Buddhism, an endlessly evolving faith, older than Christianity or Islam, is the fastest growing religion in Australia. The central icon, Buddha, the ‘Enlightened One’, is an instantly recognised figure, synonymous with compassion and wisdom. Through wonderful and hugely varied works of art in the exhibition, Buddha, the world of Buddhism is opened.
As Buddhism evolved over time and in different places many Buddhas emerged, each inhabiting his own realm. There are as many Buddhas as there are grains of sand on Bondi Beach.
Drawing on the knowledge of many experts, including that of the Director, Edmund Capon; Buddhist scholars Adrian Snodgrass and David Templeman; and curators Pratapaditya Pal and Jackie Menzies, the Art Gallery of New South Wales has organised a major exhibition of more than 120 works of art depicting Buddha, dating from the first through to the twenty first century. The works are from some of the world’s foremost public and private collections including the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
The exhibition presents images of the myriad individual Buddhas and Buddha Lands conveying the incomprehensible immensity of Buddhahood. These images are from sites along the routes of Buddhism – from India to Central Asia, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Thailand, eastwards to China and Japan, and south to Australia.
It is impossible to represent the full extent of the Buddhist realm: each of the many aspects of this exhibition, from early Indian representations of the Buddha, to contemporary Australian practice, can be but token – each a taste of a world complete in itself, said Jackie Menzies, Head Curator of Asian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and curatorial co-ordinator of Buddha.
Born around 2,500 years ago, Buddha was an Indian prince who renounced his life of luxury to seek wisdom and enlightenment. The exhibition opens with an overview of the life of Buddha, a life lived and re-lived by innumerable Buddhas in different times and different worlds. Potent images focus on the Four Great Events: his miraculous birth from the right side of his mother, his Enlightenment, his First Sermon, and finally his entry into Nirvana.
Images from the three main schools of Buddhism, the Theravada, Mahayana and Tantric, are dispersed throughout the exhibition.
Crowned images of Buddha, symbolising his role as Universal Monarch, images relating to Buddhist cosmology and to the concept of the Cosmic Buddha, and images of Buddha as the Master Physician, Healer of the Body as well as the Spirit, are other sections within the exhibition.
Serene and contemplative Buddhas absorbed in meditation
Depictions of the Buddha show him as a World Renouncer, rejecting distracting material concerns and focussing on the attainment of Enlightenment. Such images exude compassion and wisdom, whilst gaining merit for those who commission and make them.
Gilded Thai Buddhas emanate serenity and assurance, their surfaces glowing with gold leaf. Regal Cambodian Buddha-Kings, assured Chinese Cosmic Buddhas and gentle Japanese Paradise Buddhas demonstrate the culturally specific interpretations of the idea of the Buddha, reinforcing the pervasive presence of Buddhism throughout Asia.
Mystical and multitudinous Buddhas of the Mahayana school who live in paradisaical universes of light, incense, jewels, flowers and music
In the Mahayana school of Buddhism – the ‘Greater Vehicle’ – predominant in Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan, the Buddha is revealed in myriad forms and worlds. The popularity of the Mahayana doctrine lies in its recognition that enlightenment and eventual re-birth in the Buddhist Paradise could be achieved by all sentient beings. The Buddha Lands of the Mahayana school are paradisiacal universes radiant with light and jewels, fragrant with the scent of flowers and incense, and filled with celestial music.
Transcendent Buddhas from Tibet
The Vajrayana or Tantric school of Buddhism is a development of Mahayana, most familiar now through the teachings of the Dalai Lama and the rich and complex art of Tibetan tangka paintings. These Buddhas belong to the Five Wisdom Families that guide one on the path to Enlightenment.
In this exhibition we have sought to convey some of the magnificent concepts and imagery created under the inspiration of Buddhism, an uplifting, compassionate and spiritually sustaining faith. The images demonstrate how Nirvana is reassuringly attainable by all, said Jackie Menzies.