Object as Insight: Japanese Buddhist Art and Ritual

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, June 1996)

Object as InsightCrystals, chants, meditation — all the elements of New Age are present in  “Object as Insight,” an exquisite little show of age-old Japanese Buddhist art at  Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The center of the show is a simple raised cherrywood altar, with a statue of a golden Buddha in swirling robes, seated in full lotus position on a lotus flower.

The altar is adorned with a few beautiful objects that enhance the Buddha’s presence: a pair of candlesticks, a golden bowl for flowers, brocade banners, sacred texts. The room has room a hushed and heightened feeling of a shrine. “We are setting aside a space, demarcating the world of the Buddha,” says Anne Nishimura Morse, the MFA’s Associate Curator of Asiatic Art, who co-curated “Object as Insight” with her husband Samuel Crowell Morse, a Professor of Fine Arts at Amherst College.

Most museum shows, by necessity, pull works of art out of the context for which they were originally made. But the Morses have tried to recreate the physical context — and spiritual experience — of a Buddhist temple, gently guiding  viewers  towards the Ah of enlightenment and the Om of inner peace..  “Everything here is of the highest degree of elegance and aesthetic beauty,” says Anne Morse, who spent five years gathering different objects from thousands of different temples and museums.

“Each article is incredibly beautiful, but it’s only when all the articles come together, evoking the presence of the Buddha, that you can understand Buddhist art.”

The Morses chose seventy exquisite objects from the sixth century to the present: temple banners of silk, bronze, and gold, dangling with beads and mounted on the tongues of fierce dragons; bodhisattvas with serene, all-embracing smiles; golden flower baskets for carrying lotus petals to strew on the floor to purify a sacred space; ritual bronze chimes adorned with peacocks and floral arabesques; and gorgeous monks’ robes woven in rich brocades in patterns of butterflies, lotus flowers, and irises rising from swirling pools of water. “In India, the Buddhist monks wore robes made from tattered  pieces of fabric recycled and sewn together, but in Japan, where many of the monks were members of the aristocracy, and they wore robes of the most sumptuous brocades,” says Anne Morse. “Tattered in name only, they are an incredibly elaborate patterned patchwork, finely woven of silk and golden papers.”

Many of the objects are inscribed with sacred texts: mandalas, sutras and scrolls with lovely lyrical calligraphy splashed with gold; tiny books of the Lotus Sutra hidden inside a portable shrine; a poem written in gold ink on indigo paper, so the letters look  like little stars, twinkling in the dark night sky. Others have the aura of magical objects: devotional images, like a rock crystal reliquary filled with tiny sparkling stones, and a “flaming jewel” — a clear, transparent “wish-granting” crystal ball resting on a golden lotus, surrounded by tiny golden flames. Most amazing is the 74 foot long “Rosary for One Million Recitations,” with hundreds of beads all strung together. Some of the beads are very large, and if you look closely, you can see tiny sculptures of meditating Buddhas floating inside.

Six Buddhist monks came from Japan to celebrate the opening of  “Object and Insight”. They arrived chanting, wearing gorgeous gold brocade robes like the ones on the walls, and the deep, resonant sound of their chants still seems to reverberate through this illuminating show — serene, intense, and deep.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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