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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 1.17.08



Contemplating Stillness

The J-Schnitz's 'Buddhist Visions' combines art and spirituality

BY SUZI STEFFEN

HEAD OF BODHISATTVA LOKESHVARA
BODHIDHARMA SEATED ON A ROCK
PRINCESS LOOKING BACK
THE DEATH OF THE BUDDHA
HOTEI BY KANO TANSHIN

Paradise, howling elephants and hell: That's what you can see starting on Friday, Jan. 18, in the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art's "Buddhist Visions" exhibit.

When the UO museum underwent its extensive remodel, it lost some Buddhist art exhibition space with the elimination of mezzanine levels. So Asian art curator and art history professor Charles Lachman made a commitment to displaying items from the museum's collection in a large exhibit.

With more than 80 pieces — including stunning works like the large marble Seated Buddha (Maitreya) and a few contemporary Buddhist pieces — the show gives Eugeneans plenty to contemplate about the artwork of a religion practiced by more than 500 million people across the planet.

And Oswin Hollenbeck, the Eugene Priory's resident monk, says that contemplation is exactly what's called for. Hollenbeck and other local Buddhist organizations have helped the J-Schnitz stay focused on the spiritual aspects of the show. For instance, at the opening of the exhibit, at 5:45 pm on Friday, Jan. 18, Hollenbeck and others will help lead a Dedication of Merit ceremony in English, Japanese and Tibetan.

Hollenbeck says he wanted to help the viewing public understand the meaning of these works. "For us, these aren't just art. They are items created for spiritual practice, with a mind to meditation. It's almost a side benefit that they're beautiful as well."

Lachman agrees – although as an art historian, he has a slightly different view. "I don't approach these simply as aesthetic objects, but as an historian, I want to know how they translate abstract ideas and beliefs into concrete form."

For instance, he says, he tries to give information about how the artwork was originally used. One statue from the 12th century stood as part of 1,000 similar pieces in a monastery. "The temple sold them when it needed money and when the building needed repair," he explains.

 

FACES

The labels and the text introducing each section of the show will be helpful to those who have little experience with Buddhism or Buddhist iconography. Most of the works come from East Asia (China, Japan and Korea), with a few works from Tibet, Cambodia and India. While putting together the show, Lachman decided to split it into sections by theme rather than by country or era.

Like much religious art — Byzantine icons, Western Christian depictions of specific Biblical moments — Buddhist art contains clear traditions. Buddhism began in the sixth century before the Common Era, when north Indian prince Siddhartha rejected his luxurious life for a spiritual quest. He attained enlightenment, a state which attracted many devotees. After his death, the religion spread through various Asian countries, and as it spread, spiritually based artwork went along with it.

The largest body of work represented in the show pictures various Buddhas (or "Awakened Ones") and bodhisattvas. Buddhas include the original Siddhartha, Maitreya (the Buddha of the future), Amitabha (the Buddha of the Western paradise) and the Medicine Buddha, Bhaishajyaguru.

Bodhisattvas, who are also enlightened, are those who decide not to enter Nirvana until every other sentient being becomes enlightened (they vow things like, "Beings are numberless; I vow to free them"). Some of the more commonly depicted bodhisattvas include those representing infinite compassion (Kuan Yin or Avalokitesvara) and wisdom (Manjusri).

But not every depiction is calm and serene. Guardians of the law, or arhats, can provide material for gorgeously colorful depictions of anger, weaponry and energetic movement.

Because of the ways the religious tales were and are repeated, when these objects are used in temples, their narratives must be easily deciphered by large groups of people. "That's why you'll get almost the same exact depiction from country to country and in widely different centuries," Lachman says.

In depictions of the Buddha's death, for instance, various beings show their levels of spiritual understanding by their reactions. In the show's large scroll The Death of the Buddha, animals, with their natures and their lack of enlightenment, mourn tremendously. A howling elephant, a grief-stricken tiger and even two ducks in emotional agony ("Ducks are unusual," Lachman says, "but they're perfect for an exhibition at the University of Oregon") contrast with the reactions of various human followers. The Buddha, golden in death on the scroll, has attained enlightenment, and unlike other sentient beings doesn't have to go through rebirth and the cycle of karma.

 

PLACES

So what happens after one of the other sentient beings dies? Well, there are several ways to go, but Lachman made sure to depict both heaven and hell — or both paradise and hell, more precisely. The "Paradise" section of the show highlights Pure Land Buddhism, in which people are reborn into what's called the Western paradise of the Buddha of infinite light. This version of Buddhism is popular in both China and Japan, and the exhibit features texts that show followers' devotion to repeating the name of Buddha. (Catholics who came of age before Vatican II may be reminded of certain "Jesus, Mary and Joseph" repetitions for indulgences.)

There's also the gaping maw of the "Hell" section, which actually isn't so much gaping (as in Christian end-time theology) as complex and multilayered. The Hell scrolls (more about them to the right) have their own compelling intensity, making viewers think about the choices between right action and punishment for, er, moral slip-ups. In this section of the show, viewers will be able to access a Hell scrolls website with a vast amount of information about the scrolls.

The JSMA is a university museum, so it must provide both context and paths for further academic learning, especially with art about which many of the viewers may know little.

But context, in this case, isn't all. Hollenbeck from the Eugene Priory wants viewers to try something else. He suggests waiting a bit to look at the label or the historical information. Instead, he says, "Look at the image, sit still and be still."

"Buddhist Visions" opens with a free ceremony and reception, with vegetarian food and alcohol served after the conclusion of the Dedication of Merit ceremony, from 5:30 to 8 pm Friday, Jan. 18. The show runs through April 13, and there are various lectures, demonstrations, guided tours, concerts, classes and workshops associated with the exhibit. In addition, the UO Bookstore and the J-Schnitz have created a list of suggested further reading. Zen Buddhist scholar and calligraphy artist Kaz Tanahashi gives a lecture at the Eugene Zendo in February and exhibits work at the White Lotus Gallery Feb. 14-March 4 in conjunction with the JSMA show. More information available at jsma.uoregon.edu or by calling 346-3027.

 

Treasure Bridges and Vertical Rending

Chinese Hell scrolls intrigue Reed professor

BY SUZI STEFFEN

THE TEN KINGS OF HELL

Hell isn't really Ken Brashier's specialty.

Or rather, the Reed professor of Chinese studies was in a particular kind of hell — working in the Cambridge University library on his dissertation about ancient Chinese ancestor cults — when he stumbled across a most unusual form of relief.

"I could not face the translation, and I started wandering the stacks," he says. "I came across an exhibition catalogue from Taiwan of Hell scrolls."

And they fascinated him. "It's morbid curiosity, it's ghoulish," he says, amused at himself and at humanity in general. But not so ghoulish that Brashier was repulsed. Instead, he ended up with a large collection of Chinese and Taiwanese scrolls (most of them from the collection of Joe Kagle, a retired art teacher who collected them during a 1960s stint in Taiwan), which he uses for teaching purposes at Reed.

Hell scrolls recount what happens to people after they die: There are 10 levels of Hell, and in each one, a newly dead person spends a certain amount of time (seven days in each of the first seven hells; then 100 days in the eighth hell, one year in the ninth and two years in the 10th). "It's a way of keeping track of where your ancestor is," Brashier says. He theorizes that Buddhist temples might have loaned or rented the scrolls to local families after a family member's death.

On Brashier's website (people.reed.edu/~brashiek/scrolls.html), he remarks that even the concept of Hell can reflect Chinese imperial bureaucracies. For instance, some people are condemned to becoming wandering ghosts, thanks to an error that mixed them with others of the same name and surname. And punishments can be for things like, "Had no concern for paper with written characters on it."

"Buddhism introduced the idea of karma" to China, writes "Buddhist Visions" curator Charles Lachman, "and the idea that one suffers physical punishments for immoral actions committed in life."

Lachman ended up in a conversation with Brashier at a post-lecture dinner last year. That's where the curator found out the religion prof had this fantastic collection, 18 of which Brashier eventually loaned to Lachman for the exhibit. They have a small room of their own off of the large exhibition space, perhaps a room where people can contemplate whether those physical punishments match the "immoral actions."

Some of those physical punishments are particularly gruesome, which of course makes them particularly fascinating, Brashier notes. And for those well-versed in Western literature, thoughts of Dante's Inferno can't help but creep in. "In Hell #4," Brashier says, "there's a vertical rending, where a body is cut in half lengthwise. On the website, I quote Dante where he talks about similar things."

But it's not all blood and guts. If the ancestors somehow earn their way out of samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth), they can cross the Bridge of Seven Treasures and end up, eventually, in Nirvana. For some, of course, looking at the judges and the King of Hell (Yama) provides its own sort of heavenly joy. "It's the spectacle of the thing," Brashier says. "We just can't stop looking at it."

Ken Brashier speaks on "Marketplace Morality — Chinese Hell Scrolls" at 6 pm Wednesday, March 12, in conjunction with the exhibit.

 

Lining Up the Buddha's Nose

Putting together a show with skill, humor and blood

BY SUZI STEFFEN

SEATED BUDDHA (MAITREYA)

Art historians have secret wishes about the art they study. For me, it's always been the desire to run my fingertips over J.M.W. Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed, to feel the thickness of the paint on Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, to stroke the sleek bronze of Constantin Brancusi's Bird in Space.

But for museum exhibition folks like Rick Gehrke, handling the art comes as part of the job. On Thursday, Jan. 10, the staff of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art began mounting the "Buddhist Visions" show, a large task thanks to monumental statues, heavy scroll paintings and a desire to keep the religious items accessible yet safe.

One day earlier, about 20 different people helped move the 3,000 lb. Seated Buddha (Maitreya), a 12th century (Jin dynasty) marble piece from China, from the vault up to the exhibition space. Now the statue surveys the day's events with calm mien despite its missing nose.

Gehrke, the museum's photographer and interim exhibitions manager, brings from the museum's vault a 15th century Chinese scroll called Medicine Buddha and His Court. Gehrke and experienced exhibition temp worker Casey Wanlass (both of them wearing white cotton gloves) lay the scroll on a quilt-covered table in the center of the high-ceilinged space. Slowly, they roll it out to gasps of pleasure from the curator and other museum staff, and they measure it. Asian art curator Charles Lachman points out the script that pin points to the date the scroll was first used.

Then it's time for math: "Put it 19 inches from the floor," says Lachman.

"Nineteen inches … plus … how big was it again?" Gehrke asks. Wanlass responds, and there's some back and forth about math skills. Soon, quickly but carefully, they hang the scroll precisely the right distance from the floor and ceiling on a wall painted a deep blue. A larger scroll, the Death of the Buddha, requires the help of JSMA assistant director Lawrence Fong and a grad student intern. That requires more math and a lot of discussion of ceiling height, not to mention a consideration of the other pieces. "Are we lining up the Buddha's nose to this?" Lachman asks.

Lachman glances around at the pedestals prepared to support small Buddha and bodhisattva statues. Gehrke and others have created barriers to touch that don't include the usual glass boxes. "I wanted to keep vitrines to a minimum," he says. After all, these are religious objects, not just pieces of art.

Sometimes, they require a certain amount of sacrifice.

Jonathan Smith, a tall, lanky preparator, wheels up a cart holding some sutra pages that he has carefully mounted, matted and framed in calming, compact patterns. Lachman points out that they're from the Pure Land tradition, which means that some of the pages are simply the Buddha's name written over and over again — in some places, in blood. "It's a way of generating merit," he says. As Lachman turns to place the framed sutras back on Smith's cart, he slices his finger on the back of the frame.

Lachman could generate his own merit on the precious scrolls, but he grabs a Band-aid from the first aid kit in the elevator, dons white cotton gloves and moves back in to help.