Art of South East Asia
The art of Southeast Asia is characterized by its diverse cultural and religious influences from Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and animism. The art reflects the areas' rich and complex customs, traditions, and beliefs, and often features intricate patterns, vibrant colors, and intricate details. Common themes include nature, religion, mythology, and daily life, with many artworks showcasing local flora and fauna, religious figures, and cultural practices. Some of the most famous forms of Southeast Asian art include traditional dance, theater, sculpture, painting, and textiles.
The Tibetan Mandala
April 5, 2021
*Mandalas were created in the service of one of the world's great religions, Buddhism. They were produced in Tibet, India, Nepal, China, Japan, Bhutan, and Indonesia and date from the 4th century to present.
“One must find the source within one's own Self, one must possess it. Everything else was seeking -- a detour, an error.”
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
After a ritual of chanting, musical instruments, exuberant dance, singing and incense burning, an intricate graph for a mandala is drawn out with white chalk onto a wooden board by highly trained monks and lamas. Many of the masters have spent up to three years studying the tradition of the Buddhist lineage and can construct the detailed, monumental display purely by memory. The robed figures, in resplendent costumes congregate in perfect form and with deep focus, surrounded by a crowd of observers about to be led into a world where the inner mind integrates consciousness with the limitless. The graceful, highly skilled hands pick up the chakpur artist tool and fill it with the infinitely small particles of matter purposefully, and amazing bright colors move effortlessly from the fingertips out the flute to form exquisite concentric patterns on the canvas. The vision slowly emerges from the painstaking placement of the granules, methodically and with incredible power and effect. And, like the Far Eastern winds floating over the Himalayan mountains that gently push the clouds away to reveal views of the sacred peaks, a symmetrical, geometrical expression of the journey the individual must take to reach the highest order of the universe, is revealed. A spectacular sand Mandala glowing against the mundane drop of the rooms travels outwards from the minds of monks and lamas to the material world.
The process of creating the sand mandala is incredibly slow and deliberate, with intense concentration and purpose sometimes taking several days to complete. The small handfuls of miniscule crystals were made originaly from the granules of ground-colored rocks and semi-precious gems, but are now made with white rock dyed with coloured inks, ground roots, herbs and bark. The hues are made from crushed gypsum, red stone, yellow ochre, and blue from a concoction of gypsum and charcoal, red and black making brown, red and white making pink, etc, creating a wonderful palate through the delightful alchemy of color mixing. The symbols of the deities adopted by each lineage dwell inside the mandala with the reigning deity perched in the centre, becoming a two -dimensional representation of the multi-dimensional realm that the Buddhists believe to exist. The vibrant scenes, beyond their esoteric and mystical purpose are remarkable artworks in themselves, even for the non-believers. The complex display of images and labyrinths winding through the circular patterns, take the observer on an unexpected adventure.
The glistening sand Mandala is said to purify and heal, and transmit positive energies into the world and into the lives, and psyches of the observers and practioners who witness them. After the lengthy period of creating these detailed cosmic maps, the ritual to destroy the earthly expression of the Mandala begins. The monks sing out a hauntingly beautiful chant, a deep throated echo that vibrates an invisible energy across the room, as Buddhist instruments are being played. A single appointed lama then methodically begins the destruction of the mandala by scraping the back of his hands through the beautiful monument, until the once colorful scene of high order melts into greyness. Other monks wielding wooden paintbrushes and in a deep meditative manner, slowly sweep the sand from the outside perimeters towards the collective center of the artifact, putting it in an urn to be washed away by water, returning to nothingness as a poetic reminder of the impermanence of life.
Beyond the sand construction, there are other forms of these geometric complex cartographs that depict the metaphorical world of the mystic, and are symbolic representation of the cosmic universe in Buddhist traditions. The origin of the mandala has mundane, non-religious beginnings in several continents such as the Indian and Cretan labyrinths of the fifth century BCE, that portrayed cave mazes that led the observer to dead ends without escape. However, it has transcended its earthly roots to become a powerful spiritual symbol of enlightenment. Since adopting the practice from India in the eleventh century, Tibetan Buddhism retains the most evolved and contemporary use of mandalas in the modern era. Mandalas are unique representations of religious art in the Buddhist, Jain and Hindu culture, encompassing Central Asia through India to China, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia. You can find the permanent artifacts painted or woven on scrolls and enormous, detailed tapestries exploding with vivid hues cascading down from the walls, placed in the meditational halls of temples. In rare moments of ecstatic motivation, they are constructed in three dimensions such as the incredible Kalachakra Mandala at the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, that rises up in majestic form.
Even in our technologically sophisticated world we can walk into the Far East Tibetan temples and monasteries from the grandest, to the humblest, smallest places, and see tapestries hung and walls intricately painted and exquisitely detailed artworks. In today’s daily Buddhist practice, the mandala still remains a meditative guide to walk the observer through the many layers of universal order and the mind towards ultimate enlightenment. With the help of Buddhist monks and ritual, the practitioner embarks on a navigated journey through the labyrinths in an effort to integrate the inner response to external suffering of the psyche/soul/mind into an elevated realm of a higher ordered universe, that liberates one from the endless cycle of the human condition. The intricate patterns are said to bend perceptions, and lead the soul into new planes of thought and understanding. BhodiMandala translates into “circle of awakening,” and Tibetan Buddhists believe that you can actually create a Buddha through using imagination and visualization. To the Buddhist dream reality is a dimension that is as real as the sensory world we occupy with the conscious mind.
The cosmogrammatic mandala that are symbols of the transitory nature of experience, and represent sublime order and the symmetrical balance of the universe, might seem to stand apart from Western rational thought and psychology of the modernist views on obtaining personal awareness and freedom from suffering. However, the great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961), who believed also that dream reality constructed the development of an individual’s psychological landscape as much as the waking moments, adapted the use of mandalas in his practice to help his patients gain further insight into their psychic natures: “I sketched every morning in a notebook a small circular drawing, a mandala, which seemed to correspond to my inner situation at the time… Only gradually did I discover what the mandala really is: … the Self, the wholeness of the personality, which if all goes well, is harmonious.” Although, he did not implement fundamental religious concepts literally into his work, Jung believed the spiritual realm of the psyche was integral to human health and transformation. He discovered that when his patients drew their own mandalas from dreams or imagination, they became more focused and calmer on their journey to personal healing and self-actualization. A fascinating observation that somehow, even without prior knowledge of the Eastern Buddhist traditions of the mandala as gateway to liberation, the act of creating and observing these concentric patterns had a meditative, and elevating effect on those who engaged in the process. Esteemed mythologist and American professor Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) also wrote and spoke extensively about the power of the mandala for the collective understanding of humanity, and greatly believed that “When you contemplate the mandala, you are harmonized inside: the religious symbols are harmonizing powers. They help. That’s the whole sense of mythology: to help you harmonize with the life of society.”
Upon a closer look at the geometrical composition of the mandala, one can also see a scientific and mathematical construction co existing with the metaphysical, and psychological viewpoints of these artifacts. The leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama performs, and often speaks about the Kalachakra sand mandala, one of the many teachings in esoteric Buddhism, used for the collective healing and balance of all beings. An increasing number of thinkers in the global scientific community are delving into ancient texts and Buddhist scriptures to draw astounding parallels between these philosophies and physics. The ancient scripture of the Kalachakra has shocked modern science with is its accurate, highly sophisticated map of the universe, and its description of atoms and sub-atomic particles that seem to have incredible similarities with the modern theories of particle physics. The Dalai Lama has engaged extensively in dialogue on these topics with scientists, saying himself “religion without Quantum Physics is an incomplete picture of reality.” The discussions have delved into the idea that the space particle presented in the tantra may be equivalent to the famously elusive Higgs Boson- the “God particle.” that essence, that still largely unknown substance that breathes light into matter giving it form and function. Without the “God particle” the universe would a dark mass void of life, and consciousness would lay flat against the nothingness. Some hypothesize that the mandala in its many teachings and the sand mandala in particular, beyond its obvious physical and metaphorical correlation with particle physics, described the phenomenon the of the universe long before the parallel scientific discoveries. Buddhism teaches that nothing exists objectively for the observer, and this is an idea that has been deeply explored and often agreed upon in the world of quantum physics. Each journey of the mind through the labyrinth of the symbolic mandala is a highly individual experience, with one’s own perceptions, life events and cognitive outlook influencing the final outcome. Each discipline has its very personal and subjective route to the truth, be it spiritual enlightenment for the Buddhists, or psychological integration for Western thinkers, or the ultimate scientific revelation for the physicists. And amongst all the various ideas and philopshies, perhaps there is a higher order of things that interconnects it all into one universal design that can be visually represented through the complex, cosmic cartographic artistry of the Tibetan mandala.
The Tibetan Mandala
Tibetan Fire Offerings
May 29, 2020
With the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion, with birth, ageing and death, with sorrow, with lamentation, with pain, grief and despair it is burning.
― The Buddha's Fire Sermon
The flames leapt out, of the Tanchan fire pit moving in forms, morphing into figures, burning brighter as the devotees throw repentance in forms of herbal mixtures on the fire in hopes of clearing the past for new blessings. A rebirth of sorts. The master from Nepal perches on the make shift shrine, deep throated chanting coming in rhythmic intonations from his throat, creating a calm and serenity that spreads throughout the crowd, that chants softly along in unison.
The congregation for the ceremony this year is sparse, as only a few are permitted to attend in light of the global pandemic that forces the separation of physical bodies. “How lucky we are to be in Taiwan,” says Master, Rinchope Gyepa Dorje with his commanding, but very relaxed and cheerful speech. Like most Buddhist leaders, he believes it is Karmic state, and a universal contract that has caused this outbreak. To the believers this global tragedy is a cosmic sentiment of how action brings about certain results-a concept that many Western minds are uncomfortable with. In the same breath this cheery, well mannered and very animated man, of short stature with a jolly roundness about him also concludes, “we need a union of West and East. We need to come together to share wisdom. Both could benefit.”
Tibetan Buddhism is not as popular as Zen, (or Chan) in Taiwan, yet the few temples and centers that exist here are just as brightly decorated and embellished in wonders as the ones in nations occupied by Tibetan Buddhism. Intricate drums, shell and bone flutes and beads rest on tables, as multi colored prayer flags swing and interconnect between the trees that stand around the ceremony. For this event, the monks who usually attend to Rinchope are tucked away in Nepal, unable to come back to participate due to the Covid 19 catastrophe. To be one of the few in Taiwan invited this year is seen as a high privilege, and the gratitude of those in attendance is quite apparent. Fervent bows and arms reach out as he walks by, and he waves his hand as if to say “no need, for such displays.” He almost seems uncomfortable to receive such adoration. And, for the minority who enjoy the scenes and can understand some of the philosophy but are not pure devotees, they too perhaps see this level of commitment as a bit over the top. Yet, this man they call a master is quite charming and easy to like. With a humble nature he will chat about anything, diving into conversations on complex levels with an open mind. A refreshing character, and despite one’s beliefs or sympathies, an interaction with the Buddhist disciple can be quite engaging with a transformative quality.
The Fire Offering, which always takes place in May, is a very important ritual in Tibetan Buddhism. It represents the opportunity to make peace with our ancestors, liberate those caught between worlds, heal wounds, remove psychic debris from lives and clear the way for new things to happen. Intricate offerings of dried herbs, rose buds, grains and even pieces of rare coral and pure silver are heaped on plates and lines are made, as everyone files by tossing the mix onto the writhing pit of fire that gives off unbearable heat, with flames that reach out like frantic limbs. Hours of work and preparation gone in an instant. When the intense scene subsides and there is just the smoldering ash remaining, the worshippers attest to experiencing a profound hope for the future.
Energy clearing is often a theme in many spiritual and religious traditions. For the secular, it might be in the form of decluttering and removing old objects and material from a living or office space, or ending toxic relationships. Whatever form it takes, it cannot be denied that when we clear physical or emotional debris, there is often a lightness and fresh perspective that follows. Although, of course this sacred ceremony is meant to go far beyond the mundane to liberate us and those we love from the Karma of past lives, it too seems to have an immediate effect of wellbeing for those who attend, despite whether you are a Buddhist or not: “Departed, have left no addresses…But at my back in a cold blast I hear…The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear…My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart, Under my feet…After the event. He wept. He promised a ‘new start.” T.S Eliot, The Wasteland Section III: The Fire Sermon.
Tibetan Huo Gong Fire Offering in Taiwan
The sacred remains (Photo: Author)
Master pays tribute to the Buddha (Photo: Author)
Notes on a shrine (Photo: Author)
Prayers in the wind (Photo: Author)
Standing at the threshold of liberation (Photo: Author)
Temple of Samut Prakan, Thailand
July 26, 2020
Samut Prakan is an ancient city that bears the heritage of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. This royal monastery was built during the late Ayutthaya period. Alongside typical Thai architecture, the temple is also decorated with Chinese ceramics. In the bend of the Chao Phraya River, the Phlaeng Faifa fort dates back to the reign of King Rama II. The City Pillar Shrine is a sacred place, located in the middle of a very busy street, in the heart of the town. The Chinese influence on the Thai architecture is visible in this Shrine, where candles are lit with the hope of good luck.
Temple of Samut Prakan, Thailand
Photo by: @_ryuww [IG]