Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery
Dr. Olaf Czaja and Dr. Adriana Proser
Asia Society, Feb 2014
Archaeology doesn’t excavate only in deserts, overgrown jungles, and remote and forgotten places. Golden Visions of Densatil, exhibited at the Asia Society from February 19 through May 18, presents the admirable and thorough fruits of a kind of archaeology that operates in museums and private collections, rather than in the field. Its accompanying catalog superbly reconstructs the religiously-motivated artistic content of Densatil monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist site that existed from the 13th century until the 20th.
The objects of the archeologist are typically located beneath the earth, and in the far past, its challenge of reconstructing a lost world complicated by damage wrought by natural elements and the long, obscuring space of time. Time alters objects almost beyond recognition, but so too do the concerted acts of individuals. Art historians who attempt to bring back into clear view a lost culture are confronted with effects of intentional obscuration by human beings, rather than the slow, steady, but impersonal efforts of time.
Golden Visions of Densatil reconstructs the art of Densatil, a monastery forcibly plundered during the Cultural Revolution. While far from anomalous, China’s wide-scale obliteration of religions in the middle twentieth century stands as a recent instance of the terribly effective application of human intention to compress what it would take the raw elements hundreds, if not thousands, of years to accomplish.
The exhibition’s catalog brings together the monastery’s history, the efforts by scholars to reconstruct its works of art by reference to similar pieces, and catalog entries for the exhibition’s works. While only the basic evidence of the former monastery remain on site, photographs from a 1948 Italian expedition provide a template for reconstructing the interior design and artwork of the monastery.
Densatil monastery was built in the late 12th century, beginning as a structure to commemorate Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo (1110-1170), a Buddhist monk who ventured to the remote Western Tibet in order to find isolation to meditate. Initially he lived in caves, and then in the traditional thatched hut of yogis. The hut became a symbol of the Phagmo Drupa school. Despite his efforts to find solitude, Dorje Gyalpo’s former students found him.
After his death in 1170, they enclosed his humble hut in the main hall of the eventual Densatil monastery. Field notes by Giuseppe Tucci from the 1948 expeditions describe a hut in the main hall, showing the continuity of tradition in the monastery, and the link between wandering ascetics and the monastic order.
The introductory essay by Olaf Czaja cogently presents the monastery’s history, and the construction of the tashi gomang stupas that are the central artistic remains represented in the exhibition. These eight foot tall structures are multi-tiered, and teem with Buddhist figures: from graceful, dancing apsaras, to stern guardians of the law, to meditating Buddhas. Although the individual sculptures that made up the tashi gomang at Densatil are lost, the exhibition brings together a string set of representative images, from other tashi gomang.
An important section connects tashi gomang with practice, pointing out the structural aspects of the stupas that mirror mandalas. “When an adherent of Buddhist faith saw a tashi gomang stupa, he therefore had a sculptural delineation for the path towards enlightenment right before him.” Since these stupas were built to commemorate Dorje Gyalpo, the practice of an individual and monks’ connection to his lineage were linked to the path described in mandala form.
Grainy black-and-white photographs from the 1948 provide not only a reference for the monastery’s tashi gomang, but also but the intimacy and a sense of closeness to these structures that monks must have experienced. Shot in scant light inside the monastery’s main hall, these images’ low angle evoke a feeling of magnificent, powerful images held for centuries in a mountain monastery, closely enshrined in a sacred place. This sense of immediacy with the stupa’s gilt copper sculptures is ably complemented by scholarly exegesis on each individual sculpture’s purpose in the whole. The lovely photos of the exhibition’s catalog entries present, as it were, shining realizations of each figure beyond mere pictorial representation.
The casebound volume is generously-sized, and printed on heavy paper, with minimal show through. Its design is direct, and features numerous figures, maps and diagrams illustrating the monastery’s physical plan, and the complex structure and iconography of Densatil’s tashi gomang stupas. A timeline places the monastery in context and marks important events in its history, and a helpful glossary of terms provides a welcome aid to readers unfamiliar with Buddhist terminology, figures, and schools. A 32 page preview is available online, as is an extremely rich website.
Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom
by Soyoung Lee and Denise Patry Leidy; With contributions by Juhyung Rhi, Insook Lee, Ham Soon-seop, Yoon Sang-deok, Yoon Onshik, and Her Hyeong Uk
Nov 26, 2013
240 p., 8 x 10
205 color + 16 b/w illus.
This major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum until February 23, 2014, presents objects primarily from the 4th to 8th centuries, when the small Silla kingdom flourished on the Korean peninsula. Broadly, it fits into a larger trend in Asian art history of recognizing the place of Korea in the transmission and development of visual culture.
The Silla kingdom was remarkably long-lived, from 57 B.C. until 935 A.D., and was known as “The Golden Kingdom”. Its association with gold and silver was recognized as far off as Europe: the Nuzhat al-mushtāq fi’khtirāq al-āfāq (“the book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands”), a description of the world created by the Arab geographer, Muhammad al-Idrisi, in 1154 for King Roger II of Sicily, notes that in Silla: “even the dog’s leash and the monkey’s collar are made of gold”. Much of the Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom has gold’s luster, in bowls, jewelry, crowns, ornaments, belts and sculpture fashioned from the precious metal.
The majority of the exhibition is not directly concerned with Buddhist art. During the time period considered, Buddhism was a relative newcomer, and both local and Central Asian influences are more prominently represented. However, Buddhism’s influence was eventually thorough.
Silla officially sanctioned Buddhism in 527, “completely transform[ing] Silla society and culture, spurring both changes in burial customs and the creation of new artistic traditions.” A single, long essay in the catalog is devoted to Buddhist art, with mention of the transforming action of Buddhism upon Silla and its culture appearing in the other essays. Placed in historical context, however, this transformation is striking, and the sites and objects presented are powerful statements of the changes Buddhism wrought on Korea. From a kingdom whose culture reflected local qualities and Central Asian influences, Silla became another East Asian power under strong Buddhist influence, from the myriad temples and monasteries founded during the period considered, to the influence of Buddhist thought on its political life.
As with other cultures into which Buddhism was introduced, Korea had a range of existing ideas about spirituality. Since most of the archaeological evidence comes from tombs, objects related to death and the afterlife dominate the exhibition. The extensive use of gold by early kings, and their emphasis on attributes associated with war (e.g., horsemanship), is gradually replaced by the use of gold to create Buddhist art, and the redefinition of kingliness “as secular-religious leaders [who sponsored] Buddhist activities, such as the construction of temples.”
This transition, however, is evident in the catalog’s objects as well as by reference to the cultural setting that preceded the period considered. Many of the objects in the catalog derive from mound tombs. The 5th and 6th century Silla tombs’ structure “can be traced ultimately to steppes traditions,” and this connection between the Korean kingdom and Central Asia is evident too in Silla aesthetics. The mound tombs of Scythians, Huns, and other nomadic peoples, contain crowns and headdresses sufficiently similar to those found in Silla tombs to posit a direct connection between the two regions. This is not surprising: the Korean peninsula stands at the end of a very long road, stretching from Europe and the Roman Empire, across the Silk Roads and Asia to terminate at the Pacific Ocean. Sea trade also brought distant objects to Korea, and excavations of Silla tombs have revealed glass vessels from Syria and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the often fractious relations between Korean and her Eastern neighbor, Japan, are contrasted with evidence of substantial trade between Silla and Japan in late 5th and early 6th centuries.
The international network of trade and communication that helped create the rich culture of Silla is one of the catalog and exhibition’s main themes. One instance of this trade is the rhyton, the horn shaped drinking vessel which has its source in the Mediterranean of the second millennium BC, and transmitted via the Silk Road to Korea by the 7th century AD. Several examples in various materials are included in the catalog. Also found in 4th and 5th tombs are numerous examples of Roman glass. One such bowl, translucent glass decorated with glass beads, is linked to an 8th century wall painting from the silk Road site Dunhuang, in which a bodhisattva is depicted holding a similarly designed object.
One marvelous story describes how, in the 6th century, a foreign boat (said to have sailed to many countries, over hundreds of years) arrived, bearing a large amount of bronze and gold, as well as a letter describing how King Asoka, of India, had attempted to cast a large Buddha, but failed. The letter indicated Askoa’s wish to accomplish this “in a land of favorable conditions.” This casting apparently refers to the central image at Hwangnyongsa Temple, built in the middle of the 6th century and “one of the largest Buddhist temples in contemporary East Asia.” The story lends prestige to Silla’s early Buddhist kings by references to Asoka (who reigned in the 3rd century B.C. and is a figure closely associated with the origins of Buddhist art) and to an international recognition of the high level of skill possessed by Korean metal workers.
The intertwining of Central Asian and Buddhist elements is present in Buddhist tombs, around which relief panels carved with the twelve zodiac figures were placed. The most famous, and spectacular, example of this is the well-known cave-temple of Seokguram.
The catalog includes sculptures that represent several key styles, and iconographic elements, from Buddhist art of the period. The wonderful, small gilt bronze Buddhas with attendant bodhisattvas from the 6th century derive from Northern Qi styles, and were transmitted from Korea to Japan. These figures feature open, smiling faces; large, flaming mandorlas, and heavy drapery. A second significant sculptural form considered is the seated figure of Maitreya, in the so-called ‘pensive pose’ (also referred to as ‘royal ease’): with right foot pendant on left knee, and right hand touching the cheek. Two examples of this thin-limbed, fluid sculptural form are included. This pensive pose is tied directly to Northern Qi aesthetics, as well as to its politics, in the useful in the essay by Denise Patry Leidy, curator in the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This is a marvelous, and much-needed, exhibition illustrating the place of Silla as a repository and pivot-point for traditions of visual culture. The Buddhist art included is of the highest quality, representing the wide range of influences and techniques present in Silla from the 4th through the 8th centuries.
Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression — An Introduction to Mahayana Buddhism
Taigen Dan Leighton
Foreword by Joan Halifax
Published by Wisdom Publications, 2012
352 pages, 6 x 9 inches
Review by Jonathan Ciliberto
Books on Buddhist iconography and art typically take a Field Guide approach, providing descriptions of the key visual features for identifying, in paintings and sculpture, Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and significant figures from Buddhist history and literature. Behind these details — the what of Buddhist art — is the why: “why do these images exist?”
Religious art’s purpose is, obviously, religious. Faces of Compassion, by Zen teacher Taigen Dan Leighton approaches iconography from this direction, and moves from the often distanced, scientific approach to images commonly found in volumes on Buddhist art to engaging directly the religious efficacy of observing and using images. Images in Buddhist art are a means, not an end. His approach is fresh, and of great usefulness to modern readers: by seeking for archetypes in real, familiar, modern day individuals, he provides those seeking models for a compassionate live ready and understandable guides.
Muhammad Ali, Mahatma Gandhi, Bob Dylan, Albert Schweitzer, Branch Rickey Henry Thoreau, Gertrude Stein, Mother Teresa, and Roberto Clemente are amongst the diverse group of figures the author uses to illustrate fundamental characteristics of bodhistattvas: Shakyamuni, Jizo, Avalokiteshvara, and others.
By providing lived lives, rather than a catalogue of virtuous, if often mythically or supernaturally removed, qualities, the book says to the reader: here are people like you, not perfect, living in your world, who evidenced qualities exhorted by the great figures of Buddhism. “By featuring some of the people in our own world who are spiritual benefactors, I wish to encourage recognition that [...] we need not see the bodhisattva ideal as irrelevant, idealistic, or beyond our reach” (p.21). It is a remarkable approach, and although not specifically “about” Buddhist art, does quite effectively explain the latter’s function.
The majority of the book consists of seven chapters, one for each of seven key bodhisattvas. These each begin with a description of a bodhisattva, including information drawn from history and scripture. Readers completely unfamiliar with, say, Samantabhadra learn his attributes, his key episodes and descriptions from Buddhist literature, and his iconography (illustrated with photographs of Buddhist art). This is followed by the modern “exemplars” of that bodhisattava-as-archetype. For Samantabhadra, the author lists Aung San Suu Kyi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., William Blake, Mahatma Ghandi, Rachel Carson, Pete Seeger, Jackie Robinson, Thomas Edison, and others, and through brief examinations of these figures lives and works, illustrates particular aspects of the bodhisattva in action.
The book also includes three very useful chapters on The Bodhisattva Ideal, Mahayana History, and the Ten Transcendent Practices. The scholarship in this introductory section (and throughout) is quiet but commanding: neither stuffily authoritarian or excessively simplified.
Taigen Dan Leighton has conceived a superb idea, a psychological examination of the bodhisattva ideal through modern figures, and executed this idea it with skill and compassion. Faces of Compassion is not just a book which describes the what of Buddhist art, but also offers readers another method of how to follow the bodhisattva way. Thus, the author shows himself in this kind, intelligent, and wise book to be an exemplar of the bodhisattvas he re-presents to modern readers.
BOOK REVIEW by Jeffrey Martin
Review by Jeffrey Martin
Title Enlightened Ways: The Many Streams of Buddhist Art in Thailand
Authors Heidi Tan, Alan Chong
Publisher Asian Civilisations Museum, 2012
ISBN 9810746288, 9789810746285
Issued in conjunction with an exhibit through mid-April (2013) at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, Enlightened Ways: The Many Streams of Buddhist Art in Thailand examines the varied religious influences on Thai Buddhist art. One might expect this be little more than Theravada Buddhism, but the curators of the exhibit are interested to demonstrate otherwise. Through a collection of nearly 200 items, the influence of Mahayana Buddhism, Brahmanism, and indigenous spirit worship are explored in examples of sculpture, painting, and enlightened manuscripts. Objects of day-to-day living are included as well, such as ritual implements, amulets, furniture, textiles, and ceramics. The works are divided into eight historical periods, with the earliest pieces dating to 5th century CE and the latest constructed especially for the exhibit, a replica of a Salak Yom tree, typically raised at rural festivals and decorated with material and monetary donations to members of the local sangha.
As museum director Alan Chong notes in his forward, the purpose of the exhibit is not to define Thai Buddhism, nor Thai Buddhist art, but instead to document “art related to the evolving practice of Buddhism in the region now demarcated by the borders of Thailand.” This explains the inclusion of items and images not typically associated with a doctrinal view of Buddhism, including 14th and 15th century bronzes of Ganesha, Yasksha, and Vishnu, as well as collections of magical amulets, merit-making clay tablets, and fortune-telling manuscripts. Scholar Peter Skilling observes in his essay on devotional aesthetics that
…the overall concerns and day-to-day lives of Buddhists go beyond sectarianism or narrow definitions. More important than rigid dogmatics is the quest for merit, success, and happiness, acted out through liturgies and devotion, and in cults of images and relics.
One might also note less benign motivations. Power and prestige have typically been associated with merit-making as well as with the possession of relics. And tapping into sacred power has been at the heart of the amulet trade, as well as that of another genre not explored here, the tattoo.
The book features essays from well-known names in Buddhist studies, including:
- The Aesthetics of Devotion – Peter Skilling
- The Walking Buddha in Thailand – John Listopad
- Naming the Buddha – Amara Srisuchat
- A Buddha in the Palm of Your Hand – Justin McDaniel
- Trees of Offering – Alexandra Denes
Among the other contributors is one who rates only acknowledgement in the copyrights, but without whose work a book wouldn’t even be possible. Photographer Richard Lingner has done an excellent job capturing the form, color and textures of nearly 200 pieces of art, allowing those of us who can’t visit Singapore to experience these beautiful works on display at the Asian Civilisations Museum.
Scans of additional pages at
Theravada Buddhist Civilizations
Video tour with curator Heidi Tan
Book Review by Jonathan Ciliberto, 3 April 2012
Portraits of Chōgen
The Transformation of Buddhist Art in Early Medieval Japan
John M. Rosenfield
296 pp.; incl. 197 illustrations, mostly in color
Created around 1206, the wooden statue of Chōgen on this book’s cover arrests the viewer with its realism. The rough remains of color enhance the character of agedness portrayed in the old monk, face deeply-lined and body thinned by years. Standing out from typically idealized portraits of religious figures, the image reaches out to the modern viewer.
The titular portraits considered by the author are several: actual portraits of Chōgen, the re-vitalized realistic style of portraiture that developed in Japan from the 12th century, as well as sculptures of deities and the buildings to house them. This survey of images describes in depth Chōgen and the world in which he operated: a tumultuous era of war, famine, and natural disaster in Japanese history.
Some books cause the reader to linger over them, putting off for as long as possible their completion. Most often this desire to stretch out a book is due to a strong narrative: an unfolding of events and growth of characters which the reader wishes, like a holiday, not to end. Portraits of Chōgen, although containing historical and biographical threads, is not treasured for its narrative, but rather for its effortless depth of detail into a long past time and place.
The first volume in Brill’s “Japanese Visual Culture” series, the book is profusely illustrated and well-designed. Rosenberg is a distinguished scholar, and this volume is less about a strong argument, and more a detailed analysis of texts which describes the culture in which religious art was made. Chōgen (1121-1206), a monk, was asked to head up a massive restoration project: to rebuild and recreate the many temples and artworks destroyed in warfare in Nara, Japan in the late 12th century. Todaiji, the vast temple complex and the center of Japanese Buddhism “was largely reduced to ashes.” The main object of worship, the gigantic bronze Daibutsu lost its head and arms. Records show that over the following 25 years Chōgen worked to create more than 100 statues and 100 buildings. The repair of the Daibutsu, judged impossible by craftsmen initially, was the great achievement of this project.
Chōgen’s recruitment is, according the author, “ironic” (34), since it pulled a monk into some deep secular waters. Chōgen was responsible for large building projects, fund-raising, and had regular dealings with government officials. On the other hand, through his life Chōgen was “inclined to the active, physical forms of devotion” (30). At the time, sects within and without Buddhism were not widely separated, and individuals could pick and choose freely. Chōgen took a particular interest in the native Shugendō, a syncretic religion/discipline in which practitioners often performed arduous mountain hikes as a means of cultivating spiritual growth. So, despite being a monk, Chōgen was not one to flee the physical world.
The author admits that re-creating Chōgen for modern Western readers is difficult. In addition to the many radical differences between his world and ours, the absence of the most significant content for ready consideration, namely, the constant presence in Chōgen’s life of a religious world and system of meaning, creates a large gap. In a sense, this absence follows from Buddhism, which aims to leave no remains, to eradicate all karmic aspects. So, while marvelous buildings and artwork lingers from Chōgen’s days, it is up to the reader to duplicate the internal state that monks strove to cultivate.
A chapter on “East Asian Portraiture” surveys the history of individual, rather than divine, portrait-making, finding origin points in Japanese portraits of nobility, Chinese sages, and of the Indian secular Buddhist figure Vimalakīrti. A detailed consideration of portraiture in Japanese Buddhist art rounds out the chapter.
The creation of Buddhist sculptures, in wood and bronze, required a high level of technical expertise. Chōgen’s employed the leading image-makers of Kyoto and Nara. Many of the seminal works by the great artists and workshops of the day came to be as a result of his commissions.
Rosenberg offers only a passing nod to the criticisms of some modern scholars, which “might dismiss Chōgen cognitive universe as idolatry and mumbo-jumbo” (13). For, this was a universe never doubted by its inhabitants, and thus the images created by them, if considered in the culture of creation, depend upon this world for meaning. That they are beautiful objects in an an aesthetic sense is secondary, and does take that position in Portraits of Chōgen.
Apart from scattered editorial misses (“texts were poured over”, 41), the book is a perfect example of the scholarship of close history. Included is a full translation of Chōgen’s biography, as well as myriad references to the main sources of contemporary writers. The book’s photography and other graphic materials are clear, helpful, and well-chosen. Finally, the overall design is simple, elegant, and balanced.
The Listening Book
Discovering Your Own Music
By W. A. Mathieu
published by Shambhala
List Price: $17.95
Aspects of oneself innate or ever-present are often overlooked when considering self-improvement. For instance, while people regularly train themselves to speak better French or acquire a better golf game, it is less obvious that one would seek to improve one’s mind or being.
And what about listening? Like seeing or smelling, one imagines listening to be fixed, not needing (or capable of) improvement, at least without physical or mechanical means.
Buddhist meditation, of course, similarly begins with the premise that something seemingly fixed can take improvement.
The Listening Book is a collection of anecdotes and exercises intended to improve listening, and thereby to find one’s own music.
Originally published in 1991, it was re-issued this year, its text completely re-set, with new cover art.
Although not explicitly about Buddhism, it partakes of many Buddhist approaches, including mindfulness, compassion, and ego-reduction.
On the one hand, the author’s premise is simple: everyone has ears, and so everyone can hear music. On the other, it is subtle, investigating psychological aspects of listening, the metaphysics of music-making, and the primacy of attention to full experience as a listener and musician.[more]
FILM REVIEW: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
from The Journal of Religion and Film
Vol. 15, No. 1, April 2011
Review by Jon Ciliberto
 Religious aspects are present in both the mysterious and the commonplace in Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2010 Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winner of the 2010 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Amid a spare plot, the film’s characters occupy a boundary area between the natural and the supernatural, a region which reflects the main setting of the film: the mountainous jungles of Isan Province (the director’s birthplace and frequent setting for his films). Buddhism and native folk religion are interwoven in this part of Thailand, a result both of the deep connection between the landscape and people, and of the efforts of the people to integrate local gods and spirits, typically as protectors and guides in worldly matters. Buddhism, which offers a means of achieving liberation from the world of changes, found a way to accommodate pre-existing spiritual traditions by putting local gods and spirits in charge of the material world. This integration was especially pronounced in India, Southeast Asia, and Tibet.
 Uncle Boonmee, who owns a farm, suffers from acute kidney failure. His relatives visit him, making the trip from urban and developed to rural Thailand. In a historical-cultural sense, this journey is a transition from the natural to the supernatural (or from the institutional to the personal). The religious culture of Isan incorporates elements from across the Mekong River – in Laos, Khmer culture dominated the region until the 13th century. As it sought to integrate all of Thailand in a single nation-state in the 19th century, the central authority in Bangkok adopted “countless measures [...] that discouraged, suppressed, or belittled indigenous languages, cultural forms, and other forms of local identity, particularly in Isan” (Buddhist Murals of Northeast Thailand, Brereton and Somroay, p. 1).
Book Review by Jonathan Ciliberto, 24 June 2011
By Katherine R. Tsiang
with contributions by Richard A. Born, Jinhua Chen, Albert E. Dien, Lec Maj, Nancy Steinhardt, Daisy Yiyou Wang, J. Keith Wilson, and Wu Hung
$45; Paper, 192 pages, 160 color plates, 3 charts, 3 tables, 1 map, 9 x 12″
I had the pleasure of seeing this exhibition recently at the Sackler Museum in Washington, D.C. Last year, when I received the catalog at the show’s opening in Chicago, I eagerly read through it. Essays on the history of the site, the context for Buddhist art in China during the Northern Qi, the role of Imperial sponsorship in Buddhist cave sites (an innovation, imported from India and Central Asia and likely related to meditation techniques prevalent at the time), and the 20th century denuding of the Xiangtangshan caves for the sake of the international art market, together construct a detailed context for the exhibition’s contents.
I consider this the finest catalog for an exhibition of Buddhist art to appear in many years. The volume and the program it supports are perfectly matched: both strive and succeed at placing the viewer in front of the works, and build a full context, not only for this Buddhist art as it existed at its creation, but also as it has come to live in the present.
Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan is a ground-breaking exhibition which combines scholarship, collaboration between institutions, and art historical, archaeological and technological approaches. Visitors not only view sculptures from the Northern Qi (550-77 AD), but also — by means of high-tech three-dimensional digital scanning and a large three-screen “digital cave” — walk into an environment which simulates the caves themselves.
Book review: Shots in the Dark by Shoji Yamada
by Jonathan Ciliberto for Buddhist Art News
by Shoji Yamada
University of Chicago Press, 2009. viii + 304 pages, 8 halftones, 6 line drawings, kanji (Japanese characters) for names and terms, bibliography, index.
by Francois Bertier, translation and philosophical essay by Graham Parkes
University of Chicago Press, 2000; 179 pages | 37 halftones | 5-1/2 x 8-1/2
• • • • •
Like many Americans, my first substantial encounter with Buddhism was through D.T. Suzuki. As a high school student in the early 1980’s I read his Introduction to Zen Buddhism and found it approachable: the forward by C.G. Jung provides intellectual authority and familiarity, and its style of writing is well-suited to Western readers, particularly the philosophically-inclined.
At the time, I had very little context for Buddhism in Japan. I read and accepted that Zen was deeply embedded in Japanese culture, and later, reading Suzuki’s book on that subject, this belief solidified. I accepted that quintessentially Japanese cultural elements like the tea ceremony and rock gardens were informed, and largely formed, by Zen Buddhism.
However, some aspects of a thorough linking of Zen and Japanese culture struck me as odd even then — what about Shinto? With a bit more reading, I also wondered, what about all the other Buddhist sects in Japan? So, it was not with complete surprise that I began to discern the highly partisan flavor of Suzuki’s ideas, particularly on reading Sharf (1993).
In a sense, Suzuki was read by the West with Japanese culture as a marketing tool, exotic and charming cultural calling cards like the tea ceremony to help “sell” Zen to the Western, and quite successfully.
A return response from Japan is described in Shots in the Dark: Japan, Zen and the West. Shoji Yamada offers two instances of Japan choosing a complimentary reflection of itself offered by the West, each of which describes Japanese culture as an instance of Zen Buddhism. Yamada uses the metaphor of a fun-house mirror which displays one’s good qualities (e.g., a distorted mirror which makes one appear thin), and describes the historical process of the Japanese choosing the mirror of themselves offered by the West which reflects admirable qualities: namely the austere philosophical aspects of Zen as promulgated by D.T. Suzuki.
Two cultural instances are presented in this book: Japanese archery and the famous rock garden at Ryōanji. For each, interpretations built in the West are seen to recycle back to Japan in the 20th century, placing upon these two a “Zen” quality which the author contends was either wholly or largely absent prior to Western consideration.
Enter the Void: Film review by Jonathan Ciliberto
for Buddhist Art News, March 2011
Director Gaspar Noé’s 2010 release, Enter the Void, portrays the bardo — the intermediary state between death and re-birth which is described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol). This portrayal follows the death of the film’s protagonist, Oscar, a Canadian living in Japan.
No capsule review can effectively present the contents of the film, which is less about telling a story, and more about describing mental states. The film proceeds through three successive viewpoints: Oscar’s, shown on screen from his eyes, complete with eyeblinks; Oscar’s life prior to that (shown from the same in-head view and from a vantage point just behind his head), and finally a fully disembodied view, as Oscar’s spirit drifts between past, present, and future.
Oscar dies early in the film, shot in the back by Tokyo police in a bathroom stall while trying to flush his drug stash. Prior to this a friend (Alex) has loaned him a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In a movie without much compassion, Alex (and Oscar’s sister, Linda) strive to guide him away from bad choices, and one cannot help but hear Alex’s urging to read the Bardo Thodol as echoing the urgent pleas of Shakyamuni, that time is short and there is no time but the present to begin preparing for death.
December 2010, by Jonathan Ciliberto
Yasodharā, the Wife of the Bodhisattva: The Sinhala Yasodharāvata (The Story of Yasodharā) and the Sinhala Yasodharapadanaya (The Sacred Biography of Yasodhara)
Translated with an introduction and notes by Ranjini Obeyesekere
SUNY Press, 2009
The eventual Buddha, Shakyamuni, listing the many obstacles to his renunciation of the world, named the most difficult: leaving his beautiful wife Yasodharā and his two-day old son Rahula. So hard is this trial that he chooses only to look upon them sleeping, fearing that their remonstrances and sadness at his planned departure for the forest and asceticism would be too much for his resolve.
This emotional expression of the power of the most basic human ties is at the core of the Sinhala poem, “Yasodharāvata” (The Story of Yasodharā), which in many ways is a parallel biography to the life of the Buddha himself.
The life story of the Buddha — the historical Shakyamuni — includes a great deal more than his birth, pursuit and achievement of nirvana, teaching, and death. Buddhist biographies take into account the long series of previous lives that for each human stands behind the present one, or, in the case of the Buddha, the final one. Only through many, many lives focused on compassion and wisdom was the prince of the Shakya’s able to achieve final liberation.
The “Yasodharāvata”, a folk poem from Sri Lanka, presents the long life-story of Yasodharā as intertwined with the Buddha’s, not only in his final re-birth as his wife, but throughout innumerable past lives.
Upon learning of his departure, Yasodharā is filled with sadness, and also bitterly criticizes the Bodhisattva for leaving her:
“We were first born in the animal world as deer,
Since that life we two have never been apart.
In every samsaric birth I have always been your consort.
Why then did you leave today without a word?” (74)
In addition to giving an endorsement of both monogamy and a women’s subservient place to her husband, the description of the two joined together through near-eternity casts Yasodharā’s life in romantic terms, as the constant companion and support of the Bodhisattva. Beyond monogamous romance, the chain of connection between the two underscores the ultimate interconnectedness between all beings and the shared project of achieving release from suffering.
In more human terms, the reader is confronted with both the enormous decision made by the young prince, and by the manner in which such a choice affects those left behind. For a devoted companion through many lives, who marched arm-in-arm with the Bodhisattva on the long path to liberation (“Once we went as ascetics together to the forest”, “Once in a former life we were born as squirrels”), the tragic feelings brought on by her realization that he has crept out in the night, abandoning her, are given thorough dramatic space in the poem.[more]
Book Review by Jonathan Ciliberto for Buddhist Art News
Visual art is deeply tied to Buddhist practice, and certain sites and structures possess special significance to this practice. In Faith and Power in Japanese Buddhist Art: 1600-2005 Patricia J. Graham tracks “the thread of change over time to the practice of Buddhism” through a thorough examination of works of Japanese Buddhist art and architecture from the 17th into the 21st century. This superb survey includes non-traditional works — that is, those not connected with institutional Buddhism in Japan — including those intended for museums. It also aims to overturn the fallacy of the ‘declining’ Buddhist arts of Japan in recent centuries.
Thus, the book has three goals: 1) to reconsider the canon of Japanese art in order to make room for Buddhist art and architecture from the 19th century to the present; 2) “to define the social history of recent Japanese Buddhist art and architecture” (p 3); 3) to illustrate the place of Buddhism as an influence or inspiration on art and artists outside of institutional Buddhism. It is the first book to study the 400-year span from the beginning of the Edo period to the present and to link this period to the established canon of Japanese Buddhist art (p 9-10). [more]
Book Review by Jonathan Ciliberto for Buddhist Art News
Only three volumes exist in print in English which cover Buddhist art as a whole, both historically and iconographically. I presume that this scarcity is due to the breadth of the subject, to the still shifting opinions on broad trends, and to the inclusion of Buddhist art within wider surveys on Asian art. Until recently, the UK press Thames & Hudson’s Buddhist Art (by Robert E. Fisher) was the sole volume to which individuals could turn. In 2009, River Books released Buddhist Art by Giles Beguin. One year prior to this appeared The Art of Buddhism: an Introduction to its History and Meaning, by Denise Patry Leidy, which is specifically for “general readers and undergraduate students” (p. 5).
Shambhala is the most prominent American press dedicated to Eastern spirituality. For many readers unfamiliar with Buddhism, it is a primary or initial source of information on Buddhism. While many of its releases are popular in nature, a significant portion of their output comes in the form of translations and scholarly works.
The author is a curator in the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York).
Befitting a general introduction to the subject, the author’s approach is not to delve too deeply into any particular aspect of Buddhist art, providing instead an overview of its history, from earliest beginnings in India to its dissemination and growth in South, Central, and East Asia through the Nineteenth century.
For example, rather than wading into the once-contentious question of the origin of the Buddha image, she describes a general appearance of anthropomorphism across a wide area, and leaves it at that.
Two particular themes run throughout the volume: the connection between art and Buddhist practice, and the geographical movement of artistic styles and techniques. Most of the examples of works are related to one or both of these ideas. The author touches on these two themes steadfastly; instances are found on nearly each of the volumes 342 pages. This approach makes for a cogent and focused (if sometimes misleading) introduction to the subject. [more]
Contemporary Tibetan Art: From the Collection of Shelley & Donald Rubin at Oglethorpe
University Museum of Art.
Jan. 10, 2009 – Feb. 22, 2009 at Oglethorpe University Museum of Art (Atlanta, Georgia)
Review by Jonathan Ciliberto for Buddhist art news
Despite Tibet’s remote and inaccessible location, Tibetan art has historically developed under a strong amount of foreign influence. Buddhism, itself an import to Tibet, has incorporated influences in visual styles, artistic techniques, and traditions from neighboring areas from the religion’s introduction in the 7th century. These influences have come from many neighboring cultures: present-day India, Pakistan, Nepal, Central Asia, and China.
The Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959 has had wide repercussions for Tibetan artists, and these continue to reverberate to the present day. Many contemporary Tibetan artists have grown up and trained entirely outside of Tibet proper, while others have remained in the region and received education in the Tibetan Autonomous Region or other parts of China.
Prominent collectors of Tibetan religious art (and founders of the Rubin Museum of Art), Shelley and Donald Rubin (Oglethorpe Alumnus, 1956) have also collected contemporary Tibetan art, which is the basis for an exhibition at Atlanta’s Oglethorpe University Museum of Art Skylight Gallery. Amongst the artists included are many of the most prominent names in contemporary Tibetan art: Drugu Choegyal Rinpoche, Gade, Tsering Dorjee, Gonkar Gyatso, Losang Gyatso, Norbu, Pema Donyo Nyingje (the 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche), Mukti Singh Thapa. [more]
, by John Johnston for Buddhist Art News
Early Himalayan Art
By Amy Heller
Cambridge University Press
Dr. Amy Heller, author of the recently released Early Himalayan Art, is an outstanding scholar and an established and recognized leader in the field of Himalayan art studies. As such it is very fitting that she was chosen as the author for the catalogue presenting early works of Himalayan art at the Ashmolean Museum.
The catalogue presents 61 pieces from the Ashmolean collection. Early objects are defined as 7th to 14th century. As some of these images have never before appeared in print, collectors and specialists on this subject will want to include this book in their libraries. The general public and specialists alike will enjoy the fine introductory essay by Dr. Heller. Her succinct summary of how styles originated in India and were transported and evolved in the Himalayas is insightful. The stylistic chronology and geographic distribution of these styles are illustrated with many examples from Nepal and Tibet. Practitioners and those interested in how these images are (or were) used in Buddhist religious activities are not given many clues or interesting tidbits in the essay or entries, the focus being more on the development of aesthetic features and styles over time.
Review and photographs by
i. Review, ii. Catalogue, iii. Bibliography; iv. Notes i.
Despite the increased interest in Tibetan Buddhism since the general dispersion of Tibetan culture following the Chinese takeover of the country in 1950, exhibitions which explore the ritual nature of Buddhist art in the Himalayas are scarcely found in the West. This is largely owing to the esoteric tradition which surrounds (and creates) such artworks. One of the largest collections of Tibetan Buddhist art outside of the native region is held by the Rubin Museum of Art (RMA) in New York, and thus one expects a great opportunity for Atlantans to learn more about this art-culture through the six exhibitions arranged between the RMA and Atlanta’s Oglethorpe University Museum of Art.
A Shower of Jewels: Deities of Wealth, the second exhibition in this series, runs through 7 December 2008.
An important set of practices of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism involves the actualization of a particular deity as a means of removing obstacles to spiritual growth. Chief techniques include meditation and visualization. “Tibetan practices seek to evoke a particular deity as a transcendent aid to help clear away the obstacles to ultimate understanding.” 
Although seemingly antithetical to Buddhism’s emphasis on non-materialism, a lack of money (or the things it can buy) is just such an obstacle.  A number of deities are propitiated particularly for the acquisition (or protection) of wealth. Stories from sacred literature describe the result of proper veneration of these “Wealth Deities” (Tibetan: nor lha), in which both monks and laity receive showers of gems, pearls, and other bounty from the proper veneration of deities. However, it must be borne in mind that the acquisition of such wealth depends strictly upon the motivation of the practioner. “If the motivation is pure, such as seeking wealth to relieve the suffering of others, this fits well with compassionate principles of the dharma and hence is more likely to succeed.” 
Deities of wealth are perhaps best understood in the same terms Rob Linrothe uses to describe wrathful deities: as removers of obstacles. “As embodiments, or personifications, of the destruction of obstacles, the appearances of wrathful deities give us confidence in their abilities to master that which is malignant in human life: illness, misfortune, ingrained destructive pattens of behaviour, the capacity to lust, hate, and envy, and the ability to act out of selfishness and ignorance, faculties with which we are all endowed.”  Wealth deities in this sense represent a form of upaya (skillful means) for Buddhist practice.
The rituals associated with gods of wealth may also be thought of as a form of skillful means for eliminating, or at least reducing, attachment to material concerns. By projecting these matters onto a potent deity, the individual turns these concerns over to a higher agency. So, mental activity related to material things, by its nature contingent, is removed from the mind of the practitioner and becomes an objectified obstacle which may be overcome through the intercession of a particular deity. 
In an apocryphal but instructive story, the layman Sucandra asks the Buddha to for “a method whereby he could amass stores of grain, gold, silver, and gems in order to support his family and servants and engage in philanthropy. Shakyamuni disclosed that he had leaned a mantra for precisely this purpose.” 
Oglethorpe Museum of Art
Review by Jonathan Ciliberto for Buddhist Art News
Atlanta, Georgia’s short list of Asian art resources has grown a bit longer over the past decade, with the opening of a small gallery of Asian art in Emory’s Michael C. Carlos museum and with that university’s affiliations with Tibet and H.H. the Dalai Lama, as well as the nearby Drepung Loseling Buddhist monastery.
These associations are paralleled by the dramatic growth of the Asian population in the region over the past two decades, with Georgia experiencing the “2nd fastest-growing Asian American population growth in the United States” from 1990-2000. Metro Atlanta is now home to more than 200,000 Asian Americans. 
The most recent alliance of Asian art and Atlanta is between the Rubin Museum of Art (RMA) in New York and the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art, a three-year partnership which will bring six exhibitions to the north Atlanta university.
The Rubin collection of Himalayan art, one of the world’s finest, was assembled by Donald Rubin, an Oglethorpe graduate. 
The initial exhibition, “Avalokiteshvara: Lord of Compassion”, on display to 11 May 2008, presents in the museum’s small gallery 12 works of Tibetan art — 10 paintings and 2 sculptures which depict the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, a deity whose traditional connection to Tibet reaches back to the country’s formation.
Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the 7th century A.D. At the time, major trade routes ran through the Tibetan plateau: south-to-north with India, Nepal, and Central Asia, and west-to-east linking the area with present-day Iran, Pakistan, and Northwest India, and with China and Southeast Asia.
Buddhism arrived in Tibet from both Nepal/India and China, although scholars account the greater influence coming from the south. Tibetan Buddhist history ascribes 7th century Tibetan king Song-tsen-gam-po’s construction of Lhasa’s two earliest Buddhist sites as responding to the needs of his wives: one Chinese, the other Nepali, both tribute brides sent to him, and thus indicative of the regional power of Tibet. “In later Buddhist tradition he was accounted as the first of three great religious, i.e., Buddhist, kings,” and indeed Song-tsen-gam-po and the Dalai Lamas are both regarded by Tibetan Buddhists as reincarnations of Avalokiteshvara.
March 2009, by Jonathan Ciliberto for Buddhist Art News
Zen (2008, 127 minutes)
Buddhist art includes not only images of Buddhas, but also paintings and sculptures of historical figures: monks, nuns, teachers, poets, artists, and others. Tibetan thangkas which depict great teachers include, in addition to a large central figure: protective deities, lineage holders, and episodes from the primary subject’s life arrayed around the painting in such a way that the viewer might learn through narrative elements the history of the individual portrayed and thus Buddhist practice. In short: Buddhist art serves to explicate Buddhist practice.
“Dōgen stringently warned against the building of magnificent temples or the making of Buddha images for their own sake.” (Zen Master Dōgen, Yoho Yokoi, p. 33)
In modern media, films devoted to the life of the Buddhist masters in the same way offer an expression of Buddhist teaching through the narrative of an individual’s life. The recently released Japanese film on the life of the 13th century founder of Soto Zen on Japan, Dōgen Zenji (道元禅師, 19 January 1200 – 22 September 1253) , hews to this model, while also pursuing the aesthetics of film. Scene after scene portrays with superb symmetry his life and the understanding of Buddhism that he presented. At the same time, the film is wonderfully filmed, acted, and edited, such that viewers wholly unaware of Buddhist practice will find delight in its viewing.
Zen was directed by Banmei Takahashi and stars Kantaro Nakamura, the 19th generation Kabuki actor and son of Kabuki legend, Nakamura Kanzaburo, who delivers a masterful performance, capturing the quality of Dōgen’s character: from his early struggle to understand Buddhism, to his firm commitment to see Zen spread to his native country. Rather than portraying so monumental a figure as distant or superhuman, Nakamura conveys an everyday person, one engaged in this life fully. And, this is the Buddhism Dōgen professed: that enlightenment is not a goal, but rather a practice.
International Association of Buddhist Studies XVth Congress; Emory University (Atlanta, GA)
Notes by Jonathan Ciliberto
Thanks to the kindness of Sara McClintock (Emory University), I attended several panels related to Buddhist art. The complete academic program for the event is here. Following are my brief notes which represent my reception of the papers presented; obviously, I am responsible for inaccuracies.
The congress was held from Tuesday, 23 June to Saturday, 28 June, with 9 sessions, each having 7 panels. Each panel consisted of 5-6 papers. The dozens of interesting papers presented ranged across the wide scope encompassed by Buddhist studies.
Buddhist art panel (25 June 2008)
Moderator: Cristina Scherrer-Schmidt
Daniel Veidlinger (California State University (Chico))
“ Sarvastivada Buddhism and the Advent of the Buddha Image”
Professor Veidlinger suggests Buddhist philosophy as a guide to the development of Buddhist art. His thesis is that the emergence of the figural in Buddhist art comes from a philosophical position of the Sarvastivada school as regards temporality. The Sarvastivada was a school in the Hinayana prominent just before and in the early centuries of the present era. Veidlinger first places early Buddhist figural work in the Hinayana tradition by pointing out that the sole figures represented initially were Shakyamuni and Maitreya — also the only deities recognized by the Hinayanists. Further, the Sarvastivada school is indicated in early inscriptional evidence, thus linking it with early image-making. (The Bimaran casket from the time of Azes II (50-10 BCE), e.g., also in related coinage.)