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Archive for March, 2011

During the first week of March, I made a trip with a friend to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Every first Sunday of the month, admission into the museum is free, with the exception of $5 to see the featured exhibit, of which was themed around Bali.

Bodhissatva Maitreya

I was quite impressed with the collection of Buddhist items, with entire sections dedicated to Buddhism from different time periods and regions. Of all the historical artifacts, I would say what became most apparent and valuable as a take-away lesson was the diversity of Buddha imagery in Buddhism, again depending on time periods and regions. As I walked from one room to the next, I sometimes found myself not sure if I was even still browsing the Buddhist exhibit in seeing images I would initially associate with Hinduism or other Eastern religions.

 

Specifically, this statue of the Buddha surprised me. My first impression, as I think yours might be, is that it looks quite like a certain other religious leader popular and dominant in Western culture.

 

Description of Bodhisattva Maitreya

The description of the statue points out certain details that mark this to be a figure of Bodhisattva Maitreya, namely the princely garments and water bottle held in the left hand. Moreover, with origins  inPakistan, it is no wonder that their regional depiction of Maitreya is much different than the Chinese-derived Buddhist images I’m used to.

And though I enjoyed the informative exhibits and felt the museum overall was well worth my time (especially for free), I did notice one detail near the end of the exhibit that triggered a cringe, especially for such a reputable facility.

Asian Art Museum restroom

What do you notice in the picture below? Yes, you’re right. Those are restrooms right across from Buddhist figures that are as much part of the exhibit as any of the other statues. Really? Could they find no where else to put those items? It seems as though in treating the museum items as representatives of history and culture, the curators seem to have forgotten their original function as representatives of religion and faith, a significant factor to consider regardless of whether placed in a temple or museum.

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Right now I am editing a book of Chinese Buddhist Literature, and as such am chin-deep in Chinese Buddhist lore. I find the stuff immensely fascinating. I think that some Buddhists are much too quick to poo-poo the “cultural” elements of Buddhism. A religion is far more than its scriptural teachings: it is the teachings as read and practiced by its adherents. Buddhism is found in its aesthetics just as much as its orthodoxy.*

That being said, the one thing that shakes me is that, time and time again, it seems like the way to know that a given figure is enlightened, the way to know that they’ve really got it figured out, is when they don’t act anything like one would think an enlightened person would or should behave.

It makes so little sense, but, coincidentally, that seems to be the very thing that such a trope is least interested in making. The concept of the enlightened person as the antithesis of an enlightened person assumes that this latter ideal, the standard and agreed upon garden-variety, halo-wielding enlightened being exists.

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