Category Archives: BAN Review

REVIEW: temple walls | japan, by Ryuten Paul Rosenblum

temple walls | japan
Ryuten Paul Rosenblum
48 pages
14.5 x 23.5 cm
Hard cover / Accordion binding

Zen Buddhist practice is sometimes called “wall-gazing” meditation, a reference both to Bodhidharma — the sect’s purported founder — and his nine years meditating while facing a monastery (or, cave) wall, but also to Zen’s eschewing of meditation aids like paintings and statutes. The walls of ancient Zen temples and monasteries have been the companions and unyielding support for the practice of countless practitioners for centuries. This presence, and their non-objective forms (and perhaps these are the same thing), are captured in Paul Rosenblum‘s photographs of temple walls in Japan.

A wall is also symbol of renunciation: the Buddhist meditator has turned away from the world, quite literally.

The images are small squares of wall, thus converting the age and detail of stone, glaze, cracks, woodgrain, weathering into images that call to mind camera-less Polaroids, blurred landscapes, and gesture paintings. However, such imaginations are not Rosenblum’s purpose in creating these images. Rather, “practice is about seeing the mind in all things, even the most commonplace/everyday/simple/mundane. The temples and monasteries that I visited are widely know, even revered by some. For me, my ‘interaction’ with simple, taken for granted things like walls was infused a feeling of honor and respect for the practice that has taken place in them for centuries. I feel each is the body of a Buddha; our practice is what makes it vividly alive in this moment.” (This and other quotations from a personal email from the photographer.)

Rosenblum is a linage holder in the Zen tradition of Dongshan and Dōgen and spends part of each year serving as Vice Abbot of Genrinji, a Zen Temple in the Germany.


These photographs present a radically different view of well-known sites: from the usual architectural, viewer-to-object-oriented, or tourist-friendly Zen gardens, to a quite intimate one that asks for more from the viewer than one-to-one identification of things. It is easier to focus on things planned to be focused on, it is harder to focus on what is more ever-present, sitting firmly in the background (like the mind). The images are”intended as a way to support seeing without thinking predominating.”

One’s attention falls into habit, thus seeing more traditional image of a Buddhist temple tends merely to provoke the mind to recollect the idea of a temple through image-association. These images, radically deconstructed ones of Buddhist temples, urge the eye and mind to work a little harder.

That said, the images have a beauty that one finds absent any heavy mental-lifting. This is to say that they have formal qualities akin to some 20th century western art (whether or not this visual/intellectual impact is akin in some way to Buddhist ways of seeing is an open question).

The book itself is a lovely object, an accordion bound, limited edition by Datz Press of Seoul, Korea. The cover stock, inside cover material, paper, and ink all show attention to a somewhat unrefined aesthetic. (The choice to render titles in all lower case does strike me as a touch precious; a minor point in a design that intelligently and sensitively supports the artist’s intention.)

I particularly appreciate this book as it presents new ways of putting images and seeing toward Buddhist practice. Books like this one reveal that there are more ways of using images toward practice than the well-known use of mandalas and thangkas.

~ Jonathan Ciliberto


Book Review – Image Problems: The Origin and Development of the Buddha’s Image in Early South Asia


Review by Jon Ciliberto

Image Problems: The Origin and Development of the Buddha’s Image in Early South Asia
Robert DeCaroli
March 2015
280 pp., 44 b and w illus., 1 map, 1 chart, 7 x 10 in.

One of the earliest questions Western scholars of Buddhist art asked was: why were there no images of Shakyamuni Buddha for hundreds of years following his death? This question brings up another: what caused such images to begin to appear, and become so pervasive throughout Buddhist culture?

Robert DeCaroli‘s Image Problems revisits these questions and offers that the sudden emergence of images in the 1st century A.D. in South Asia was due to a general, cultural shift in attitudes toward anthropomorphic visual representation rather than to the development of specifically Buddhist approaches to images.

At least since Coomaraswamy’s “Elements of Buddhist Iconography” (1935), the transition from symbolic, or stand-in images of the Buddha to anthropomorphic ones has been placed in the much deeper historical context of Indian art. That is, it is an error to see the shift from an aniconic to a representational image use as one that occurred strictly in the Buddhist traditions, and thus that one ought to look in Buddhist texts or practices exclusively for explanations for the change. Similar changes occurred in Brahmanical and Jainism at the time.

More to the point, early Buddhists’ responses to images in religious settings were framed and developed as a result of cultural positions with respect to images that had developed over many centuries in India, and through its interaction with neighboring (often invading) cultures.

The nature of the Buddha to those living after his exit from the world is a theme threaded through the book, often revealing itself as an explanation for the variety of responses Buddhist in South Asia reacted to Buddhist images. The myriad manifestations and existentially complex nature of the Buddha serves both to justify, and undercut, the devotional use of images.

A frequently-cited and quite specific theoretical basis for excluding images of the enlightened Buddha is that once enlightened, the Buddha was entirely absent. If absent, what is there to represent visually? This underpinning raises a question addressed initially by DeCaroli: did images of the Buddha follow doctrinal changes, or did the appearance of images lead to shifts in doctrine? No clear answer exists, for the historical is irregular, inconstant, or nonexistent. Instead, the author looks to changes in cultural understanding of images that developed independently of Buddhism.

The author devotes significant space to the use of images in South Asian art generally, both upon the inherent “power, agency, and authority” of images (8), and upon the use of such images by foreign powers who entered the region to bolster their political authority over a native population. Images in ancient South Asia were considered powerful, even magical, in ways that it is difficult for our image-saturated culture to grasp. They were often utilized in rites aimed toward specific worldly goals: for gaining wealth or health, for causing illness in another, for inflaming romantic desire, to influence the weather, and so on. Meanwhile, rites whose goals were non-secular (as practiced, for instance, by Brahmans and Sramana) were generally less image-oriented. DeCaroli therefore speculates that early the lack of early Buddhist figural images was based on the understanding that Buddhist practice was meant to pursue transcendental rather than worldly goals.

In parsing the views of other scholars on the philosophical justification for image-prohibition, the author takes the position that the motive is based on the inherent potency of anthropomorphic images, rather than either the idea that symbols in aniconic are substitutions for the Buddha (Foucher/Cunningham), or that the symbol represents, or is a reminder, of the Buddha (Rhys David/Anderson). DeCaroli’s view is thus connected with his thesis that early Buddhist thought on images was highly influenced by pre-Buddhist ideas regarding the magical power of images.

Image Problems recognizes that the Buddhism of any era is not a monolithic belief-system, and that sects made differing responses to the proliferation of images in the 1st century. The volume offers an selection of Buddhist texts speaking against image use, although none are explicitly prohibitory. (One exception is the prohibition found in all vinayas (and in Brahmanic literature) against images of living things.)

It is refreshing to read a scholar who presents the authors of ancient texts not simply as authority figures, or even as persons locked into a specific school or tradition, but rather as individuals grappling with the startling fact of images suddenly coming into vogue, and seeking philosophical justification or proscriptive.

Beyond philosophical prohibitions of image use, one finds a “you couldn’t do it even if you tried” approach, in texts that posit the impossibility of creating an image of the Buddha’s body due to its “elusive and inexpressible nature.” In a similarly deflective rather than prohibitory way, some texts claim that images are simply less effective than other means.

A fascinating section of the book describes non-Buddhist prohibitions against image-making, including one based on the premise that image-makers are thereby taking money away from the gods depicted. (This seems almost an ancient version of modern celebrities’ legal recourse against unlicensed use of their images.) The reaction illustrates the sense of potency and life early Buddhist ascribed to images, as do many examples of the active agency of images: driving off apsaras by painting a picture of a prettier apsara, learning archery from the clay image of a teacher of archery, resurrecting a dead person by means an image of the person. All of these ideas around the power and agency of images made it imperative that the Buddha, whose parinirvana brought up utter cessation, be absent in images.

Image Problems includes a survey of the history of figural representation in Southeast Asia, to place the appearance of figural images in Buddhist art in context. Gradually, figural images became more specific, such that individuals rather than generalized figures were portrayed. Portraiture is of course closely connection with royal images. The author contends that royal portraiture was not an innovation of the foreign Kusana kings, but that they “introduced the new social customs that allowed for this type of artwork to be used in a wider range of contexts.” (93) The Kusanas, from Central Asia, had a relationship to figural imagery different from South Asians. In general, the Kusanas used specific physiological styles, “representing gods and other religious figures anthropomorphically, even if those deities had little or no prior history of being represented in such a fashion.” (97) Further, Kusanas, by placing images of themselves in close proximity to images of religious figures, further enhanced political figures’ prestige and legitimization.

While DeCaroli notes that this usage must have shocked locals, he does not explore significantly reverse legitimization resulting from the sudden appearance of images of the Buddha and other figures, including their usurping the place of other deities. That is, once anthropomorphic images of political figures began to appear on statues, reliefs, and coins, Buddhist artists by crafting anthropomorphic images of the Buddha and other figures co-opted the “image power” of such secular images.

The overlap between images of foreign kings and religious figures is summarized: “the centuries in which reigning kings began to display their own images are the same periods in which new modes of representing religious figures was also pioneered.” (112) Thus, the innovation of figural images appearing in Buddhist art is posited to a general trend in figural imagery at the time. Rather than a causal connection between royal portraiture and Buddha images, the author points to the emergence of “a specific attitude toward the use of figural art as a means of establishing authority.” (112)

Later chapters in Image Problems examine the reactions of Buddhists to “validate or justify” Buddha images, which generally speaking are tied to the power or efficacy of such images, and thus to their ability to help practitioners. Such justifications are also undercut by stories in which devotion to images is chastised as inferior to or a distraction from the dharma. This back-and-forth is a pattern that is repeated with respect to various stories concerning Buddha images: “In each instance, when a renowned member of the saṃgha […] demonstrates the value to be found in devotion to the embodied Buddha, a response is drawn from those who feel the need to amend, alter, or undermine their successes.” (126) Thus, the varied expressions of understanding regarding image use persists, even as image use proliferated. Too, these responses indicate the underlying tension that South Asians felt toward figural images’ power.

Image Problems thoroughly surveys image use, devotion, the merit of making and donating to images, miracle images, and the problem of copies of images. The book extends consideration of image use to meditative practices, linguistics, and parallel reactions in Jain and Brahmanical traditions.

Book Review: Kamakura: Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan

Review by Jon Ciliberto
Kamakura Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan
Ive Covaci (Editor)
Asia Society/Yale U Pr, Feb 9 2016, HC, 192 pp, 65 color illus, 8.75 x 11.75 in

General awareness of the ceremonies and rituals that attend the creation of Buddhist art has grown in recent years. This attention to more purely religious (rather than aesthetic or material) aspects of Buddhist art gives laypersons and those who have approached such works from the Western “fine art” perspective intimate and meaningful detail of how the scared infuses the material in Buddhist art. The Asia Society’s current exhibition through May 8, Kamakura: Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan, focuses both on ritual acts connected with image creation, and the intense realism of Kamakura art – the latter also a method of enhancing the practitioner’s spiritual interaction with images.




This realism is in somewhat contrast to art of immediately preceding periods in Japan. Ive Covaci, the editor of the fine and approachable catalogue accompanying the exhibition, directly links this realism to the “living” aspects of Buddhist art, thus connecting realism with the practices that brought such objects to life. Buddhist art was considered alive, both in terms of the ability of such objects to interact with living beings, but also in that Buddhist art embodies actual, currently living (or, present) Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other entities.

Buddhist art, particularly images of the Buddha, encounters a paradox. As examined in detail in Robert DeCaroli’s Image Problems (2015), since the Buddha upon enlightenment was wholly absent from this world, images of the Buddha are a seeming contradiction of that absence. Given this obstacle, the idea of “living” images of the Buddha is doubly confusing. More generally, since Buddhist philosophy questions the nature of what is real, what does it mean for an image to be ‘realistic’?

Living images of bodhisattvas don’t raise these questions, since a bodhisattva’s nature is to be active and engaged in the world, working for the salvation of all sentient beings. Continue reading

BOOK REVIEW: Golden Visions of Densatil

golden-visions-of-densatil-12Review by Jonathan Ciliberto

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.


Mahakala. Central Tibet from the 14th century. Gilt copper alloy with inlays of semiprecious stones and pigment. (Rubin Museum of Art)

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 remains on site, photographs from a 1948 Italian expedition provide a template for reconstructing the interior design and artwork of the monastery. Continue reading

BOOK REVIEW: Silla, Korea’s Golden Kingdom

100313_specex_glamReview by Jonathan Ciliberto

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.
ISBN: 9780300197020

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.

silla1The 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. Continue reading

Book Review: Faces of Compassion

Faces of CompassionFaces of Compassion:
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
ISBN 9781614290148

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 life 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. Continue reading

Book review: “Peace of Mind,” Buddhistdoor International, 2013

Jeffrey Martin
08 October 2013


A contemplative photobook is available for free download from Buddhistdoor International.  The 118 page book features a collection of images from the website’s many photographers, each paired with an inspirational quote, and sorted into categories of Business, Relationships, Emotional , Health and Spiritual.   Continue reading

Film Review: Bones of the Buddha (Icon Films 2013)

Jeffrey Martin
24 May 2013


If you have read Charles Allen’s The Buddha and Dr Fuhrer (2011), you will be familiar with the content of this recent documentary from Icon Films.  It sets out the story of the Piprahwa stupa, its discovery in 1897 in the Indian terrai by an amateur English archeologist, and the controversy over the stupa’s contents and the claim that these included relics of the historical Buddha.  The book was rather tedious reading, but credit goes to Allen for laying out all the facts in the case.  The film moves at a much brisker pace and is narrated by the author himself.

The controversy surrounds Dr Fuhrer, at the time England’s only full-time archeologist in India, who — at about the time he visited Piprahwa — was exposed for having created fake documents and enabling the sale of bogus artifacts.   None of those misdeeds was in fact connected with Piprahwa, but the air of suspicious has not been easy to clear, and has clouded questions about the stupa’s contents. Continue reading

Book review: Enlightened Ways: The Many Streams of Buddhist Art in Thailand

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. Continue reading

Film Review: When the Iron Bird Flies, 2012

Jeffrey Martin

When the Iron Bird Flies is a 90-minute documentary about Tibetan Buddhism in the Americas and Europe.  It’s a story that begins with the Chinese occupation of 1949, a calamitous event for Tibetans but perhaps a blessing for the rest of the world.  As a result of the Chinese military moving in, thousands of Tibetans moved out, trekking across the Himalaya in a diaspora that propelled Tibetan lamas and rinpoches out into the wider world.  A decade later, young westerners disaffected with their own societies began showing up in Tibetan refugee communities in India and Nepal, soaking up religion and culture that was carried home to inform the creation of American and European Buddhist communities. Interviews with many of these participants, western and Tibetan, make up most of the film, which includes as well as archival footage from Tibet and early western Buddhist centers.  While Richard Gere makes an appearance, Robert Thurman is absent, the Dalai Lama is hardly to be found, and Trungpa Rinpoche is quickly passed over. The newest generation of teachers and practitioners are represented by Kelsang Wagmo, a German nun who became the first woman to be awarded the academic title of geshe, an African American student of Tibetan and Buddhism in India, the son of a Tibetan Rinpoche and his American mother, and a young lay practitioner whom we follow as she heads into a five-month retreat.

The American film makers presumably aspired to document Tibetan Buddhism in the West, but in truth the examples are principally American.   They touch on a couple of problems encountered importing an ancient Asian religion, including traditional forms of worship (such as bowing to Buddha images) and an all-male clergy.   Among the issues unexplored are the guru (central to Tibetan practice, but anathema to many skeptical moderns); the tulku, or reincarnated teacher (a system that hasn’t proven resistant to exposure to modern capitalism);  the role of belief (in karma, rebirth, and the pantheon of celestial buddhas, bodhisattvas, and assorted beings of the heavenly and hell realms, as well as occult practices such as divination and weather control);  the commercialization of the practice (with many retreats costing thousands of dollars); and western Buddhism’s white, upper-middle class demographic.

The filmmakers also seem to make a couple of problematic assumptions.  While they clearly state the film is about Tibetan Buddhism, this version of the religion seems to be conflated to Buddhism itself.  There is no effort to educate or distinguish between brands, which brings out yet another aspect of Tibetan Buddhism overlooked – the influence of Bon, Tibet’s pre-Buddhist religion.  More problematic is a presentation of Buddhism as a happy pill:  take some meditation and all your problems will melt away.   Most of the teachers seem to talk about happiness, but no one says much about just what this happiness is, nor talks about Buddhism as a philosophy that sees the world as illusory and the practice as a means of learning to how to free oneself from it – perhaps in this life, but most probably in one of many suffering lives to come.  That such a view is not discussed is perhaps because this is precisely how the West has changed Buddhism, from other worldly to this worldly, from aspiring to nirvana to escape the world, to aspiring to nirvana to enjoy the world.

If you know nothing at all about Tibetan Buddhism in the USA, this film might make a suitable introduction.  It covers the most basic history, interviews widely, and is well paced.  For more substantial discussions of the cultural interface between Buddhism and American capitalism, see a few of the references below.

Product description:
96-minute Documentary Film from the Producers of BLESSINGS: The Tsoknyi Nangchen Nuns of Tibet


USA • Running time: 96 minutes • English • Not Rated • Color and B&W
© 2012 Chariot Productions & Pundarika Foundation

Available at:
Chariot Videos
Alive Mind Cinema

See also:
MicGirk, Tim.  “Reincarnation in Exile.”  The Believer.  February 2013.

Paine, Jeffrey.  Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West.  W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Lopez, Donald S. Jr.  Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West.  University Of Chicago Press, 1999.

Interview with director Victress Hitchcock.

Other reviews of this film at: