For the next two weeks, the simply decorated rooms of the mansion-like Dharmadhatu Buddhist Meditation and Practice Center will hold a unique Washington art exhibit.

The 53 Buddhist scroll paintings and bronze sculptures on display belonged to a private Nepalese collector who decided to sell part of his coooection. More than 60 area Buddhists and Eastern religious scholars were invited last Saturday to a preview exhibition and sale of the pieces at the Buddhist center at 3229 Idaho Ave. NW.

"The owner commissioned them to us through a relative to sell, hoping they'd go to people who had an understanding of the religion," said David Sable, the center member who coordinated the exhibit. "We, too, hoped to find people who would use them for a religious function and not just as ornaments."

The scroll paintings, called thangkas, are colorful, hand-painted scenes mounted on brocade silk with wide borders.

"Every thangka has a theme, which is taken from an ancient Buddhist religious text called Sadhana," said Edi Irwin, of the center. "The artist's inspiration and interpretation of the theme usually comes to him in a vision."

Although thangkas are generally used now for meditation, they were originally used in teaching. "The people didn't know how to read or write so the lamas (religious leaders) used them as teaching aids," said Sable. "Thangkas became the medium. They played a very important role. When traveling from village to village, the lamas had only to roll up their thangkas and tents and go."

"You'll find a thangka in every Buddhist home and temple in Nepal and India," said Irwin. "In this area you can find two or three in galleries, and the Freer Gallery of Art has some rolled up in their basement that can be seen by request."

"But it's rare to see 35 of them at one time," said another center member, Judith Buchanan, "especially in such good condition."

Thangkas can be the size of a book or an entire wall, said Sable. "It depends on how large your audience is."

Prices on the thangkas, some of which are 150 years old, range from $150 to $600. The 18 bronze sculptures are selling for as much as $1,600.

Although five sculptures and 12 thangkas have been sold, Sable says the entire exhibit will be open to the public on Feb. 10. All unsold items will be offered for public sale at that time.