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Visit to an Asian art Collection
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of the finest Asian art collections that has enlightened and strengthened my understanding in my personal art experience. The Museum itself is an artistic architectural structure that graces the entire block on 82nd Street in Manhattan. Entering inside, I sensed myself going back into an era, into a past where people traded ideas and learned from each other. It is a past, where I still find their works of yesteryears vividly within my grasp, to be remembered and shared as if their reflections of works were cast for the modern devoted learner.
Walking into the Hall of the Buddhas, there was a sense of peace and guidance lingering inside me. The seated Bodhisattva, of the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534), CA.480, from the Yungang, Cave xv, Shani Province, made of sandstone, guarded the entrance. At first, I thought it was a time to be disciplined, but the transcending smile from the statue was a delicate fixed gesture that offered a feeling of welcome. It was not a place to confess your wrongdoings; neither was it a place for me to say, “Buddha I have sinned.” It was a room to purify the mind, the mind that we take for granted without giving it harmony. There was a large mural decorating the main wall called “The Paradise of Bhaishajyaguru”(916-1125). I sat down wandering if the artist of the portrait knew that his work would one day be shared on this side of the world, in my time. Much like Jesus Christ and his followers, the mural is a painting of healers and saviors. It was a large figure of the Buddha of medicine, (Bhaishajyaquru) surrounded by followers of Bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara, and Mahosthamaprapta with twelve guardian generals who have pledged to disseminate the Buddha’s teaching (Tradition of Liao 916-1125, Metropolitan Museum wall plaque).
On the other side, I noticed a standing statue called “Quan Yin” that I have often encountered. It was an Avalokiteshvara from the Sui dynasty (581-618) made of limestone (Metropolitan Museum Plaque). Unlike the Quan Yin statue at home or any of the ones I have seen, it was difficult to pinpoint the gender of this Saint. I often hear people ask if “Quan Yin” was really a female, but throughout my learning experience it was mainly worshipped by women and given the status as female. Perhaps, like Red Azalea by Anchee Min, “Quan Yin” was transformed into a female goddess to promote a heroine, a heroine in Asia.
As I left, I felt a sense of piety, a piety that I must visit again and again. The Hall of Buddhas gave me a sense of peace: a thought of quietness to gather myself, a peace that I have long forgotten or not shared.
The next corridor was an exhibit of ceramics of everyday life in the Neolithic period of the Majlayao culture (Machong phase, CA 2300-2000BC Metropolitan Museum plaque). The pottery of this period expresses similarities in the color and shapes to the art found amongst the indigenous cultures elsewhere in the world. On the side was another room with two guardian lions (6th dynasty 220-589). Lion statues were status symbols for great dwellings that were placed outside of main entranceways to promote good and to stop evil from entering in (Feng Shui, Lam 38). In the room at the Museum they guard lacquer images and woodcarvings of Buddhas. Buddha images executed in dry lacquer were highly valued by the Chinese because of the costly time-consuming process required to produce them (Metropolitan Museum wall-plaque). Possibly the lions do serve a purpose here: to prevent any evil beings from entering a room filled with prized lacquer Buddhas.
The Han dynasty (25-220 CE) exhibit outside in the corridor demonstrated remarkable uniformity. Common pottery such as models of houses and farm structures, were created as funerary objects for burials. The Han period has deeply shaped and cast its roots in contemporary burial rituals. Today, instead of objects made of pottery or metal, paper creations of these model objects are burned for the loved ones to help them settle into their new world during burials.
The next exhibit is a dynasty that the Chinese culture takes great pride in. The Tang dynasty (618-907) was the pinnacle period for the Chinese culture to celebrate courtship with peace and tranquility. It was a period called “The Great Flowering of the Arts,” a time expressed in the earthenware of different colors and figurines. During this period, trade brought foreign influences that caught great changes in the making and decorating of gold and silver. The Tang period also showed that animals are an integral part of humans, the set of twelve calendrical animals placed on human heads played a significant role in the direction of a person (Metropolitan Museum Plaque). Very similar to the immortal animal/ human God worshipped by the Egyptian Pharaohs by appearance, the twelve animals represent certain powers given to a person when he or she is born under a particular sign.
I entered the Japanese corridor in a room filled with dimmed lighting and dark statues. Stillness came upon me, as I gazed around hoping to find someone else. Being unsuccessful, I recalled the book, Learning to Bow by Bruce Feiler, and the fact that there is always another side to the smooth functioning in the Japanese society. I tried to decode the question in my mind, “Why is it so dark?” Then as I slowly looked up, I realized the power within the Buddha’s eyes. This was a power that had taken me by surprise; a power of being afraid and a feeling of being disciplined came into play. It was a power that transmitted signals to me that I would not dare think about anything sinful or evil. The power reflected a balance perhaps between public and private lives, a balance between “hone” and “tatamae” that shapes the Japanese understandings of life. The Buddha’s eyes evoked an inner feeling that one must know that he or she did something terribly wrong to be here. Exiting quickly, I entered the Noguchi fountain; it was a place for gathering calm peaceful thoughts with the elements of nature. The fountain represents life. As water begins its journey out, it is in equilibrium with the world. The flow of water molds itself to the structures it comes to encounter. It flows and does not know how to stop; it is full of life that one cannot hear or see. Its calm forces give balance when it is needed and it profoundly creates disasters when no one can predict it. I listened to the dripping of tingling water at the bottom; however, it is not the end, only a beginning of tranquility, and a beginning of life that recycles endlessly in the Noguchi fountain.
The South and Southeast Asian collections are traces of Hindu and Buddhist culture. The migration of Buddhism in Pakistan in the first, second, third, and fourth century showed that the Kushan culture worshipped a more European image of Buddha and Bodhisattvas (Metropolitan Museum wall plaque), while Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand had images relatively very similar to India’s. The stylistic characters of images of Buddhism throughout different cultures are changed into the features of the people in that culture. A Thai Buddha resembles more the features of the Thai people, and a Pakistan Buddha exhibits resemble more European features with round big eyes and curly hair. If one could only perceive what Buddha really looked like! Perhaps, the saying, “Where could one find Buddha? Was answered, “Buddha is within thy self,”(Buddhist movie, 1997 UEE.) is because of these feature changes.
The Metropolitan Museum visit was an experience that gave me a better understanding on Asian world cultures. What interested me the most was the “Hall of Buddhas.” In this room I found myself trying to connect to peace and the welcome that was past due in my life. Shutting my eyes gave me a sense of being safe in a sanctuary with the guardians: Buddhas, Quan Yin, and seated Bodhisattvas statues being so near. From the Sui dynasty (581-618), the “Quan Yin” statue reminded me of the readings in class about Red Azalea. I have always thought that this was a female saint; however, after seeing and observing it, maybe I’m wrong. Another place in the museum that evoked my feelings was the Japanese collection. The Japanese Buddhas were mentally more lifelike, because of the details of the color in the eyes. One could mistake some of them for demons and evil beings. However, they are all doers of good for mankind. The Japanese exhibit felt like a place of court where people came in to be cleansed, forgiven and punished after their evil deeds. Overall, my learning experience has taken me to a higher level of understanding that diversity within the same beliefs in Buddhism are mainly different by the way they migrated and the way Buddha is represented in the features and looks in another culture. However, whatever the culture might be, the teachings of Buddha are all shared and learned the same way:
“To do no evil.”
“To cultivate all good.”
“To purify the mind.”
“And this is the teaching of the Buddha.”
(Shakyamuni Buddha, Grace Gratitude Buddhist temple, wallet card