International Association of Buddhist Studies XVth Congress; Emory University (Atlanta, GA)

July 2008
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.

General Comments

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.)

The author continued with an overview of the early legends of the first Buddha images, namely stories related to Udagupta (a Sarvastivada monk) and Mara, and vinaya rules from the Sarvastivada warning against the making of images: this prohibition indicates that images were being made (else, why the need for a rule against it).

Sarvastivada philosophy posits that everything exists at any/all times, i.e., that all times co-exist as exemplified by the causal chain. Hence, the Buddha still exists in the present as he did in his last reincarnation, and thus images of the Buddha are allowed.

Carolyn Schmidt (Ohio State University)

“On-Going Studies of Bodhisattva Imagery from Greater Gandhara : Turban Ornamentation in the Form of Winged-Lion Plaques”

This paper is an iconographic analysis of Winged-Lion plaques in the turbans of Bodhisattvas from Gandhara (specifically, from the Spooner excavation of 1909, from Sahri-Bahlol). The author charted the historical evolution of turban imagery, from bands and central jewel (2nd c. CE) to the inclusion of small Buddhas (2nd-3rd c.) and ornamentation derived from regional styles. Further, three categories of turban crests were delineated: I: faceted jewel and pearls, bands; II: diminutive figues (Greek figures, lion’s heads); III: seated Buddha image.

The author presented many photographs to illustrate these distinctions.

The flanked lion imagery on turbans on statues found at Sahri-Bahlol was derived from earlier cultural idioms, and of course the lion is a familial symbol of the Sakya clan.

Katia Juhel

“A Very Significant Aspect of Gandharan Art: the Example of the ‘Great Departure’”

Ms. Juhel, a doctoral candidate, presented a paper on the iconography of the “Great Departure”: Sakyamuni’s exit from the city, and thus his choice to leave behind the material world and seek enlightenment. This departure is both physical and symbolic; moving beyond the walls of the city, he entered the forest and domain of the ascetics, while the rejection of the princely life for the religious is symbolized in his exit from the city through its gates. The elements of visual representation of this scene include: the figure of the prince on a horse, his groomsman holding an umbrella, yakshis supported the horse’s hoofs, etc. Two perspectives of this scene are encountered in Gandharan art: in profile, and frontally.

The author noted the presence of this scene in false niches (or gables), in which three scenes are included, from top to bottom: the prince’s life his palace, his decision to leave, and the departure itself. The frontal representation of the horse and rider is more fragile than views in profile — the heads of the prince and the horse are often broken off. Given this material fact, the author contends that the designers / craftsmen made a specific decision to utilize this frontal view, with this deduction: by placing the figure of the bodhisattva “coming out” of the frame, approaching the viewer, the artists wished to confront the viewer with the choice made by Sakyamuni. The inclusion of this scene in a false niche offers similar emphasis.

The author’s claim, as I understood it, was that both the frontal representation and the framing in a false niche of the “Great Departure” were chosen specifically to catch the attention of the viewer and lead him/her to choose a similar path. Of course, this is the purpose of all Buddhist art — of all religious art.

Gail Chin (University of Regina)

“A Representation of the Body in a Japanese Image of the Ten Worlds of Buddhism”

Professor Chin presented an examination of a specific image, pointing out only briefly the general contours of such images as used politically in Japan in the Meiji. The “Tainai jikkaizu” (1886) is a nishiki-e shinbun (news of the day) woodblock print by Shokyusai Kuniteru, 35.7 x 47.4 cm and depicts a pregnant woman, naked from the waist up, reclining. Her left hand points to her swollen belly. (Perhaps it is my imagination, but the pose and rhythm of this hand reminds me of Italian painting: could the artist have incorporated an iconographic motif from Western art to underscore the political direction of the work?). In the round space of her belly is illustrated a version of the Buddhist “Wheel of Becoming”, a Buddhist representation of the cycle of rebirth, presided over by Yama. The episodes relating to the ten worlds of rebirth are in this print parodied by representations of the strictly worldly: the print’s purpose is to undercut the authority of Buddhism by reference to the Meiji policies of social mobility through education, science, and the ideas of the (Western) Enlightenment. Thus, the scenes represented illustrate aspects of western science and rationality, while at the center of the wheel is a child seated on a lotus on whose chest is the character ‘kokoro’ (‘heart’). The print’s inscription is a light-hearted, derisive account of karma and rebirth. At the start of the Meiji, Western science was infiltrating Japanese culture, and the opportunities it offered are contrasted in this print with the operation of re-birth in the ten worlds. The ‘equality’ of western rationality is placed against the ‘inequality’ of the system of rebirth, criticizing the latter.

The author offered a lucid and detailed sketch of of the culture and political structures, as well as the material and media systems of the time, as related to and illustrated by this woodblock print.

Mohammad Gharipour (Georgia Institute of Technology)

“Building as a Temporary Object: A Study on the Concept of Evanescence in the Production of Architecture in Japan between the 1950s and 1980s”

The author is a professor of architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His paper included a history of modern Japanese architectural theory, as well as a theoretical aspect of Japanese architecture (the “temporary” nature of the building), tracing it from the 1950s through the 1980s. Japanese buildings, in contrast to Western ones, were traditionally wood-built and designed for change and even demolition. In this tradition, temples are ritually taken down and rebuilt in exact replica. This Japanese idea of destruction is seen in the writings of key architects, e.g., Arata Isozaki, Kisho Kurokawa, Toyo Ito (“If we compare the architecture of Western civilization to a museum, [then] Japanese architecture [can be likened to] a theater”)).

The author notes the history of Japanese architects in the modern era to incorporate Western architectural and critical ideas (minimalism, neoclassicism, etc.) and indeed that these ideas form the basis of the major trends in Japanese architecture through these years. I did wonder how it was that the western sense of “destruction” was not also adopted.

I enjoyed the points brought up by Dr. Gharipour and hope to read this paper in full to understand better its argument.


I thank other presenters whose papers I sat in on (linked names lead to quick sketches):

  • Satoshi Hiraoka, “Humor in Indian Buddhist Narrative Literature”
  • James Mark Shields, “ What’s So Funny About ‘Mu’? Irony, Redescription and Humor in East Asian Buddhist Tought & Practice”
  • Xiaofei Tu, “‘ The Buddha Didn’t Say That’: A Debate Between Chinese and Japanese Buddhists at the Turn of the Twentieth Century”
  • Charles D. Orzech, “ What Jojin Saw: Glimpses of Esoteric Buddhism in the Song Capital circa 1073 C.E.”
  • Robbie Barnett, “Pholhanas’s Letter to the Capuchins and the Question of Religious Tolerance”
  • Leigh Miller Sangster, “‘Buddhist’ Imagery in Contemporary Tibetan Art”
  • Jessica Falcone, “ The Buddhist Lama vs. the Indian Farmer: Negotiating Various ‘Modernities’ and ‘ Traditionalisms’ in Planning the Maitreya Project”
  • Annabella Pitkin, “Of Indian Beggars, Crazy Lamas, and Sanskrit Scholars: Modern Tibetan Buddhist Identities and the Reappropriation of Tradition”

Here is a small (lo fi) sample of the Closing Ceremnony, IABS 2008.

My gratitude to the participants and organizers of the Congress.

– Jonathan Ciliberto, July 2008

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