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Three Ways of Seeing Buddha: In an Active Temple, in a Museum, and in a Book

Three Ways of Seeing Buddha: In an Active Temple, in a Museum, and in a Book

admin / December 20, 2018

Seeing a contemporary statue of the Buddha in an active temple, in a museum, and in a book each offers a different perspective. The experience is different, and seeing the same subject in these three settings allows me to realize how important context is. It also has helped me realize that the more I know about the background of art, the more I can appreciate it, even if it may seem silly or strange.

The Temple building:

The Mahayama Temple on Canal Street in lower Manhattan is a rather colorful building from the outside. It is a relatively new building faced with yellow stucco. The walls are decorated with low relief representations of ceremonial gates that are found in traditional Chinese communities.

The overall effect is very visually striking, and drew my eye. However, it is drastically different from the way that houses of worship from some other faiths present themselves to the street and the neighborhood. Rather than being discreet in design, quiet, and blending in with the surroundings, this house of worship advertises its presence enthusiastically.

The entryway door, however, is not particularly dramatic or tall. Once inside, the room is scented and quiet for the most part. A long table is set with chairs. This suggests to me that at other times, either a ceremonial or communal meal is enjoyed, or perhaps planning meetings go on in this space. This gives me the impression of a community that worships here and perhaps does good works in the neighborhood, or in the city more widely, from here as well.

I noted a scent of something unfamiliar and sweet in the air. Several gentlemen in robes were chanting, as well. It was not crowded when I was there, but the room could have held a good-sized group.

The room:

The visual focus of the room is the large golden statue of the Buddha set on a raised platform. Before the statue, on a table and on the platform of the statue, are small oranges, pineapples, other fruit, and flowers. On the wall behind him are several sets of vertical decorative motifs that appear to be stylized buildings. These decorations are executed in gold. There is also a circular motif of what appears to be flame around his head. There is neon lighting outlining this flame design and a mirror that reflects that back of the Buddha’s head. Everything looks quite new.

Beside the Buddha on each side are conical constructions of lights. These immediately evoke the memory of Christmas trees for me. However, they must fulfill a different in purpose and meaning, except for the common use of light to honor a sacred space or time.

The statue:

Seated with one foot on the other knee, with his the ring finger of his upraised right hand touching his thumb, the Buddha rests his left hand open in his lap. His eyes are open, his mouth has a slight smile, and he wears a draped garment. His ear lobes are prominent, and his features are distinctly Chinese, or Sinitic. In fact, the modeling of the features is almost cartoon-like in its simplicity.

The Buddha himself wears the draped garment that is considered an allusion to the clothing that Indian laborers used to wear. His earlobes’ length is an allusion to his having grown up wearing precious jewels as earrings. His hair seems to be curled, which refers to his life after leaving home and cutting his hair. He has a jewel in the middle of his forehead, referring to insight. His body is not heavily muscled, but he holds himself erect comfortably, as is traditional.

He sits in a lotus flower. The lotus flower is symbolic of the soul rising to perfection and enlightenment. It manages to do this out of the mud of humanity’s desires. This symbolizes the goal of Buddhist practice.

One hand is held in what seems to be the mudra for preaching. The other seems to be in the pose of meditation. There is a spiritual meaning contained in the fact that one foot is placed above the other.[1]

My response to the Buddha statue:

The feeling I got from the Buddha and this setting is one of quiet and serenity. The scent of what must be incense gave me a sense of being in a special place apart from the usual smells and atmosphere of my daily life. The sound of the chanting also conveyed a sense of separateness.

The Buddha statue in this setting is a very intimate companion. He is close enough to touch. He is a very big companion, however, and taller than the viewer. I felt smaller and less important as a result.

In the relatively low light of the room, the gold of the statue glowed as though it was lit from inside. It drew my eye to it and nowhere else in the room.

The fruit gave off a delicious smell that made my mouth water. If one is willing to pay a small amount of money, there are little rolled up papers with inspirational sayings from Buddha printed on them. Thus, all my senses were touched.

However, without having prepared myself by acquiring some knowledge of the symbolism, the important details of the statue would be lost on me. There is very little to explain the symbolism to someone like me, who is not already a Buddhist. Instead, some of the distortions of the human body that the statue displays simply look silly to me. The decorative elements of the room, especially the neon-lit flame around the head, are jarring in the extreme to someone coming from a different religious tradition.

However, even having a small amount of information about the symbolism opens up all sorts of ideas and trains of thoughts. In fact, just knowing that every element of the statue’s appearance ( and the items around it) are significant[2], makes a difference to my view of it. My perception of the image changes immediately. It opens up doors in the mind to ask questions and look more closely. It encourages me to make inquiries of the worshippers there in the temple

For example, the name of the temple gives me a clue that this Buddha is a Mahayama Buddha, which is a branch of Buddhism that teaches that all people have the potential to reach enlightenment. This is contrasted with Nihayana Buddhism, which is mostly practiced in Southeast Asia today. That branch of Buddhism teaches that only a few people can attain enlightenment. The Mahayama branch is more inclusive and accessible for more people.

Overall, the statue and its surroundings need a certain minimum of knowledge of all the symbolic elements to be appreciated to the fullest. Otherwise, it is all rather bewildering and, to be very blunt, somewhat odd looking. However, with understanding, the symbols are beautiful, poignant, and meaningful even to someone who does not share the practice or belief.

Buddha Vairocana (Dari)[3]
China, Tang dynasty (618–907)
Gilt arsenical leaded bronze; lost-wax cast
H. 8 in. (20.3 cm); Diam. (at base) 5 3/4 in. (14.6 cm)

This is very different from the experience I had seeing a Buddha image in the Metropolitan Museum[4]. All objects there, from whatever country or era, are separated from their cultural and religious contexts. This makes any object into a work of art rather than an object of worship.

The building and room:

The Metropolitan Museum’s Buddha entitled Vairocana Dari (meaning luminous)[5], for example, unlike the one on the temple, is displayed in a sterile and deliberately bare space. It is consciously free of any stimulus to the senses such as smell, or sound, or taste or touch (of course, I could hear other people and smell their perfume, but that is accidental, and people try to be quiet and not disturb others).

Unlike the lighting in the temple, where all the objects on the platform are lit, the ambient lighting in the Museum is very low everywhere except on the object itself on display. This focuses my attention on the object all by itself. The display helps me to look at it closely, and from all angles. This is a perspective that I don’t have access to when the statue is sitting on a platform at the front of a room.

The museum statue is closer to my eye level. The temple Buddha is largely above my eye level. This changes the relationship of me to the statue. The elevated location of the temple Buddha is apparently meant to evoke for the viewer the elevated soul of the Awakened One. That relationship between the statue and me as the viewer is absent in the museum.

The setting:

There is no context for the piece, culturally, religiously, or any other way. It is treated as an art object and not an object of veneration. It is given the same value artistically as a ceramic pot or wall hanging in the same area of the museum.

The statue:

The Museum’s Buddha was sculpted in a very similar pose to that in the Mahayama Temple. It is much smaller than the temple Buddha, and it could fit inside a refrigerator. It also is seated with one foot on top of the other. The hand pose or mudra is different and both hands are raised. The eyes are less clearly looking at the viewer. Instead, they seem to be more inwardly focused. The mouth is not as smiling. The earlobes are more extreme, as is the shape of the eyes. The hair is short, as in the temple statue. The Buddha sits on a stylized lotus.

My response:

Given that there is very little information available around the statue, I have to make my own assessment of the statue. Having seen the temple Buddha, I began to question why the pose of hands of the museum Buddha was different and why the features were arranged differently.

This is a very different feeling space and arrangement from that which I found in the temple. In the Mahayama temple, the Buddha is the whole reason for the room being there at all. Also, all the senses are reached and addressed at once.

There are smells and sounds and foods (which remind one of tastes), and there are things to touch (the rolled up sayings of Buddha that one can purchase) in the temple. The museum, on the other hand, very carefully tries to weed out all these things.

The result is that the viewer looks at different characteristics of the statue. For example, the workmanship becomes more important to look at in the museum. This particular Buddha dates from between the 7th and 10th century CE. It is cast of bronze and gilded. It is thus of value as an example of the sophisticated technology of the Tang Dynasty.

The statue as displayed in the museum shows up as a sculpture, not just as a statue. This is because it is displayed in the same building as all sorts of other sculptures from all over the world and all eras. It is impossible for me not to evaluate it as a sculpture, apart from its sacred meaning.

For example, I wonder how the museum Buddha reflects the aesthetics of the era of the Tang dynasty. I wonder, was it considered a good example of sculpture at the time? Since it was cast by the lost wax process, this means that all the detail, for example, the texture of the figure’s undergarment, and the folds of his drapery, must have been created in the original wax model from which the casting was taken. This represents a high level of craftsmanship.

None of these questions occurred to me in the temple. The setting of the museum, however, prompts such questions immediately.

Labeling is another way in which my temple experience of the Buddha is different from the museum. The labels very carefully make no value judgment of the piece. Most of the time, there is no one to ask.

Thus, unless I come to the museum with a knowledge of the iconography of the poses and attributes of the museum Buddha, the museum statue offers me even less insight into its spiritual or cultural significance than does the temple Buddha. At least at the temple, if I am not shy about it, I can ask other people what the iconography and symbols mean. They may not know, but some do.

Finally, when I was visiting the temple, I felt certain that many of the other people there at the same time were active Buddhists, or at least interested in the Buddha as a spiritual figure. In the museum, however, I felt sure that nearly no one looking at the statue was a Buddhist, or cared about the spiritual meaning of the statue.

The Buddha statue in the textbook on page 93[6] is described as being one of the earliest images of the Buddha from China. It dates from the 4th century CE, which is some 400 years before the statue in the museum. This statue is also gilt bronze, like the one in the museum.

The experience of seeing a Buddha in a book is very removed from its original use. The book tells us that many images of Buddha were buried with important people. They were meant to ensure their happiness in the next world[7]. Without reading about the image, none of this information is available.

Additionally, there is no sense of scale. The text also notes that this was a small figure. That would have made it easy to bury with other grave goods. Obviously, a buried statue would not look as it does in the picture.

The experience of seeing such an image of Buddha in a book does not give me much of any feeling, for example, a spiritual feeling, at all. It is merely a pleasant picture. This may be because it does not have the immediate appeal to the senses that the temple statue offers. It does not offer the spotlighting of its decorative beauty that the museum offers, either.

However, there is some useful information in the book. This makes it more interesting. I am interested in the fact that this is the earliest known image of the Buddha.

I ask myself, why did the artist choose these details over others at this early time of Buddhism being followed in China? Why were these details important? It is the intriguing information accompanying the picture in the book that inspires my questions about the statue.

Having looked at these three somewhat similar images of the Buddha in three very different settings, I see that my impression of a piece of religious art is affected by its setting and presentation.

In a modern setting of worship, such as the Mahayama Temple, I do not arrive there, necessarily, with any understanding of the symbolism. However, with a little bit of hint from someone in the temple, at least I know that symbolism is present. I could easily ask other people there for more details.

In the context of a worship space, the oddities of the Buddha’s image, which can seem so peculiar, but which are traditional, can make sense. It is my responsibility as a viewer to inform myself in this setting.

In the museum, I have an even greater challenge in understanding the symbolism used in images of the Buddha. There is very little to draw from. I have to be equipped ahead of time when looking at a piece of art such as the museum’s statue, Vairocana Dari , or it is somewhat meaningless except as an object of great antiquity.

When looking at a piece of religious art in a book, such as the 4th century piece in Art in China[8], the piece is even farther removed from its ‘appropriate’ setting.

In the case of the piece in the book, it seems, as noted above, that it was meant to be buried in a grave. The small size of the museum piece makes me wonder whether this was also meant to go into a grave as well. I would not have made this interesting connection unless I had experienced all three settings.

After having seen similar Buddha statues in three different ways, I find that in order to understand a piece of religious art (but perhaps this applies to other types of art as well), I should view examples of it in as many different ways as possible[9].

I have learned from this exercise in viewing art that the setting and context do make a difference in how I see a piece of art. I have also learned that in order to understand and appreciate a piece of art best, I should learn as much about the background of the art as possible beforehand, no matter where I am going to see the art.


BuddhismGuide.com. “Vairocana.” BuddhismGuide.com. 2011. http://www.buddhism-guide.com/buddhism/vairocana.htm (accessed April 2011).

Clunas, Craig. Art in China. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

ReligionFacts.com. “The Lotus Symbol in Buddhism.” ReligionFacts.com. 2011. http://www.religionfacts.com/buddhism/symbols/lotus.htm (accessed April 2011).

Unknown. Buddha Vairocana (Dari). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

ReligionFacts.com. “The Lotus Symbol in Buddhism”. ReligionFacts.com. 2011. Accessed April, 2011.
(ReligionFacts.com 2011)
Unknown artist of the Tang Dynasty.
Buddha Vairocana (Dari). (New York City, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 618-907 CE), imaged at http://www.metmuseum.org/works_of_art/collection_database/all/buddha_vairocana_dari/objectview_enlarge.aspx?page=4&sort=6&sortdir=asc&keyword=buddha%20china&fp=1&dd1=0&dd2=0&vw=1&collID=0&OID=60025210&vT=1&hi=0&ov=0. Accessed April 19, 2011.
(Unknown Tang dynasty (618–907))
BuddhismGuide.com. “Vairocana”. BuddhismGuide.com. 2011. Accessed April 2011.
Picture number 42. Clunas, Craig. Art in China. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997), 93.
(Clunas 1997, 91)
(Clunas 1997, 93)
I would even like to see the exhibits at the Tibetan museum on Staten Island, because I hear that the setting there is more like a real temple in Tibet.

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