Archive for Buddha

Buddha & the Heiress: The Doris Duke Collection of SE Asian Art

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , on December 26, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Note: The “Emerald Cities” exhibit at The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco runs through January 10, 2010.  These are the last weeks to view this large collection of Thai and Burmese art all together for an unspecified length of time.  Afterward, for conservation reasons, most of the articles in this exhibit will go back into storage.

Head of a Buddha image, Thailand,ca. 1800,
stucco, 46.4 x 40.6 cm.
(The Avery Brundage Collection, ©Asian Art Museum.)

In 2002, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum became one of only two U.S. institutions to receive a substantial donation of Southeast Asian art and antiques from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. (The other was Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum.) The bequest became the cornerstone of the Asian’s now preeminent collection of 18th- and 19th century Thai, and, to a lesser degree, Burmese art.

Doris Duke, circa 1939.

Doris Duke was a most reluctant celebrity. Born in 1912, she was the only child of James Duke, North Carolina tobacco and power magnate. When he died prematurely in 1925, the 12 year old became the sole beneficiary of his considerable fortune, between $30 to $100 million depending on the source.

Intensely private, Duke spent most of  her life trying to avoid the glare of publicity, hiding from cameras and refusing interviews. Though twice married and often romantically linked, Doris Duke died alone in 1993 at her Beverly Hills mansion. She left the bulk of her $1.3 billion estate to two foundations that bear her name.

Interior of the larger of two rooms in the Coach Barn,
Duke Farms, New Jersey (2002).

On an around-the-world honeymoon in 1935 with her first husband, Duke began a lifelong fascination with other cultures. She was a diligent and thorough student, and over the years, she developed a keen eye for art. Though a shy person, Duke was a bold collector. Over her lifetime, she amassed a large and well-known collection of Islamic art, which is housed at her Shangri La estate in Honolulu.

Miniature temple, Northern Thailand, 1850-1900,
lacquer, pigmented natural resin, paint and gilding on wood.
(Gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ©Asian Art Museum.)

During the 1950s and 60s, Duke also assembled a lesser-known (though no less extensive) Southeast Asian art collection, an eclectic array of high caliber objects, which she planned to house in a “Thai village” on one of her many properties.  Although her dream of a village was never realized, her zeal for the project propelled her to amass more than 2,000 religious and secular works. Because she was the only Westerner at the time buying works of such stature, Duke’s collection has turned out to be the most important of its kind outside Asia.

Illustrated manuscript of excerpts from Buddhist texts, 1857,
paint, gold, lacquer, and ink on paper.
(Gift of Katherine Ball,  ©Asian Art Museum.)

Nearly 200 pieces from the Duke collection, as well as gifts from other collectors, are on display in the comprehensive “Emerald Cities” exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. Some of the pieces have been exquisitely preserved, while others have succumbed to lamentable states of deterioration. (The Asian’s conservation staff labored painstakingly for thousands of hours to bring a great number of these back from the brink.)

Seated crowned and bejeweled Buddha, Thailand, 1825-1900,
paint, gold, and lacquer on wood.
(Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. © Asian Art Museum.)

Despite the individual disappointments, in aggregate the exhibit is a success. First, it is a rare opportunity to view superior artworks from the lesser-studied Asian countries, whose cultures are often overshadowed in the Western world by China and Japan.  Additionally, through the inclusion of scores of 19th-century artifacts, the show illustrates the huge transformation in Thai and Burmese societies during that time through the influx of huge numbers of Chinese and Europeans. But most importantly, “Emerald Cities” brightly illuminates the multiplicity of artistic expression associated with Theravada Buddhism, still the key cultural glue of SE Asia.

Seated crowned and bejeweled Buddha, Burma, 1895,
gilded dry lacquer with mirrored glass, 180.8 x 99.2 cm
(Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. ©The Asian Art Museum.)

The practice of Theravada Buddism centers on devotion to the three “gems”—the Buddha, the dharma (an understanding of his teachings) and the sangha (monastic orders). All the religious works in the show relate to these three elements.

Like Byzantine icons, images of the Buddha were not considered art objects to be displayed for their beauty, but were regarded as the Buddha himself. The meaning of this seated bejeweled Buddha above would have been interpreted differently by devotees of different backgrounds and status. But the fact that he is robed in royal attire suggests that he is a “Jambupati” Buddha, referring to Buddha’s conversion of vain King Jambupati.  Additionally Buddha’s hands assume the Bhumisparsa Mudra gesture, which would signal enlightenment to devotees.

Vessantara and his wife see
the approach of Vessantara’s father’s retinue,

Chapter 12 of the Story of Prince Vessantara, Central Thailand,
ca. 1850-1900,
paint and gold on cloth, approximate 57 x 46 cm.
(Gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ©The Asian Art Museum.)

Other than Buddha himself, the most popular subject in Theravada art is the depiction of scenes from the Buddha’s life.  Of particular note for its rarity is a stunning assemble of 13 paintings depicting the life of Prince Vessantara (one of the Buddha’s former selves) . Generally, visual elements were used in conjunction with oral recitations; as such, they were conceived to be used in one temple for a single celebration. Thus, complete sets of this cycle do not generally survive. This set is additionally noteworthy for the many elements of Western art, such as perspective,  that were incorporated into the compositions.

As the dharma spread across India in the decades after the Buddha’s death (given as 483 BCE), differing interpretations of the original teachings led to schisms within the sangha and the emergence of as many as 18 distinct sects of Buddhism. Today, sects fall into two general branches—”southern,” including Theravada, and “Northern” (i.e. sects in China, Tibet, India, Japan, Korea.)

Burmese manuscript of excerpts from Buddhist texts, ca. 1850-1900,
lacquer and gilding on stiffened cloth or paper with wooden covers.
(Gift of Katherine Ball, ©Asian Art Museum.)

Theravada draws its scriptural inspiration from the Tipitaka, or Pali canon, which scholars generally agree contains the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings. The Pali canon is extensive—the English translation, for example,  fills over 12,000 pages in approximately fifty hardbound volumes, taking up about five linear feet of shelf space! The elaborate manuscript above—an from the Buddhist texts regarding the conduct of monks—follows the tradition form, that is, six lines of text richly adorned with scenes of the Buddha’s life or, in this case, birds and celestial beings.

The holy monk Phra Malai visiting hell, Central Thailand, ca.1850-1900,
gilded bronze with mirrored glass inlay and pigment, 49.5 x 14 cm.
(Gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ©The Asian Art Museum.)

And finally among the most delicious pieces in the “Emerald Cities” exhibit is the sculptural Phra Malai Visiting Hell. The four figures  emerging from the underworld at the monk’s feet, beseeching him with prayer, are a reminder that Hell is a nasty place, even in the benevolent practice of Buddhism.

Wider Connections

Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma 1775-1950—exhibition catalog
Thai History
Thai Buddhism
Buddha Images—a comprehensive look at the representation of the Buddha in Thai art.
Burmese Art
Backpacking Burma

A Seated Buddha from Tumshuk

Posted in Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , on November 14, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

seated-buddha-tumshuk-5th-cSeated Buddha, Tumshuk (Xinjiang Provence) 5th century,
Wood, approximately 6 1/3″ high

The end of the Han dynasty in the 2nd century CE ushered in three centuries of unrest in China and its Western territories.  After a series of weak Emperors, the Huns (“barbarians”) ruled for centuries, although reunification of the Northern and Southern Dynasties did not happen until the Sui Dynasty took power in 580. It was during these chaotic centuries that Buddhism established its foothold in China.  Under the aegis of Ashok the Great, Buddhism pushed north and east out of India, first into Central Asia, and from there east into China along the Silk Route.  Perhaps the Chinese embraced it for the stability it brought to their lives.

Buddhist monks established early outposts in the oasis towns of Central Asia—Kashgar, Khotan, Dunhuang, Turfan. During the 4th and 5th centuries these settlements grew into bustling centers of religion and commerce. Conversely, Chinese monks, seeking to study the Buddhist scriptures, passed through these towns en route to India. In the oases, cultural and artistic traditions—Buddhist, Chinese, Persian, Bactrian, Turkic tribes—mingled freely.  Some 1500 years later in the monastery caves outside these towns European archeologists Aurel Stein and Albert von Le Coq excavated the exquisite artifacts produced by unique Buddhist societies.

The 6-inch high treasure above was uncovered by Albert von Le Coq in the caves at Tumshuk (just east of Kashgar, now in Xinjiang Province, China). Statues of this type and small size are thought to have been votive offerings from pious Buddhists.

This Buddha assumes the classic dhyanasana position, a posture of meditation, in which the legs are locked in full-lotus position with the soles of the feet turned upwards so as to be visible. In unusual style, he wears a smooth and unwrinkled robe, and its lack of embellishment emphasizes the serenity of the pose. Traces of polychrome suggest that the sculpture was once entirely painted; the brilliant pigments of the various cave wall paintings suggest that the original colors of this Buddha would have been stunning.

In general form this seated Buddha displays attributes of the Gandharan style, in which Hellenistic or Greco-Roman artistic techniques (first brought to the Gandhara, now the borderlands of Afghanistan/Pakistan, by Alexander) blended with Indian Buddhist iconography. In keeping with their desire to depict the Buddha as a man, not a deity, Gandharan artists employed naturalistic modeling and realistic detail.

Similarly-dated artifacts of many different styles fill the caves; unfortunately this statue offers no clue as to the reason for its form. Did the sculptor bring artistic traditions with him from Gandhara to Tumshuk? Or did he become infatuated by the down-to-earth simplicity of another artifact?

There are many possibilities. Buddha does not reveal all secrets.

Wider Connections

The Silk Roads—an historical overview.
A Buddhist Library
Marilyn Rhie—Early Buddhist Art of China & Central Asia
Buddhist Art News
The Science of Meditation

Lord Vishnu’s Miniature Footprints

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , on October 31, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Vishnu’s Footprints, 19th century,
watercolor and gold, Lahore, Pakistan, 33.5×29 cm
(photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

In Indian culture, the foot is considered to be the vehicle of humble and base activities. Veneration of the foot of a respected person is the ultimate gesture of humility or devotion. In India reverence is expressed by touching the feet or taking dust from a teacher’s feet upon one’s head.

Among the Hindus, the tradition of vishnupada (the footprint of Vishnu) is an ancient belief supported by several myths. One, Vayu Purana, tells how Vishnu as a dwarf tricked the demon king Bali (Mahabali) into granting him three steps. He stepped over the whole universe, on the last crushed the demon. The Hindus most probably appropriated the custom from the Buddhists, as the footprints of Buddha have been a source of worship since antiquity.  There are other myths of vishnupada—they vary in character and setting—but the Vayu Purana seems to me the most heroic.

Coincidentally, the Islamic faithful believe that whenever Muhammad trod on a rock his foot left an imprint, although this was not sanctioned by the orthodoxy. The Islamic veneration of feet has antecedents in both Judaism and Christianity. When Islam arrived in India under the Mughal rulers (beginning in the 16th century), the worship of footprints was already well established. Thus, it was an easy matter for Muslims to continue their practice, and shrines for the Prophet’s footprint were built across the northern provinces of Indian and in parts of contemporary Pakistan.

Began by the Persians, miniature painting reached full flower in India under the Mughal emperors between the 16th to 18th centuries. Some as small as a few inches in dimension, they accompanied manuscripts. Like the one above, miniatures typically display meticulous and detailed workmanship, warm and vibrant scheme of colors (the colors of India herself) and a charming stylization that often eschewed perspective and natural accuracy. Miniatures embrace all manner of themes, religious and not, but generally depict a particular human activity or crucial mythic moment.

The print above is part of a 19th-century collection of miniatures (in Berlin’s Ethnological Museum) about the everyday activities of the Hindu faithful—worship, leisure, playing Parcheesi. It seems to me the arabesque floral design around the edges and the gold owe something to Islamic traditions appropriated during Mughal times.  It would be fitting if the symbols on the footprints referenced reflexology, but I don’t know that for sure.

The city Gaya in eastern India is most associated with the vishnupada myth and the Vishnupada Temple there is said to mark the actual spot where the deity left his footprints on a rock when he defeated the demon. The footprints are set in a silver basin and are the chief object of worship in the Temple. This miniature would seem to reference the Gaya spot, if not actually, then metaphorically.

Wider Connections
Edward Tyomkin—The Hindu Pantheon: An Introduction Illustrated With 19th Century Indian Miniatures
Feet & Footwear in Indian Culture
More Indian Miniatures

Buddha of the Renunciation—Look Down!: Wisdom on the Pavement #15

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , on September 23, 2008 by Liz Hager

Photo ©2008 Liz Hager

Date: 09/23/08

Time: 8:35 am

Location: Oak SW corner of Broderick

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”: At first I thought I recognized this serene being as the Buddha. Weren’t his elongated ears and “third eye” the give away?  But the baldness stumped me—I had only seen Buddha portrayed with a top-knot of hair. 

Buddhists consider a properly-rendered Buddha image not to be a representation, but the actual spiritual emanation of the teacher. Much like Byzantine icons (13th Century Shock & Awe), a Buddha image carries supernatural powers.  Each attribute of his image symbolizes something specific in the Buddhist doctrine. 

The typically elongated ears denote Prince Siddhartha’s noble origin; they are also are a reminder of all that the prince renounced to become an ascetic and a symbol of the power to hear things other people could not. The extra eye references the Buddha’s all-seeing nature.  The top-knot is a symbol of renunciation. In this lies the clue to this Buddha. 

After seeing the apocalyptic Four Signs, Prince Siddhartha decided to renounce his worldly life. He fled the palace on horseback in the dead of night. At the edge of the Anoma (Illustrious) River, he cut off the top-knot of his long hair and tossed it to the heavens, crying ” “If I am to become a Buddha, let it stay in the sky; but if not, let it fall to the ground.” And that’s why Buddhist monks undergo a symbolic head shaving during ordination.

So, though he’s a bit non-traditional for Buddha depictions, I think he squeezes by the iconography as The Buddha of the Renunciation.

Little Paper Offerings

Posted in Central Asia, Liz Hager, Paper, Sculpture with tags , , , , on September 22, 2008 by Liz Hager

Editors Note: For more on the Buddhist art of Dunhuang, see Flying Down the Central Asian Steppe; Talisman of the Pole Star; On the Trail of Alexander.

By LIZ HAGER

Collaged Flowers, Tang Dynasty (9th-10th c. AD),
“retrieved” from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China, by Sir Aurel Stein
(photo ©The British Museum)

The paper flowers above, found in the Mogao caves by Aurel Stein, are probably the earliest surviving examples of Buddhist votive flowers. Stein must have been electrified when he discovered these prosaic gems among the sacred art. It’s nothing less than a miracle that they even survived, having been in the caves for perhaps as long as 1500 years.

Glue found on the backs of the flowers suggests that they were offerings pasted by devotees onto the walls of the shrines or perhaps on to the Buddha statues themselves. Flowers, the lotus in particular, are a central motif in Buddhist iconography, so it is not surprising that the Dunhuang grottos would be full of floral rosettes; stylized flowers have been painted on ceilings, woven or embroidered in textiles, added to borders and patterns. In the harsh desert climate of the Takla Makan, it would make sense that delicately cut and painted paper would stand in ceremoniously for natural flowers.

As Susan Whitfield observes in the Dunhuang chapter of The Silk Road, her catalog of the 2004 British Library exhibit:

Despite the wall to ceiling painting, the Mogao caves as they appear today are denuded of much of the decoration which would have once adorned the walls and the Buddha statues. . . It is difficult to image now but the caves full of offerings, colorful hangings, and other decorations, with the sound of prayers being recited and the smell of the hemp oil from the flickering lamps mingling with the incense offered to Buddha, must have had a very different atmosphere from today.

Wider Connections

Susan Whitfield—The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War And Faith

“Talisman of the Pole Star”—Protection Along the Silk Route

Posted in Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on September 9, 2008 by Liz Hager

Talisman of the Pole Star, ink and colors on paper, mid-10th century, Cave 17, Mogao Grottos, Dunhuang (©The British Museum)

In early March, 1907, archeologist Aurel Stein reached the square-walled oasis of Dunhuang on the edge of the Lop Nur, now just a dried lake bed at the eastern end of the Tarim Basin. Twelve miles SE of the oasis in a shallow depression, known as the “Valley of 1000 Buddhas,”  Stein would soon uncover the world’s most extensive and celebrated cache of Buddhist art, some of it more than 1500 years old.

For more Venetian Red posts on Dunhuang Caves—On Trail of Alexander; Flying Down the Central Asian Steppe; Little Paper Offerings.

“Talisman of the Pole Star” was one of perhaps 40,000 manuscripts that Stein eventually removed from the caves.  At 17×12 inches, it was designed to be carried, rather than read in a library. Certainly its magical powers and delightful design have made it an object of interest. However, the real value of the scroll for me was in its context in the history of human development, specifically the migration of Buddhism from India to China.

Ashoka the Great did much to spread Buddhism beyond India in the 3rd c. BCE. As Aurel Stein’s many Central Asian digs were to make clear, Alexander and his armies introduced Hellenic culture to lands already steeped in Buddhist beliefs.  It was only natural that proselytizing monks should travel along the well-established roads of the Silk Route, establishing monasteries and enclaves in and around key trading center.   Though Daoism and Confucionism were well-established in China, the Chinese were curious about new ideas. Or perhaps they perceived a threat.  By the 1st c. BCE, the Hou Hanshu chronicles describe Emperor Ming sending envoys West to “inquire about the Buddha’s doctrine.”

By the 2nd/3rd c. CE, many Silk Route cities came to be dominated by Buddhist stupas and monasteries, some of them evident today.   In the 7th century, Dunhuang became a prosperous way station at the juncture of the northern and southern routes around the Takla Makan desert. Also by the 7th century, the Chinese had embraced Buddhism and were undertaking the wholesale translation of Buddhist texts into Chinese. This endeavor was to require many generations of scholars traveling back and forth from India to China. It’s not surprising with this confluence of factors that a considerable and lasting Buddhist outpost was established near Dunhuang.

The scroll form is believed to have come to China with Buddhism along the Silk Route. The layout of the “Pole Star” scroll with the image on top and text below was to become the dominant form for Chinese illustrated books from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries.  Further, the imagery on this scrol beautifully the absolute demonstrates the absolute fungibility of cultures, where they mix freely.

The Pole Star was an established figure in Chinese Daoist and Hindu religions, so undoubtedly the Buddhists adopted from either of these sources.  In depicting the figure of the Pole Star (left) holding a paper and a brush, the artist was careful to follow existing traditions that associated the figure with imparting of information. On the right of the scroll is mythological figure, Ketu, a Hindu tradition whom the Buddhists embraced. Together with deity Rahu, Ketu represents a point on the ecliptic where the Moon is in alignment with the Sun and the Earth.

Thus, the pairing of the Pole Star and Ketu denotes precise harmony with the celestial elements—i.e. the Sun, the Earth, the Moon, the stars; important to Buddhists in the enfolding of individual consciousness and no doubt appealing to the Chinese.  For extra protection, the artist has added text in Chinese and Daoist writing (transcribed below), penned in red to confer extra good luck and/or supernatural powers on the bearer of the talisman.

Whoever wears in his girdle this talisman, which is a dharani (magic chant) talisman, will obtain magic power and will have his sins remitted during a thousand kalpas (eras). And of the Ten Quarters all the Buddhas shall appear before his eyes. Abroad in the world he shall everywhere encounter good fortune and profit. Throughout his whole life he shall enjoy other men’s respect and esteem. His religious merit shall be unparalleled, and this protection and purification shall come to him as swiftly as Lü Ling (a Daoist sage) rides.

—Roderick Whitfield (Caves of the Thousand Buddhas) translation of the “Pole Star” text.

Buddha Speaks—Look Down!:IWP, SF #13

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , on September 8, 2008 by Liz Hager

©2008 Liz Hager

Date: 09/08/08

Time: 12:22pm

Location: 14th Street, corner of Sanchez

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”:  I was having trouble finishing a difficult post on Buddhism this morning, so I took a walk to clear my head. Fate led me on a path took me by Buddha on the Pavement. He told me not to worry, in time my post would be finished.

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