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Athena Review Exhibition Reports 

The World of Buddhism:

Selections from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection

Asia Society and Museum, New York, NY (March 11 - October 19, 2003)

Although Buddhism is one of the world’s major religions, many westerners have only a vague recollection of its central ideology and little or no concept of its different schools (see note1) or its broad spatial and temporal range. In fact, western views of Buddhism are largely skewed toward the teachings of Tibetan monks as influenced by the Dalai Lama’s visits to the west over the last few decades. The Buddhism Project, a New York City-wide series of exhibitions and programs has been organized by twenty participating institutions in order to explore the larger impact of Buddhist thought, particularly on art and culture in America. As part of this initiative, The World of Buddhism provides an important historical overview of the religion, from its founding in northern India in the 6th c. BC to its spread throughout Asia over the successive centuries. In doing so, this relatively small exhibit of perhaps 50 carefully chosen, exquisite works illustrates how central Buddhist images evolved as they moved through time and space.

[Fig.1: Statue of Buddha from Pakistan, Gandhara area, Kushan Period. Late 2nd - early 3rd c. AD. Phyllite. H: 72 in (Asia Society and Museum; photo: Lynton Gardiner)

Interestingly, while worship and meditation in later Buddhist practice focussed on a wide pantheon of imagery, the earliest form of the religion, which began just after Buddha’s death in the 5th-6th c. BC, was a rather austere philosophy in which the historical Buddha was represented only by symbols. By the Kushan period in northern India (1st-3rd c. AD), however, Buddha began to be represented in human form, and soon his depiction, either after enlightenment or in key scenes of his life on earth, as well as those of his disciples and other enlightened beings (bodhisattvas) became as important to Buddhist worship as depictions of Jesus and saints were to early Christianity. Early texts describe the appropriate depiction of Buddha according to natural forms, such as eyes in the shape of lotus blossoms, eyebrows like an archer’s bow, nose like a parrot’s beak and chin like a mango stone. Other attributes also identify images of Buddha, including elongated earlobes (symbolizing the heavy earrings Buddha removed when he rejected the rich life of his family), a small circular mark on the forehead (urea), a distinct protuberance on top of the head (ushnisha), and usually the simple, ascetic robes of a monk. One of the most fascinating aspects of the exhibit, however, is how different images of Buddha incorporated both prior artistic styles and the traditional ideals of beauty of each culture where the religion flourished, while also upholding to the most part to an acceptable canon of facial characteristics and postures.

For instance, one of the earliest works in the exhibit is a large standing Buddha in stone from the Gandhara region of Pakistan in the late 2nd to 3rd century (fig.1). Typical of Gandharan art, the figure assimilates many Hellenistic and Roman stylistic elements, such as the heavy, linear depiction of drapery folds, strong, muscular physique and westernized, deep-set facial features including a long, masculine nose and wavy hair. In sharp contrast to this are two works from the Gupta period (ca. 5th-6th c. AD) which reflect the Indic tradition in which a graceful, sinuous figure is revealed through clinging, delicate garments. Sculptures from the Sarnath area, a leading Buddhist center in the Gupta period, were widely distributed and copied in the transmission of Buddhism further east. Thus we see similar elements, such as the thin, transparent robe, graceful proportions in a frontal pose, downcast, introspective eyes and coiffure of tight curls, in a sculpture of Buddha from the Mon period in Thailand (7th-8th centuries AD; fig.2). Yet the latter sculpture also incorporates distinctive Mon features, including a more rigid frontal posture, squared face, broad lips and nose, and prominent joined eyebrows.

[Fig.2: Head of Buddha from Thailand in the Mon Style, ca. 8th c. AD. Limestone; H: 27 in. (Asia Society and Museum; photo: Susumu Wakisasa .]

Similarly, a much later stone head of Buddha, from the Angkor period in Cambodia (12th-13th c.) retains the essential Buddhist characteristics, but follows local ideals of beauty such as a slight, full-lipped smile and raised brow-bone. By the 12th c. in Thailand, Buddha is depicted not in his simple robes but in the rich dress, including elaborately decorated crown, collar and belt, of the local Khmer kings. A separate area of the exhibit follows the depiction of various bodhisattvas, enlightened beings able to escape the cycle of death and rebirth (samsar) who chose to remain on earth to help others reach enlightenment. Unlike Buddha himself, the bodhisattvas are usually depicted in rich garments and jewelry, often with tall hairstyles and head-gear, and distinctive, identifying attributes (see note 2.) One of the most important works from the Rockefeller Collection included in this exhibit is the 8th c. Bodhisattva Maitreya from the Prakon Chat province of northestern Thailand. Sculpted in bronze with inlays of silver and black stone this charming, sinuous, multi-armed figure of the “benevolent” bodhisattva was part of a spectacular group of bronzes unearthed in 1964.

Mounted near-by are two very different bodhisattvas both from the 13th century. The first is a seated image of Avalokiteshvara from the early Malla period of Nepal. Cast in gilt copper and richly decorated with inlays of semi- precious stones the figure seems intended to impress. Yet, despite his heavy headdress and elaborate arm-bands, Avalokiteshvara’s open, supple posture and gesture of reassurance (abhaya mubra) welcomes the worshipper. In contrast is the standing figure of Jizo Bosatsu or Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha from the short-lived Kamakuna period (1223-1226) of Japan, sculpted from cypress wood and decorated with gold leaf and paint. Jizo Bosatsu is destined to save devotees during the coming “age of decay” of Buddhism and before the coming of Maitreya, and therefore he was usually depicted as a monk with shaved head. He holds a metal staff in his right hand and the jewel of wisdom in his left and stands on a large, multi-petaled lotus blossom. In Japan he was worshipped as a protector of those most at risk - women, ailing children and travelers - and thus he is often depicted with innocent, child-like characteristics, such as this image’s open, moon-like face and delicate hands. Also from the Kamakuna period is a late 13th century scroll (fig.3) showing the Descent of Buddha Amitabha (Amida Raigo).

A special feature of this exhibit is a small, otherwise empty room whose walls display several varied Buddhist paintings. Similar to their use in temples and halls of worship, the paintings here are meant not only to be admired but to serve as an inspiration and focus for quiet meditation. A large 14th century Tibetan  watercolor depicts the female divinity known as Green Tara (Syama) who served as compassionate guide to help the devoted toward enlightenment. The Tara (“star” in Sanskrit) is known by many forms (46 of which appear in this painting) but the central Green Tara is identified by her distinct posture and by the blue lotuses she holds in each hand, one opened and one closed. The Shayamuni Buddha sits to her right while the painting’s patrons are depicted below, making offerings to the goddess. Noteworthy is the use of rich colors (predominately red, green, and blue) and the detailed illustration of the figure’s garments and jewelry in gold.

[Fig.3: Descent of Buddha Amitabha (Amida Raigo) Japan, Kamakura Period, Late 13th c. AD. Ink, color and gold on silk; H: 38 ¾ x W: 16 ½ in. (Asia Society and Museum; photo: Susumu Wakisasa).]

A 14th century Japanese scroll depicts the Buddha of Inifinite Light or Great Buddha (Dainichi Nyorai), the primary deity of the Shingon sect of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism. Befitting to his central role he is shown with an intricate halo of vivid, almost psychedelic colors, representing mystical emanations. At the opposite end of the  spectrum is a quiet, monochromatic scroll from 15th century Japan depicting White Robed Kannon (Dainichi Nyorai), the Japanese Avalokiteshrara As here, he is often shown seated on a rocky promontory above turbulent waters, in allusion to texts which describe Mount Potalaka, Avalokiteshvara’s home on the southern coast of India. Perhaps created to adorn the living quarters of a Zen monastery, the work is marked by an immediacy of tone and serenity of spirit. The voluptuous figure (who, although originally male in Indian images, became androgynous in China and Japan) is shown in robes flowing with instantaneous lines evoking calligraphy. At the same time the large, round moon shining over Kannon’s shoulder reflects in his round, innocent face, lending the image tranquillity. The painting invites one to sit down on the rug provided in the center of the room for a moment of quiet contemplation.

Michele A. Miller

Note 1: Influential Schools of Buddhism

Note 2: Popular Bodhisattvas

From Athena Review, Vol.3,no.4.

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