UC Berkeley History of Art Department

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Buddhist Maṇḍalas and Narratives of Enlightenment

Michelle C. Wang, Georgetown University


Throughout the twentieth century, scholarly and popular interpretations of Buddhist maṇḍalas emphasized their status as expressions of the human psyche. By virtue of their circular form, they were considered to represent the wholeness of the self. Shifting the discourse from one focused upon the human subject to one that instead places the Buddha’s experience at the forefront, this talk analyzes eighth to tenth century Buddhist maṇḍalas from Dunhuang (Gansu Province, China) as embodiments of the Buddha’s own awakening, in particular narratives of enlightenment that emerged within the context of esoteric Buddhism. Furthermore, the mapping of Buddhist maṇḍalas onto the architectural space of cave shrines at Dunhuang underscores the subjective nature of vision that was key not only to the performative restaging of the Buddha’s awakening, but also of the transformation from bodhisattva to Buddhahood.

Michelle C. Wang is Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Georgetown University. She is a specialist in the Buddhist visual culture of medieval China, in particular, mural and portable paintings from Silk Road sites. She has authored articles on changing conceptions of maṇḍalas in Tang China and paired images in Buddhist art, and recently completed a book manuscript titled Maṇḍalas in the Making: The Visual Culture of Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang. Her research has been supported by grants from the Asian Cultural Council, Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, and the Association for Asian Studies.