Japanese, 19th century
Paint on canvas
We have mentioned its usage, but what actually is a mandala? Essentially, it’s a map of a sacred space, a way of visualising the nature of things in the spiritual realm. Used in conjunction with recitation (mantras) and hand gestures (mudra), this type of Buddhism offers a ‘fast track’ to awakening, far removed from the lengthy meditational practices of the early teachings.
Our example in the Castle’s Buddhist Room, exquisitely painted in the 19th century, is based on a model which had been introduced to Japan and faithfully copied there for more than a thousand years. Around the year 800, several Japanese monks travelled to China to study the Buddhist teachings in depth. The monk Kūkai recalls:
Fortunately, due to the power of the grace of the Buddha and other forces… I was able to travel to Tang China in 804, whence I safely returned with the two mandalas of the Womb Realm of Great Compassion and Diamond Realm…. May all the Buddhas rejoice in, and all the heavenly beings protect, my efforts here and may all virtuous spirits help realize our wishes.
Kūkai founded the Shingon School of Japanese Buddhism, with its emphasis on secret rituals and direct transmission of the teachings from master to pupil – it is sometimes known as the Secret Mandala Teaching (Himitsu Mandala Kyō). Our object of the month comes from another Buddhist grouping called Tendai. The Tendai school was derived from Shingon and founded shortly afterwards by a monk called Saichō. Tendai incorporates the same esoteric, almost magical practices, with respect for the scriptures from other Buddhist traditions. This scroll from the Metropolitan Museum shows the deities which appear on our mandala:
Scroll of deities of the Diamond World Mandala, Japan, 1803, Metropolitan Museum, museum number 1975.268.3
Our mandala shows how Buddhism developed from its early roots based on the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha was a historical figure who lived in ancient India for 80 years, experienced awakening and passed away in around 400 BCE. As Buddhism spread from India hundreds of years after the life of the Buddha, it met other cultures and other beliefs and developed different branches and schools. In this Japanese depiction, the historical Buddha has become an emanation of an eternal god-like Buddha, represented in the centre, from which multiple enlightened beings flow, inhabiting a Buddhist multiverse. In the centre we have an archetypal Buddha, transmitting enlightenment to the four Buddhas (with their attendants), situated at the four compass points, and from them to the infinite Buddhas which populate the outer frame. In return, the other beings surrounding him, offer their reverence and gratitude for the gift of awakening.
Bronze and lacquered wood figure of buddha Dainichi Nyorai (the central Buddha of the mandala), Japan, Edo Period (17th - 19th century), British Museum, object number 1945,1017.510, © The Trustees of the British Museum
When you visit the Buddhist Room at Chiddingstone Castle, you will see images from the mandala reflected in many other objects in the room. One of these is our miniature stupa or burial monument from 18th-century Tibet. It is believed that the mandala is a bird’s eye view of these Buddhist monuments – a stupa was originally a shrine for the Buddha’s ashes after he was cremated.
Gilt-bronze stupa with painted image, Tibet, 19th century, Chiddingstone Castle collection, object number 01.1590
From above you can see that the stupa has a square base with a circular structure on top. The circle represents the heavens and the square the earth. We can also see an unusual implement, set into the outer frame at regular intervals; this is called a vajra, a Sanskrit word, meaning ‘diamond’ and symbolizing indestructability. In some more esoteric (secret) forms of Buddhism, mainly practised in Tibet, this ritual weapon is seen as cutting through ignorance:
Vajra in cast bronze, 19th century, Chiddingstone Castle collection, object number 01.1495
As a final thought, as our eyes have started to become accustomed to the bewildering array of deities in the Castle’s mandala, it’s worth noting that it depicts only the central square of the enormous original mandala brought from China some twelve hundred years ago. Below, from the National Gallery of Victoria, we can see an overwhelmingly complex depiction of what Kūkai described as the ‘ocean-like’ world of enlightened beings, containing, as he believed ‘all the secrets of the sacred writings’ in pictorial form:
Mandala of the Diamond World, Japan, 15th - 16th century, National Gallery of Victoria, object number AS10-1971
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