Category Archives: BAN Review

Book Review: The Female Buddha

Jeffrey Martin

The Female Buddha is an inspirational photo book of statues of female Buddhist deities, Buddhist nuns and female lay practitioners. The layout of the book features a single photo on one page, paired on its facing page with a quotation from female teachers, leaders and poets. The book is intended not to be read so much as imbibed, perhaps kept on a bedside stand for something to sleep and dream upon, or at an office desk for spiritual refreshment. Reading it cover to cover will take no more than 30 minutes, including the introductory essays. Continue reading

Book Review: Beyond the Robe

Jeffrey Martin


Beyond the Robe relates the story of the Science for Monks program, launched more than a decade ago to bring science education to the Buddhist monks and nuns of the Tibetan diaspora. The program was first conceived by the Dalai Lama and made possible with the funding and management resources of American philanthropist Bobby Sager. As described by the participants, the program was launched with the recruitment of a cadre of translators and the creation of a lexis of relevant and translatable concepts. Scientists were brought to India for periods as short as a summer to teach basic science principles to the equivalent of Tibetan college students. The program is ongoing and has resulted in an exhibit for science museums of a series of traditional thangka paintings contrasting Buddhist and contemporary scientific methods of understanding the senses, as well as the spread of science education to other sectors of the Tibetan exile community.


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BOOK REVIEW: Portraits of Chōgen, by John M. Rosenfield

Reviewed by Jonathan Ciliberto for Buddhist Art News

Portraits of Chōgen
The Transformation of Buddhist Art in Early Medieval Japan
John M. Rosenfield

ISSN: 2210-2868
ISBN13: 9789004168640
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.

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Emory’s Carlos Museum finds its center with ‘Mandala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism’

Four Mandalas of the Vajravali Series, c. 1429—56, Central Tibet, Tsang (Ngor Monastery), Sakya order, Thangka, gouache on cotton, Kimbell Art Museum

from Creative Loafing, Wed, Mar 14, 2012 at 11:30 AM
by Jon Ciliberto

Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum, an often-overlooked gem for local art and culture, is exhibiting Mandala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism through April 15. Mandala brings to Atlanta many rare and beautiful Buddhist thangkas, or paintings, along with other objects intended for initiation and meditation.

Mandalas are a kind of technology for meditation, meant to work with personal practice to achieve spiritual insight and liberation. The most common mandalas in Tibetan Buddhist art place a deity at the center of a palace filled with other deities and iconography. This palace is an individual and a cosmological map that lines up with a highly proscribed set of meditational practices so that an individual may see him or herself as the central deity. In fact, Buddhist philosophy describes individual and deity as one and the same. Continue reading

Emory-Tibet Partnership Exchange Students’ View of Tibetan Thangkas

by Jon Ciliberto
for Buddhist Art News

Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia has strong connections with Tibetan culture. HH The Dalai Lama is a Presidential Distinguished Professor, and the school has numerous programs bridging its Atlanta campus with Dharamsala, the location of the Tibetan government in exile, in Northwest India.

Each summer, a group of Emory students travel there to study, as a group of Tibetan monks exchanges spots with them and visit and study in Atlanta.

The Emory students each complete a project on a subject of their choosing. On Wednesday, I listened to a presentation by two recently returned undergraduates on Tibetan thangkas.

A thangka painter at the Norbulingka Institute

For me, this was primarily a view of the experience two young people, previously unfamiliar, learning about Buddhist art. It is rare in the United States for students, other than those with a specialized interest, to gain even the most cursory sense of what Buddhist art is. I am delighted to see this opportunity, and to observe some of its results.

Additionally, it provided me a some nostalgia for my own visit to Dharamsala and environs last summer.

The presentation hit the key points of thangka history, production, usage, and conservation. Frequently noted was the importance of compassionate intention in the artist while making a thangka.

They described the long history of thangka painting in Tibet — noting how far it outstrips in continuity any artistic tradition in the west — and how this contradicted the view that many Americans probably have of the region: that it is primitive and backward.

Much of their research occurred at the Norbulingka Institute, a site devoted to the applied arts of Tibetan culture. Students in Emory’s exchange program have unparalleled access to Tibetan craftsmen, scholars, and governmental officials.

The survival of Tibetan culture — a culture without a country — depends upon the smart young people of the present realizing that it is valuable, and nothing better cultivates this realization than direct experience with it.

The two young women intelligently fielded questions, both on thangkas and on the experience of living in Dharamsala. Many of the other students present were curious about the exchange program. While I felt tempted to pipe up about how wonderful, beautiful, and enriching it is to spend time in this Buddhist part of India, and to interact with Tibetan culture there, the presenters were so exceptionally warm and thoughtful in their descriptions of the experience, there was no need for me to add a word.

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

[1] 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.

[2] 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). Continue reading

BOOK REVIEW: Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan

Book Review by Jonathan Ciliberto, 24 June 2011

Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan
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″
ISBN: 9780935573503

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.

Ancient Buddhist sites are filled with headless statues and empty, pictureless walls. Peter Hopkirk in Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, a history of the early archeo-treasure seekers (Stein, Le Coq, Pelliot, Warner), quotes Chinese guides’ vitriol at the many blank spaces in ancient cave sites, looted, removed, and dispersed to institutions and private collections around the world.

As with Bezelik and Dunhuang, this crime (or, preservation, depending upon your viewpoint), is distinct from the destructive, iconoclastic kind that also left headless or destroyed statues across the Buddhist world, and more recently led to the demolition of the colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

The heads of the figures from Xiangtangshan (“Mountain of Echoing Halls”) became separated from their bodies not as a result of religious idealism, but for the sake of profit. “[T]he history of Xiangtangshan in the last century is one of destruction in the wake of recognition by foreign collectors of Chinese Buddhist sculpture in stone as collectible art” (23). Many of these pieces ended up in prominent Western and Japanese collections. Continue reading

REVIEW: “Shots in the Dark: Japan, Zen and the West” by Shoji Yamada, and “Reading Zen in the Rocks” by Francois Berthier and Graham Parkes

Book review
by Jonathan Ciliberto for Buddhist Art News

Shots in the Dark: Japan, Zen and the West
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.

Reading Zen in the Rocks: the Japanese Dry Landscape Garden
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. Continue reading

REVIEW: 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. Continue reading

BOOK REVIEW: Yasodhara, the Wife of the Bodhisattva

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. Continue reading