Visualizing Consciousness: Hybrids, Fractals, and Ritual

Enter the Mandala gallery view

Mandalas are geometric maps of Vajrayana Buddhist visionary worlds. Whether painted or sculpted, they typically consist of nested squares and circles whose fractal geometries define the center of the cosmos and the four cardinal directions. Minutely detailed and saturated with philosophical meaning, mandalas are a feast for the eyes and the mind.

For Buddhist meditators, however, mandalas are not just images to view, but worlds to enter. To work with a mandala, practitioners first re-create it in their mind’s eye, and then imaginatively enter its world.

For museum visitors, our question is this: is it possible to recreate this kind experience without years of meditative discipline, while remaining as authentic as possible in our presentation?

The Asian Art Museum’s mini-exhibition Enter the Mandala says ‘yes.’ In this exhibition, three historically important, largely unpublished 14th century paintings from an original set of five align gallery space with the cardinal directions, thus virtually transforming open space into an architectural mandala. In this way, visitors can literally ‘enter the mandala,’ exploring dimensions of Buddhist art and philosophy in a manner that is simultaneously immersive and transformative.

One of the most important aspects of mandala-oriented artwork is its emphasis on fractal geometries. Formally, a fractal is an image composed of microcosmic copies of itself. Under these conditions, the image in question repeats at multiple scales. Beautiful fractal imagery such as the famous Mandelbrot set is generated from an iterated mathematical formula. Such patterns appear throughout nature, from the structure of the nautilus shell to the California coast.

Fractal geometries are also a key component of Buddhist art production across time and culture, too. Perhaps the best example of Buddhist artwork employing fractal geometry is the mandala. The intricately nested squares and circles that comprise mandala space are hypnotically beautiful. But there is a big difference between something like the Mandelbrot set and the mandala.

For Buddhist meditators, the mandala is not merely an image to view, but a world to enter. In mandala practice, meditators first visualize the mandala precisely in their mind’s eye. Subsequently, they imagine themselves as entering the geometries of the world created in this manner. Typically, such procedures involve intense training undertaken over many years.

For museum visitors, our question is this: is it possible to recreate this kind experience without years of meditative discipline, while remaining as authentic as possible in our presentation? In other words, can we use traditional artworks to create a situation where visitors find themselves inside the nested geometries of the mandala, such that they experienced themselves as immersed in a fractal? We think so, and we also think that an exhibition conceived in this manner is quite authentic to prominent perspectives within Buddhist tradition.

Indeed, the creation of an immersive, fractal environment such as that of the mandala has a long history in Buddhist meditative culture. Perhaps best known are ‘immersive’ cave environments at Dunhuang in China’s Gansu province. These caves were excavated in order to catalyze visionary realizations corresponding to those described in certain Buddhist texts. Here, mirrors were placed around meditators to create infinitely receding, mutually embedded perceptions of oneself. This was apparently done in an effort to help meditators perceive the fundamental structure of awareness, such that the entire environment becomes a “mirror hall that bounces the reflections of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas in all directions and projects the visualizing individual’s own presence to the Buddha assemblies,” according to Harvard Buddhologist Eugene Wang (1995: 265).

Enter the Mandala’s installation is obviously not an attempt to reconstruct any specific physical or architectural environment like the Dunhuang caves. However, the nature of its construction does create a visual parallel to Wang’s description of the Dunhuang mirror-meditation environment. Standing at the center of the mandala gallery, visitors can see reflections of the gilded Nepalese Stupa recede infinitely in all four directions, mandalas in mandalas as far as the eye can see – a situation in which visitors themselves are immersed. In this way, visitors not only experience an exciting visual effect, they can potentially learn a powerful lesson about awareness from the environment: that it always refers to and contains itself, and thus mirrors the situation visually perceived in the mandala room.

Tonight, I will be speaking with visual artist Saya Woolfalk at UC Berkeley about creative influences and religious content in the exhibition and the performance made in response to it. One of the things that has excited me most about Saya’s work is how effectively it dovetails with and sheds light upon some of the most important aspects of the Vajrayana – especially its emphasis on transformative virtual environments that prominently feature the fractal phenomenon. Just as so many of Saya’s work involves large-scale imagery composed of smaller elements of itself, it has much in common with the nested, fractal geometries characteristic of the mandala environment.

Beyond formal considerations, I’m fascinated by Saya’s idea of the hybrid beings she calls the Empathics. Their key characteristic is that the term Empathics refers both to a species hybridized from human and non-human elements, and to the artworks that facilitate such hybridization. For as it turns out, Vajrayana artworks like mandalas are also all about hybridization. For example, many of the images found in mandalas represent composite beings, a type of imagery that reflects the fundamental Buddhist philosophy that all modes of existence, from the mineral to the plant to the animal, are potentially inter-connectible. Indeed, one of the purposes of the ou-topia, the “non-place” of the mandala environment, is to allow the meditator to visualize enlightened beings, and in the wake of the practice actively and physically to identify with the visualized being. Under these conditions, the meditator becomes a hybrid, part human and part something more “awake” (which is the verbal root the word “Buddha” comes from).

There is another parallel here, this time between Saya’s artwork and the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism as a whole. That is, Saya’s emphasis on hybridization of beings parallels the fact that the Vajrayana is itself the product of a hybridization of Asian cultures. In fact, it might also be called a meta-tradition, since it transcends – on its own understanding and in its own history – any specific culturally-defined religious system. Similarly, Saya’s Empathics also transcend species specificity. Accordingly, the Empathics are a parallel example of a meta-being, one whose constitution transcends that of any specific natural kingdom. Finally, the notion of an Empathic is compelling as well, since a similar awareness of the sentience of others (called karuna in Sanskrit) forms one of the linchpins of Vajrayana Buddhist philosophy and practice. For all of these reasons, I look forward to a fascinating “meta-dialog” between these ostensibly diverse worlds of contemporary and traditional artworks – a project essential to developing models of artistic creation and usage that apply across what we typically recognize as contexts.