Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 16, 2021
Michelle C. Wang Maṇḍalas in the Making: The Visual Culture of Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang Sinica Leidensia 139. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2018. 336 pp.; 130 ills. Cloth $147.00 (9789004357655)

This book tracks the visual traces of a dialogue as conceived between two ethnicities—Han Chinese and Tibetan—and two modes of Buddhist Mahāyāna thought and practice, exoteric (such as Huayan) and Esoteric Buddhism, both operating in the Dunhuang region of eastern Central Asia (now in Gansu Province, China) in the eighth to tenth century. A series of “cultural negotiations” plays out in complex programs of murals on cave walls and ceilings through the incorporation of motifs associated with Esoteric Buddhism into a matrix that is, according to the author, focused on repentance rituals and reverence for bodhisattvas. The book presents an intriguing argument based on textual and visual evidence, though ultimately it perhaps does not quite demonstrate as much of an “esotericization” of Dunhuang Buddhism and its art as what its erudite author perceives.

One of the primary virtues of Maṇḍalas in the Making is Michelle C. Wang’s accomplishment in creating an estuary for multiple streams of Dunhuang scholarship: on Chinese and Tibetan history and art history; on Buddhism in the context of Chinese religion; on manuscripts; and on iconography derived from Esoteric Buddhism in central and eastern India, Nepal, Kashmir, and Tang China. Wang has made extensive, careful study of this body of work and extended it by incorporating groundbreaking scholarship on Tibetan texts and practices of the eighth to tenth century at Dunhuang. In the literature on Dunhuang these streams are usually treated separately, with specialists in one aspect handling the others gingerly, if not awkwardly. Wang succeeds in bringing such expertise together and in the process revealing a great deal. At the same time, it is unfortunate that her book was published the same year as Kimiaki Tanaka’s An Illustrated History of the Mandala: From Its Genesis to the Kālacakratantra (Wisdom Publications, 2018). Incorporating this game-changing study, an updated and expanded translation of Tanaka’s 2010 Japanese-language work, would have helped Wang to clarify a number of knotty problems that are central to her scrupulously narrated study, including the early stages of the development of the maṇḍala in India, China, and Tibet.

Wang’s first chapter demonstrates the range of meanings the term maṇḍala had in Tang and pre-Tang texts (“altar,” “circle,” “realm”), focusing on ritual manuals related to the Uṣṇīṣavijayā dhāraṇī. There the term (actually, maṇḍa or daochang) mainly refers to a temporary, sanctified square earthen platform built for the performance of rituals. It would have been helpful to distinguish maṇḍa from a maṇḍala proper, which is a fully symmetrical assembly of visualized deities or its representation.

Two intersecting themes are woven into the following four chapters: an iconographic theme—Vairocana Buddha and the Eight Great Bodhisattvas—and the overall visual program of a tenth-century cave shrine, Mogao Cave 14. Wang tracks the former through the Ellora Caves and the Odishan monasteries in India; the texts of Amoghavajra (705–774), the famous Indian translator in Tang China; sculptures in eastern Tibet; cloth paintings from Dunhuang; and murals in Dunhuang (including Yulin) cave shrines. None of the Tibetan or Chinese versions of the theme is arranged in a fully symmetrical fashion along the cardinal and intermediate directions; nevertheless, Wang considers them maṇḍalas and associates them with Tibetan Buddhist art.

In the fifth and final chapter, the primary threads of the entire study—Amoghavajra, the “Maṇdala of Eight Great Bodhisattvas,” the cult of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, four directional Tathāgata Buddhas surrounding a centrally placed crossed double vajra (visvavajra), understood by the author as the five directional Tathāgatas of the Yoga Tantra Vajradhātu mahāmaṇḍala, repentance rituals, and induction into the bodhisattva path—are braided together in an attempt to clarify the overall mural program of Mogao Cave 14. These themes converge with elements from the Bhadracarī and the Gaṇḍavyūha sections of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, an important and lengthy Mahāyāna scripture that is not a Tantra or Esoteric text, though it is sometimes considered a “proto-Tantra.” By identifying Esoteric Buddhist imagery interspersed with Huayan (itself named after the Chinese translation of this text’s title) and generalized Chinese Buddhist themes, the chapter clarifies what Wang refers to as “the reciprocity between the Huayan and esoteric traditions” (259). She traces this “bridging” to Amoghavajra and insightfully sees Mogao Cave 14 as a visual correlate or instantiation of shared elements from both.

One focus of Wang’s reading of Mogao Cave 14 is on fifty-one smaller portraits of standing bodhisattvas that appear below large framed panels depicting various forms of the bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara and Mañjuśrī on the south and north walls, as well as below the thousand Buddhas painted on the west wall behind the central pillar with sculptural niche. Though they were originally labeled with Chinese inscriptions, few names are recoverable; one is found in the Sūtra on the Names of the Buddha, which “played a crucial role in repentance rites” (238). Indeed, Wang argues that repentance “is a unifying feature of Mogao Cave 14” (238). Concurrently, Wang contends that “if the paintings of Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra [on the east wall] are added to this group [of bodhisattvas], the total number of bodhisattvas amounts to fifty-three, coinciding with the number of kalyāṇamitras [Buddhist teachers] in the Gaṇḍavyūha narrative” (247) of Sudhana’s pilgrimage on the bodhisattva path to enlightenment. Sudhana appears nowhere in the murals; it is suggested that the cave visitor plays his role: “by entering the cave and circumambulating the pillar . . . the devotee is able to performatively retrace Sudhana’s journey to each kalyānāmitra” (249). The ultimate destination of Sudhana’s pilgrimage is Samantabhadra, to whom Amoghavajra was particularly attached. This is an ingenious if somewhat precarious interpretation, requiring equal ingenuity and textual familiarity, rather than mere faith, on the part of the intended viewer.

The short epilogue steps back for an overview, first to contrast the dismissive views of Marc Aurel Stein (1862–1943) and Laurence Austine Waddell (1854–1938) toward Tibetan Buddhism with Wang’s own attempt to evaluate the Tibetan contributions to Dunhuang art and ritual between the eighth and tenth centuries. It then locates the “profound dialogue between the Chinese and Tibetan communities at Dunhuang” in that period (271), describing the “bilingual” character of the texts and visuals produced there as an instance of the “Third Space” theorized by Homi Bhabha (272). While most of the book’s prose is written clearly and with empirical precision, the epilogue’s overview occasions a rare indulgence in airy theorizing: “Insofar as space gains subjectivity by its orientation towards a specific perspective, we may think of maṇḍalas as embodying the subjectivity of the Buddha” (273). It concludes by suggesting that within the space of Cave 14, “the practitioner was prompted to enact an ascent from the mundane world toward the transcendent realm of the Five Buddhas” (274).

Thanks to the breadth of Wang’s scholarship, fidelity to her sources’ insights, generosity in citation, and sincere desire to recover the meanings of Dunhuang Buddhist art, every page of the book rewards close reading. Unsurprisingly given its ambition, there are a few significant areas where one is left wishing for more consistency, clarity, or accuracy. I have reservations about the application of the term “maṇḍala” to many of the compositions in this book, including those of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas. It is applied misleadingly and inconsistently, since similar compositions are (correctly) not so named. Despite the book’s intention to liberate studies of this art from the long shadow of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, its usage of other misleading terminology (such as Vajraśekhara when what is actually meant is the Tattvasaṃgraha, the first of the Vajraśekhara’s eighteen sections) seems to derive from their sectarian usage. Further, the identification of certain visual forms as a “Nepalese-derived Tibetan style” (107) implies that an established mode of such art was operating inside eighth- and ninth-century Tibet itself and that it was primarily derived from Nepal. In fact, the art at Dunhuang considered Nepalese-Tibetan has stronger and more direct connections to India—eastern, central, and Kashmiri—than are acknowledged. Finally, I am not fully convinced that the “dialogue” and “reciprocity” between Huayan and Esoteric Buddhism entailed more than the incorporation of a few awe-inspiring tokens of power, which need not have been fully understood or practiced as intended—nor that Huayan was meaningfully “esotericized” or that Esoteric Buddhism was “sinicized” in the process. Unlike in Tendai Buddhism in Japan, for example, which legibly incorporated Esoteric Buddhist texts, teachings, and ritual into its practice, I am unaware of a similar ongoing minority strain in Huayan in China. Meanwhile, Vajrayāna in India and Tibet developed in increasingly radical directions, leaving any “proto-Tantric” checks or ambiguousness behind. Its later traces in China are Tibetan imports. To be sure, both the Tanguts and the Mongols might be said to have brought these two strands of Mahāyāna together again at Dunhuang and in the sculptures at the cliff site Feilaifeng (Zhejiang Province, China) while maintaining their separate identities, borders, and even artistic modes of representation.

Wang’s important book contributes to the ongoing vexed evaluation of the functions of cave shrines such as Mogao Cave 14. Wang reads the cave discursively and diachronically, from top to bottom and left to right in a circumambulatory sequence in an attempt to decode it for what it means, not for what it does in the sense of establishing a space of consecrated power acting on the visitor. Maṇḍalas in the Making succeeds in raising critical questions about the multilingual nature of Buddhisms and their arts in Central and East Asia at a particularly critical period in between two fallen empires, and well before Esoteric Buddhism was widespread in Tibet.

Rob Linrothe
Northwestern University