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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