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. Continue reading