In Praise of Buddhist Art
Name June Paik's Reclining Buddha, 1993
I AM NOT A BUDDHIST. I don't have the proper robes, I sometimes get confused during worship services in the zendos it has been my privilege to visit—yet, gate, gate, paragate,” I have been converted many tmes to Buddhism by experiences of its utter seriousness in practice and by its immense heritage of art. To say “I am not a Buddhist” seems tantamount to saying “I am not a human being”: an evident lie. One does not need to be formally Buddhist to recognize that the experience of great Buddhist Art is essentially a conversion. The quality of work of religious art may even, and properly, be assessed in terms of its power to convert. But to do so requires investigation of the meaning of conversion.
As Americans, we are more than likely to have a pop-culture “feel” for the word “conversion” that turns out, when one looks at these mental contents, to coexist with a deeper personal meaning. At the pop-culture level, there is a revival tent by a river somewhere in the Deep South of the mind, and passing that way one hears the impassioned voice of a preacher. That is one meaning of conversion, not the one I mean.
The conversion in contact with a great work of religious art is a shift in body, mind, and feeling that moves one almost involuntarily to conform with its spirit. If the work represents a human figure, for example a Buddha seated in meditation, and if the work is radiant, there can occur a general physical shift: back straightens, neck and head find their truer places in the stack, tensions become visible and drain down. The ancient work becomes a teacher: one's mind resumes something of its nature as a grateful reflector of reality rather than a tea party at which the topic of discussion is life. One is gladdened by what one sees, whatever it is. The stone-carved jeweled necklace against the bare breast of a royal meditator—a perennial theme of Buddhist' art—reminds one of the dazzle and profusion of our lives and of the emptiness against which all this is lived out. One receives both impressions with gratitude: this is so. The cut of a robe and its pattern of folds become, in the time of conversion, the ordered pattern of the world in which we are enfolded. One registers, with one's sensitivity, everything, even the weight of the figure's eyelids. One cannot help but experience one's imperfection; while all this takes place, there are splats and vagrancies in the inner field. Yet consciousness has awakened.
In time the spell breaks, the conversion has occurred, one moves on. Religious art is not, nor can it be, the source of permanent conversion; it is a system of samples or tastes, providing a look forward or within. The intimate reorganization which it provides, and which it is meant to provide, is transient. The source of permanent conversion lies elsewhere, in fundamental practice and examined living, although the experience of great religious art secretly nourishes practice, and the making of religiously dedicated art can be an episode of examined living.
In order to understand the nature of the Buddha image and its meaning for a Buddhist we must, to begin with, reconstruct its environment, trace its ancestry, and remodel our own personality. We must forget that we are looking at "art" in a museum, and see the image in its place in a Buddhist church or as part of a sculptured rock wall; and having seen it, receive it as an image of what we are ourselves potentially. Remember that we are pilgrims come from some great distance to see God; that what we see will depend upon ourselves. We are to see, not the likeness made by hands, but its transcendental archetype; we are to take part in a communion. . . . The image is of one Awakened; and for our awakening, who are still asleep. The objective methods of "science" will not suffice; there can be no understanding without assimilation; to understand is to have been born again.
—A. K. Coomaraswamy
There is the art-historical map of a tradition, and there is one's own voyage across that map: often very different things. The first can be learned by the heirs of each tradition, and probably should be by more scholarly souls; the second is partly a matter of good luck—one had to be in New Delhi or Cleveland anyway. The first is well drawn and eminently rational: from these sources in the early stupas at Bharhut and Sanci, we can follow lines of influence through Gupta India and beyond in time and space, until we find ourselves in the enduringly Buddhist lands north and east of the Indian cradle, noting as we go hundreds of transformations and innovations in style and iconography, dozens of blendings between the migrant Buddhist vision and indigenous arts at every level of sophistication.
The second is not necessarily well drawn, nor even drawn to scale. Some small, impressive object may occupy a larger place in one's memory than entire stupas listing with the weight of their wall reliefs. And there are almost certain to be gaps, works of acknowledged greatness that one hasn't encountered even in books about such things. One's personal map of Buddhist art is a pilgrim's map, sketchy and awkward, but valid for its purpose.
Figure of a lohan (left), and Seated lohan (right) China, twelfth century C.E.
My own map began impromptu with the cover of the paperback edition of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, which in the sixties had the impact of a calling card left by one who had gone beyond. The cover illustration was a dhyani (meditating) buddha from Sri Lanka, dating to the third or fourth century of our era. The photo credit was to Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, of whom I knew nothing. This image—and the sculpture itself, which I was fortunate to see some years ago—perpetuates what must be the spirit of early Buddhism. Free of all superfluity, the carving presents in simplest form the posture and attitude of meditation, and does so with such inward but tangible vitality that one senses the breathing person, the weight of limbs, the relaxation of tissues. To look at the image well is to feel complexity drop away, to experience remorse that one is still complex, to hear the call to simplicity. To look well is to recover a feeling for essentials. One scans this carving in vain for attributes, personal markers; there are none, as there are none finally in ourselves.
An eleventh-century comment on a ninth-century image:
The Great Compassionate Avalokiteshvara . . . a painted icon, is the work of Fan Ch'iung . . . Although its hands and arms are so numerous, they balance each other on left and right in accord with the conception. In its complexity it is Heaven's design, and one sees nothing in excess. Each of the various attributes is rendered to perfection. The brush strokes are like wire, but have an exquisite strength and warmth, carrying out the minutest details to a wondrous perfection.
Works of art cannot confer realization, but they can provide evidence of accomplishment and in this way encourage both newcomers and discouraged veterans. Buddhist art is prodigiously rich in such evidence, conveyed in some instances with solemnity, in others with a smile. My own experience at these poles of expression ranges from a set of severe twelfth-century Chinese lohans (immediate disciples of the historical Buddha) in various museums across the world to the brush portraits of Ch'an and Zen patriarchs and monks, filled with unorthodox gaiety.
The pair of life-size ceramic lohans in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, has inspired generations of seekers. When the museum staff routinely took the pair off exhibition some years ago during gallery renovations, they were surprised by a steady stream of inquiries—and privately wondered, I believe, whether the figures were somehow the focal objects of a cult. No photograph can convey the powerful presence of the lohans: the younger man subtly arrogant and distant, as if pausing impatiently in his exercises—have we interrupted him?; the older man with a deep bony face, warm eyes, and a receptive expression, looking toward us with compassion from an earlier epoch of religious striving. Each dwells tangibly with himself, yet connects. Their atmosphere is stronger than one's own. Before these figures, one knows that one has come upon true religious seekers, uncannily present works of art, yes, but art at a surpassing level.
They are part of an ensemble, originally perhaps eighteen figures, collected in about 1912 from an abandoned cave sanctuary in China. Several other complete figures have survived, notably one now in Philadelphia at the University Museum, another in the British Museum, London: the figure in Philadelphia open, vigorous, strangely heroic; the one in London severe, of royal presence. Were the artists who collaborated on these works interested in exploring—and projecting—a "typology" of spiritual seekers? So it seems; such is the impact. All of these types and attitudes are admissible, even necessary. And the lesson is not altogether lost on one.