A 15th- to 16th-century wood figure of the Buddhist deity Vajrabhairava (“Destroyer of Death”) is a highlight of “Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment” on view through May 3 at the Asian Art Museum. Courtesy Travis Fullerton/Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Asian Art Museum’s ‘Awaken’ offers a journey toward enlightenment

Ancient, contemporary Buddhist works on view

The surprising, deliberately jarring first gallery of the Asian Art Museum’s new exhibit of Buddhist art confronts the visitor with scenes from the 1982 film “Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance” and Nepalese artist Tsherin Sherpa’s inscrutable 2016 painting “1 Luxation 1,” the word referring to displacement or disalignment.

Jeffrey Durham, curator of “Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment,” says the initial “visual assault of the modern-day video is meant to briefly overwhelm in order to remind us what Tibetan Buddhist art is designed to address: that we are lulled asleep by the ordinary world’s clamor and therefore blind to the true nature of reality.”

Durham and co-curator John Henry Rice of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts have combined the two museums’ Buddhist artworks to present some 100 ancient and contemporary Himalayan art works in the exhibition, which runs through May 3.

Sculptures, painted mandala, prayer wheels, tools, weapons and musical instruments line up in Marco Centin’s spacious and inviting exhibition design, leading to a fearsome 500-year-old figure of Vajrabhairava or Lightning Terror, Destroyer of Death. Contemplation of it provides a good example of the rich complexity of the exhibit’s objects.

Probably originating in China, where during the Ming and Qing dynasties Tibetan Buddhism was highly valued, the sculpture presents a vast range of symbolic imagery. Vajrabhairava’s 16 legs symbolize 16 different kinds of emptiness (shunyata), while the figures they trample indicate the 16 different powers he possesses.

His 34 arms, combined with the three essences of his body, speech and mind, reference a philosophical formula in Buddhist thought called the “37 limbs of awakening” (bodhi-anga), so each implement that Vajrahhairava holds represents a different aspect of his spiritual knowledge, used to destroy various obstacles to awakening.

A practical, but equally complex aspect of the huge sculpture, Durham says, is that every single element has to be removed for shipping and reassembled for the installation — with a strong indication that the San Francisco display will be the last time this large figure leaves Virginia.

Vajrayana Buddhism, starting in Tibet in the 8th century, Durham says, “emphasizes the act of seeing: the practice depends on artworks created as visual aids to meditation, objects that transform awareness and ultimately bring about enlightenment, or awakening.”

Buddha statues and colorful mandala calm the journey through the exhibit, representing the Buddhist path to clear-eyed recognition of reality, being fully present, and embracing the essential oneness superseding fragmentation and disorder.

Museum director Jay Xu says the exhibit’s “questing narrative invites audiences to be both viewer and participant” in alignment with the museum’s goal of transforming visitor experience to “the absolute necessity of deep engagement with art — an engagement that’s the heart and soul of Tibetan Buddhism.”

IF YOU GO

Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment

Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St. S.F.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, closed Mondays and to 9 p.m. Thursdays; closes May 3

Admission: $10 (Target Sundays) to $25; free for 12 and younger

Contact: (415) 581-3500, asianart.org

Museums and GalleriesVisual Arts

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