You are here

A Three Dimensional Path to Enlightenment

Published on
March 6

“Golden Visions of Densatil”, a new exhibition at Asia Society, is a collection of sculptural pieces from the Densatil Monastery’s memorial stupas, dome-shaped structures erected as a Buddhist shrine. Built in the twelfth century near Lassa, Tibet, Densatil was famous for the monumental size and the craftsmanship of its stupas. These structures were created in the form of a three-dimensional mandala (a geometric figure representing the universe in Buddhist symbolism) in the main hall of the Monastery. After the Chinese demolished the original building during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), only some sculptural pieces survived in public and private collections across Europe and US. I saw the exhibition after watching the monks from the Drigung Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism finishing a Sand Mandala, and it helped me to visualize Densatil as a giant geometric mandala I could walk through. 

The exhibition describes the eight multi-tier ten foot stupas of Densatil, called Tashi Gomang or “Many Doors of Auspiciousness”. The Tashi Gomangs were built with thousands of intricate sculptures of various gods and goddesses organized in six layers from bottom to top. Each layer represents different stages on the path to enlightenment, and the deities embody Tibetan Buddhist teachings. According to the exhibition catalog, the gods and goddesses were arranged by their grade of sanctity: the higher they were placed on the structure, the higher their status was. Following this logic, the monastery placed the relics of the Buddhist teacher Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo (1110–1170) at the top, representing the highest spiritual attainment. 

Three sculptures of female deities are among the highlights of the exhibition: Parnashavari, the Dancing Offering Goddesses, and Vajravarahi. Three outstanding sculptures of goddesses unite the qualities I admire most in real women: fearlessness, gracefulness, and commitment of their forces into meaningful actions. Parnashavari (“the Forest Goddess”) occupied the fifth layer of the stupa, called the Tier of Offering Goddesses. A destroyer of opposing forces and protector of her own forces, Parnashavari was invoked to fight illness. With three faces and six hands, she wears a skirt and girdle of leaves, and always smiles. Her origins are associated with the ancient Shavari tribe of India, with the practice of healing and with curing contagious diseases. For a practitioner of Tantric Buddhist meditation, the visualization of Parnashavari was an important stage on the way to Enlightenment as well as Buddhahood.

The Dancing Offering Goddesses were a symbol of the offering forms of beauty, garlands, music, dance, flowers, incense, light, and sweet perfume. In meditation, the Buddhist practitioner would visualize the Goddesses as an effective procedure to collect merits, which advances the practitioner through the path of Enlightenment. The sculptures we see in the exhibition are one of the two groups of Offering Goddesses that flanked the central panel of the stupa’s fifth tier of Densatil. They are dancing while playing the flute, the bell, and percussion. As a meditation practitioner myself I decided I would work on visualizing the beauties of Densatil next time I sat in the cushion. 

Vajravarahi represents the most significant type of enlightened female figure in Tibetan Buddhism: the Dakini (“she who traverses the sky”). In the Tibetan spiritual journey, these special goddesses are the essence of wisdom, the fundamental wakefulness inherent but undiscovered in all beings. As a female, the Dakini has a unique power to transform the practitioner, to teach, and to transmit strength. The Vajravarahi of Densatil was located at the edges of the uppermost stupa surrounding the spiritual master, as if she was gracefully dancing at the tip of the three dimensional mandala. Perhaps signing the words by female Buddhist teacher Dakki Chonyi Zangmo: “I, the Yogini who engages in the uncontrived conduct of fearlessness, moves in the measured tread of dance that extends evenly throughout samsara and nirvana”.

In the shade of the sacred beauty of Densatil, I thought about my own meditation practice. When I rest my mind in silence the part of myself that is buried in noise comes up to the surface. What I see in meditation is nothing else that what I am in a purest state, the good and the bad. I like the idea that Parnashavari and Vajravarahi will be by my side next time I meditate, teaching me to be a self-confident, brave and fearless woman. 

Photo credits

Panel of offering goddesses. Central Tibet. 14th century. Gilt copper alloy with inlays of semiprecious stones. Collection of David T. Owsley. Photograph by Brad Flowers, courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art
Vajravarahi. Museum Rietberg Zürich, on long-term loan from The Berti Aschmann Foundation, BA 109. Photograph by Rainer Wolfsberger
Parnashavari. Central Tibet. 14th century. Gilt copper alloy with inlays of semiprecious stones. 12½ x 11½ x 8 in. (31.8 x 29.2 x 20.3 cm). Collection of Ann and Gilbert H. Kinney. (Courtesy Ann and Gilbert H. Kinney)
Czaja, Olaf, Illustration from elevation of Tashigomanf Stupa and its Six Tiers (not to scale), drawing. Courtesy of Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften