Into the Mystic

Tibet may be in turmoil, but monastic education—monks in saffron robes and shaved heads studying the ancient, esoteric ways of Tibetan Buddhism—hasn’t changed for 600 years. Until now.

A New York Times story this week tells of a group of Tibetan monks engaged in an educational exchange of Eastern scholarship and Western scientific principles at Emory University. The article reminded me of the MIA’s Yamantanka mandala (above, with observer), itself a fusion of Eastern and Western philosophies. A symbol of Tibetan cosmology, a mandala is an exercise in impermanence. Each mandala is painstakingly created with vibrant sand, only to be blown away by the breeze.

Reed College, Portland, Oregon Description In this image, four monks are nearing the completion of their sand mandala. Department Asian Culture Buddhist Creation Date Text Drepung Loseling Tibetan monks making a mandala at Reed College, Oregon, 2003

Drepung Loseling Tibetan monks making a mandala at Reed College, Oregon, 2003

Unless the white lab coats enter the scene, that is. In 1991, monks from the Gyuto Tantric University came to the MIA to make the Yamantanka mandala.

The museum being a museum, it wanted to keep the artwork. So with the monks’ consent, 3M scientists formulated fade-resistant colored silicates and a special adhesive to preserve the work for centuries to come.

You can see it now, resplendent as ever, in the “Sacred” exhibition, Gallery 180, Target Wing.