Tales of the Enlightened One

According to the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama, 563-483 BCE), everything - including human existence - is ephemeral.

buddah 88 298 (photo credit: )
buddah 88 298
(photo credit: )
A lovely and informative didactic show, Buddhist Art in the Israel Museum Collection, has been mounted by curator Etty Gissis. As Gissis sums up in her admirably succinct (and legible) wall texts, Buddhism, unlike other religions, is not interested in God or sin. Its prime concern is with human suffering and misconceived perceptions of reality. According to the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama, 563-483 BCE), everything - including human existence - is ephemeral. Clinging to life's fleeting realities is not just futile, but the actual source of suffering. Wordly existence in the Buddhist sense is a perpetual series of rebirths, from which only nirvana (the "extinction" of the whole painful process) can offer final release. Buddhism offers a system of techniques designed to bring about the transformation of consciousness needed to achieve an alternative perception of ourselves and the world around us, techniques collectively known as meditation. The various forms of meditation in the East employ rituals, magical formulae, body positions and symbolic hand movements, as well as a wide range of objects: images of gods, diagrams, texts and a variety of cultic implements and musical instruments. It is these that are represented in the current exhibition, but let it be noted that the exhibits, most of them handsome, even wonderful, are not the highest achievements of Buddhist art. Of the two main schools of Buddhism, the Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle") school traveled from India to take hold in China, Korea, Japan and Tibet. In Japan, Nichiren Buddhism neared Catholicism and the more austere Zen movement blended an esoteric humor with strict discipline. In Sri Lanka, Burma, Indonesia, Thailand and Khmer (Cambodia), the Hinayana ("Lesser Vehicle") school became the dominant force. The Mahayana school emphasized the ability of every individual to attain salvation, and its Buddha images assumed a more human face. The Hinayana decided that nirvana can be attained only by a chosen few, and its images of the Buddha are more impersonal. Zen rejects the intellectual and ritualistic aspects of the Buddhist religion and emphasizes the direct, pre-conceptual experience. Zen is divided into two predominant sub-sects. According to one, enlightenment is a gradual process; in the other, it is instantaneous. Zen Buddhism was brought to China in the 6th century CE by the Indian monk Bodhidharma, and spread to Japan in the late 12th century. As founder of the sect, he is the hero of many legends and is featured in many ink paintings from China and Japan. One particular legend relates that Bodhidharma was seated facing the wall of a cave for nine years, absorbed in meditation. Because he had sat still in one place for so long, his limbs atrophied. Thus he is often portrayed as having no arms or legs. Zen monks developed their own school of minimalist ink painting. There's an example here by the 18th-century monk Hakuin, a depiction of the Daruma. The earliest known statues of Buddha appeared a millennium ago in Gandhara (modern Pakistan and Afghanistan) and Mathura (Uttar Pradesh in northern India). In Gandhara, the images of Buddha were influenced by Greek art and figures of Apollo. In Mathura, they were derived from Hindu mythology. The image of Buddha in both sculpture and painting is marked by 32 distinguishing signs, some or all of which appear in countless depictions across cultures, borders and periods. The most common are the usnisha (the "wisdom bump" on top of the head) and the urna (the "beauty spot" on the forehead) that symbolize the supreme, enlightening wisdom gained through intuition rather than rational thinking; the elongated earlobes, evidence of intelligence and the heavy jewelry Buddha wore in his previous princely life; the mudra ("symbolic gesture"), the symbolic hand positions that suggest preaching, meditation and tranquility; and the asana, the posture of the body in standing, sitting, lying or walking positions. The Buddha is usually depicted standing or sitting on a lotus flower, symbolic of the purity of Buddhist thought: just as the white lotus rises above the muddy waters, so does the spirit of the Buddha hold itself afloat above a tainted world. Just look at the elegant Japanese 12th-century Amida Buddha (early Kamakura period, though the stand was made 500 years later). Padmasana, the cross-legged sitting position in which each foot, with the sole up, is on the thigh of the opposite leg, symbolizes concentration and meditation. A mandala (literally, "container of the essence") is a picture of the world in the form of a diagram. A pair of mandalas here, originally displayed in a temple, are pictorial explanations of the path to enlightenment. They serve as a basis for meditation for the Japanese Shingon sect. Thanka is the Tibetan term for a painted scroll that serves as an aid to concentration during meditation. Thankas were hung in temples or carried by traveling monks for the purpose of teaching. Themes depicted on thankas include the Buddha in one of his manifestations, scenes from his life, historical figures and other images. The 18th-century thankas here depict the Buddha calling the earth to witness his truth. The Vajrayana represents a relatively new sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It offers a speedy and "direct" path to enlightenment and revolves around the individual's personal experience, supported by meditation and ritual. The ritual objects which serve to enhance concentration are not sacred; the believer's faith in their effectiveness is the source of their religious value. Rolled up inside Tibetan prayer wheels is a text bearing a prayer or mantra. The act of rolling the wheel with the text inside is believed to be as valuable as actual prayer or the recitation of the sacred verse itself. In Tibet, worshiping the gods is regarded as the proper way to appease them, forestall their anger and earn their favor. They are called upon to grant health, wealth and protection against assorted dangers and evils, including the temptations and desires that can harm one's chances of being born again into a better life. This show also features heads and figurines of bodhisattvas, beings that have attained enlightenment but have delayed their nirvana in order to help all human beings achieve it. The bodhisattvas have become the focus of such widespread worship that they rival the Buddha himself. The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is the symbol of compassion and the most popular bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism. His repetitive mantra, Om mani padme hum ("Blessed be the jewel in the lotus"), is by far the best-known incantation of the Buddhist world. Avalokiteshvara is typically depicted with multiple heads facing in all directions and multiple arms, so that he can see the suffering and simultaneously extend more than one helping hand. In China and Tibet, the image of Avalokiteshvara has become feminine. This exhibit shows all the three manifestations side by side. Ksitigharba (Jizo in Japanese) is the bodhisattva of compassion, patron of children and travelers and a favorite of the Japanese people.The bodhisattva holds a scepter with six rings representing the six worlds of rebirth. In his left hand is a jewel which symbolizes Buddhist wisdom; it has the power to fulfill one's wishes. A lovely show.