By Elda Silva
June 16, 2017 Updated: June 16, 2017 5:39pm
San Antonio Express-News
When it comes to hell, Buddhists are at something of an advantage.
While torment may await those who stray from the path of righteousness, it needn’t be eternal.
“The wonderful thing about Buddhist hell is — unlike Christian hell — it doesn’t last forever,” said Emily Sano. “You can get out.”
Sano, the former director of the the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco who joined the staff of the San Antonio Museum of Art last year as the Coates-Cowden-Brown Senior Advisor for Asian Art, is the curator of “Heaven and Hell: Salvation and Retribution in Pure Land Buddhism.”
Featuring about 70 works, including paintings, sculpture and decorative objects, the exhibit, which is now on view, is touted as the first in the United States to explore Pure Land Buddhism, the most popular form of the religion in Asia.
Pure Land Buddhism began in West Asia in the early years of the Common Era, then spread across Central Asia to China and into Tibet, Korea, Japan and Taiwan. A branch of Mahayana Buddhism, it focuses on Amitabha, a Buddha who promises salvation — or rebirth into Sukhavati, a heavenly Pure Land of bliss — to anyone who calls his name.
Sano began working on “Heaven and Hell” two years ago, after Katie Luber, director of the museum, invited her to curate a show on the subject of her choice.
Very few exhibitions of Buddhist art have been done in Texas, Sano said, “so I thought it was just important to expose the audience in and around San Antonio to the material. I particularly loved the Pure Land theme because the message is quite simple and the works of art are so beautiful.”
“From the time I was a graduate student I was so impressed by the paintings and the sculptures that this religion inspired,” she added. “So it’s just been a favorite topic of mine.”
To put the exhibition together, Sano drew on the permanent collection of the San Antonio museum, as well as those of institutions and private collections around the country — 20 in all, including the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“For me — why I was attracted to the idea — is that it was a chance to look at a very living tradition that has a 2,500 year old history,” Luber said. “And then we did have these works in our own collection. Emily, when she came on with us, started thinking about it right away. So I take my lead from the brilliance of the curators, always.”
Visitors to the exhibit are immediately greeted by a pair of carved wood Nio guardians, such as those placed at the entrance of many Buddhist temples in East Asia. The figures are imposing, with fierce expressions and bulging muscles. The protective deities traveled with the historical Buddha, acting as bodyguards. Offering reassurance, a polished gray limestone hand of Buddha is mounted on a pedestal, thumb and ring finger lightly touching. At more than two feet in height, the piece from Tang dynasty Chicna was once part of a monumental work.
“I love this as a piece of sculpture, but just imagine: If the hand is that big, how big must the Buddha have been?” Sano said. “I estimate about 20 feet tall.”
A section of the exhibit focuses on Buddhas and Bodhisattva who, like Greek and Roman gods, are known by different names depending on the country. Bodhisattva are celestial beings who have achieved enlightenment but postpone entering into nirvana to remain in this world to help others. Among the most popular is Avalokitesvara, worshiped as the embodiment of compassion. Another, Ksitigarbha, intercedes on behalf of those in hell.
A gilt bronze sculpture from China-Tibet dated circa 1750, and other works in the show, depict Avalokitesvara with multiple heads and arms. According to a Tibetan myth, Avalokitesvara was so pained by the human suffering he witnessed that his body split. He was then restored by Amitabha in augmented form to increase the Bodhisattva’s ability to provide assistance.
Another section of the exhibit focuses on the historical Buddha — Sakyamuni — and his disciples, known as arhats. In a series of drawings in ink and mineral pigment on dried bodhi leaves from Qing dynasty China, the arhats are depicted as distinct individuals with gnarled faces and aged bodies that convey the rigor of their practice. One sits on the ground, holding a pot that contains the ocean. Another casually rests against a tiger subdued by his power.
The death of Sakyamuni is the subject of a pair of similarly composed hanging scrolls from Japan, one from the late 17th century, the other circa 1800. A larger-than life figure, the Buddha lies on his side, a hand tucked under his head. He is surrounded by followers. Various animals also have come to pay their respects. In the upper right corner, Sakyamuni’s mother is shown descending from heaven to be present when her son passes into nirvana.
“It’s a wonderful scene, and one that was depicted in art from the earliest periods in India, all the way up to the present day,” Sano said.
In Japanese Buddhist art, the “Descent of Buddha,” or raigo, is one of the most popular themes. According to exhibition text, the simplest representations depict Amida Buddha — as Amitabha is known in Japan — descending to earth to greet believers when they die and escort them to heaven. Sometimes the Buddha was accompanied by an entourage, as in a 14th century scroll featured in the exhibition that depicts the Buddha surrounded by Bodhisattva, all of whom are playing instruments.
One reason Pure Land Buddhism flourished in Japan was because of the widespread belief in the 11th century that the world was descending into chaos, Sano said. During this time, the world would be abandoned by Buddhist law. This lead some of the faithful to commission writings of scripture which were frequently rolled up and placed in bronze containers, then stored inside a stone box and buried to await a future Buddha. The exhibit features an example of one such scroll — gold and on silver on blue paper — and a hexagonal bronze container with tiny birds perched on the edge of the lid, both from same period.
Exhibition text explains that the concept of hell developed from Mahayana Buddhist texts. As Pure Land Buddhism spread across Asia, however, its form adapted, influenced by the gods and customs of each country.
“When the Chinese got interested in Buddhism, they modeled their understanding of hell after their own legal system,” Sano said.
That meant the deceased had to go before the Ten Kings, or “judges of hell,” who would determine an appropriate level of punishment. Depending on the kings’ verdict, the dead could be reincarnated to one of six realms, including heaven or hell. “Judgment and Punishment in Hell,” a 19th century scroll, depicts the kings and some of the less fortunate being tormented.
Similar works were produced in Japan, with detailed tableaux of hell’s denizens and souls undergoing gruesome tortures, such as being forced to slide down a mountain of needles or being boiled in pots. Works such as “Scenes from Hell,” a 19th century scroll attributed to Kano Tohaku Norinobu, however, also offered the faithful hope of escape by incorporating images of benevolent deities. In the foreground of the piece, there is an image of the Bodhisattva Jizo, gathering the souls of children to him.
Among the most striking images in the exhibition are depictions of the Jigoku Dayu, the Hell Courtesan, a 15th century prostitute, who, according to legend wore a robe covered with images of what she believed would be her fate. According to legend, she was lead to salvation by a monk who instructed her in meditation and good works. A painting attributed to Yoshu Chikanobu from the later half of the 19th century shows her wearing an elaborate kimono with an image of Enmao, the Fifth King of Hell, on her back, and Jizo on one of the folds of fabric pooled at her feet.
The exhibition takes viewers to the present day, with a handful of contemporary works, including a 3-D video by Mariko Mori, which presents the artist’s concept of nirvana, and “Chaos,” large-scale painting of a hell scene by Ryuki Yamamoto.
Part of the appeal of the exhibition is the universal nature of the underlying theme, Luber said.
“We all struggle with the good times and the hard times, and we hope that during the hard times the good times are coming back. What is more human than that?” she said. “To me, that’s what’s so moving about this exhibition. And I love the idea that you can get out of hell.”
“Heaven and Hell: Salvation and Retribution in Pure Land Buddhism,” continues through Sept. 10, San Antonio Museum of Art, 200 W. Jones Ave. $5 in addition to museum admission for those 18 and older. 210-978-8100, samuseum.org