flaming weapons of war on the doorway just ahead—stands the formidable deity to whom this mandala belongs.

When you reach him, look closely at his fearsome faces, his buffalo horns, his many hands holding weapons, his numerous feet trampling animals. Do you recognize him? Think back to that very first painting you saw in this exhibition: the sixteen vibrantly painted canvases. They showed fragments of this deity whom you now see before you in full. He is Vajrabhairava [vuhj-ruh-bhai-ruh-vuh], the Lightning Terror.

While his appearance is foreboding, we are assured by our guide and teacher that Vajrabhairava—like so many wrathful beings we have encountered—is no foe, but instead an ally. His many weapons are directed not at us, but at the obstacles to our awakening.

Vajrabhairava’s teachings revolve around the theme of death. Our confrontation with this terrifying deity provides an opportunity to reflect upon our own mortality, to examine our attachments and anxieties around that most certain aspect of the human condition: its eventual demise.

For all his horrifying imagery, Vajrabhairava is, in fact, a manifestation of the comparatively serene Bodhisattva Manjushri [muñ-joo-shree]. Manjushri is the embodiment of Buddhist Wisdom, one of that trio of bodhisattvas we met when preparing for our journey. It is he who, with his flaming sword, separates truth from falsity. Here, his serene face—golden and crowned—rises from the apex of Vajrabhairava’s cranium, between his buffalo horns.

Vajrabhairava is also known as Yamantaka [yuh-MAHN-tuh-kuh], the Defeater of Yama, the Lord of Death. The story goes that Manjushri, in order to tame Yama, transformed himself into a giant mirror and forced Yama to examine himself in it. The image that Yama saw was Vajrabhairava, his own conqueror.

Thus, Wisdom defeated Death by urging him to confront himself. Our encounter with Vajrabhairava is, likewise, an occasion to examine, and reconcile ourselves with, the reality of our own impermanence.


Image: Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi (detail), Central Tibet, late 15th–early 16th century, opaque watercolor on cloth, 39 1/2 × 32 3/8 in. (100.3 × 82.2 cm). Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, Gift of Paul Mellon, 68.8.116

Throughout the course of our meditative journey, we visualized the mandala’s environment and its various inhabitants as if appearing before us. A certain shift of perspective, however, occurred at that journey’s destination, inside the mandala’s central chamber. There, we saw the fierce deity Vajrabhairava in front of us, but came also to recognize his appearance as a mirror image of ourselves.

Seen in the right light, that reflection might amount to a brief glimpse of one of the most critical aspects of the awakened mind: what Buddhist thought calls Nonduality. This is the realization that an apparent object—in this case the visualized deity—is actually non-different from one’s own mind. It is a state of experience in which ordinary pairs of opposites—like subject and object, perceiver and perceived, even mind and matter—are transcended.

This transcendence of opposites is visually presented in Tibetan Buddhist art by so-called yab-yum, or father-mother, images. Paired male and female deities conjoined in sexual union, they symbolize the state of nondual, awakened awareness that characterizes the enlightened mind.

Spend some time studying the yab-yum figures, these glimpses of nonduality. Close to the gallery’s entrance is our familiar Vajrabhairava, but he has been transformed from a solitary figure to one in union with his consort Vajravetali [vuhj-ruh-vay-TAH-lee]. Each of the other pairs is distinctive in various ways, but they are all united in their visual expression of nonduality.


Image: Standing Crowned Buddha with Four Scenes of His Life (detail), ca. 1050-1100, India, Bihar, southern Magadha region, basalt, 41 x 20 x 7 in. (104.1 x 50.8 x 17.8 cm). Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, The Avery Brundage Collection, B65S11

Think back to the hallway in which we began our long journey toward awakening. Dark. Bombarded with images, fragmented, like our own reflections and like the vibrant painting at its terminus. It was, in many ways, the antithesis of this hallway in which we conclude our quest. Here, fragmentation has been replaced by singular focus.

Our meditative journey has, hopefully, shined a light on just how powerful, how important, how precious, awareness is. The mind is not simply receptive and reactive. With the mind we can, and indeed we do, construct our experience. And so we should employ it wisely.

Mind—much like the figures in the last gallery—has the capacity to encompass what we call object and subject simultaneously. As you approach the figure of the Crowned Buddha at this hallway’s end, consider whether you might see something of yourself in it, some aspect of your own buddha-nature. Look for your reflection in it, and its reflection in you.

Among the questions Vajrayana Buddhism poses is this: “Am I in the world, or is the world in me?”

The answer, of course, is “Yes.”