USC Pacific Asia Museum

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Pasadena, California 91101
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USC Pacific Asia Museum

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Visions of Enlightenment:
Understanding the Art of Buddhism

September 29, 2002 through January 12, 2003
[Members Exhibition Preview on Saturday, September 28 from 1-5pm]

Torso of the Buddha
Torso of the Buddha, Thailand, 15-16th Century.
Bronze. Gift of Mr. Edward Nagel.

Visions of Enlightenment explores the basic iconography and symbolism of this religious tradition, using Buddhist imagery from throughout Asia. The paintings, sculptures, textiles, and ritual objects in the exhibition are drawn in part from the museum’s rich collection of Buddhist art, as well as from several local private and museum collections.

In the Buddhist faith, the goal of the practitioner is to attain spiritual enlightenment or spiritual perfection, thus freeing the soul from an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The art of Buddhism has long played an important role in assisting followers in this pursuit. Sculptural and painted images of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities, in particular, have served to aid Buddhist practitioners with meditation, prayer, and self improvement. Over the centuries, the iconography of Buddhism has become increasingly elaborate as Buddhism itself grew more complex and spread throughout the world.

The exhibition is organized into four sections dealing with four aspects of Buddhist art.

The Perfected One: The Buddha The Buddha was a prince who lived in northern India about 2,500 years ago. He gave up his life of luxury to seek a true understanding about life and suffering. He achieved this understanding, or spiritual enlightenment, and then spent the rest of his life spreading his teachings throughout India. In the Buddhist faith, the Buddha is not a god, but a being who has attained a state of spiritual perfection, and images of the Buddha are a reminder that we all have the potential to become Buddhas. The Buddha is usually depicted wearing the robes of a monk and appears calm and free from the troubles of this world.

Compassionate Beings: The Bodhisattvas Bodhisattvas are compassionate beings who are close to achieving their own enlightenment, and thus Buddhahood, but postpone it in order to help others attain enlightenment. Unlike the Buddha, who has achieved release from this world, bodhisattvas remain in this world and offer support to those seeking enlightenment. They are usually depicted in graceful, animated poses and wear crowns and jewelry to represent their continued presence in this world.

Upholders of the Buddhist Law: Guardians, Deities and Holy Men The Buddhist pantheon also includes various deities who protect the Buddhist teachings, or Law, and holy men who spread these teachings. The section includes guardian figures, often shown as fierce deities with grimacing faces and wearing armor. Also included are several peaceful and wrathful Buddhist deities. Wrathful deities, often depicted with fangs and bulging eyes and carrying weapons, are not harmful to followers but instead, protect them against jealousy, anger, and other destructive forces that hinder progress towards enlightenment. Images of some of the Buddhist holy men and teachers who helped to spread the Buddhist faith throughout Asia are also featured.

Objects and Texts for Ritual and Meditation Many objects, images, and texts are used in the meditation, prayers and rituals of the various sects of Buddhism. Some of these objects, such as the incense burners, prayer beads, bells, and water vessels, are used throughout Asia in rituals. Others, such as vajras, mandalas, and other images used for meditation and visualization practices, are employed in the rituals of particular sects. Also featured in the exhibition are two Buddhist altars, one from Tibet, the other from Japan, to show how some of the objects are employed by practitioners of Buddhism.

Yamantaka               Mandala
Yamantaka Mandala, Eastern Tibet, c. 1700.
Ink and colors on silk. PAM Collection.

A selection of photographs of Buddhist life by Don Farber will be on display in the Foyer to the Auditorium.

This exhibition has been generously underwritten by

  • Raymond and Virginia Atchley
  • David and Margaret Barry
  • Paul and Georgianna Erskine
  • Ralph and Angelyn Riffenburgh
  • Wells Fargo

Related Workshops, Lectures, and Talks:

  • Members' Exhibition Preview is on Saturday, September 28, from 1-5pm. Exhibition Curator, Meher McArthur will conduct special members' tours at 2:30pm and 3:30pm.
  • Sunday October 6, 1-4pm Workshop
    Thai Traditional Painting Workshop focusing on Buddha Images
    Thai traditional art depicts the Tosachat (Ten Lives of the Buddha), Ramakien, and several other tales. The study of Thai art is closely related to the Buddha. Participants in this workshop will learn to paint with traditional Thai mural painting and drawing techniques, using tempera on canvas. Vibul Wonprasat of USC Pacific Asia Museum’s Thai Arts Council will instruct this class. The fee for this event is $55 for members and $65 for non-members. For reservations, call 626.449.2742 ext. 31.
  • Saturday October 26, 2-4pm Lecture
    Sonya Quintanilla, Early Buddhist Art from the Ganges to the Hindu Kush

    The beginnings of Buddhist art in South Asia will be discussed in this talk, with an emphasis on contrasting and contextualizing the developments in the Gangetic plains of northern India with those in the northwest frontier regions of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. This event is free with museum admission.
  • Saturday November 2, 2-4pm Lecture
    The Buddha Image in Southeast Asia
    Robert L. Brown, Professor of Art History at UCLA. PAM Adjunct Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art

    The lecture will discuss the earliest Buddha images from Southeast Asia (Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia) and their relationships with those in India. The styles, uses, and meanings of the Buddha image changed and shifted over time, and later examples from Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia will be used to illustrate these changes. The lecture will conclude with a discussion of the famous Emerald Buddha that is today in Bangkok. This event is free with museum admission.
    Sponsored by Silk Roads Design Gallery.
  • Saturday November 9, 2-4pm Lecture
    Mantras, Mudras and Mandalas: Symbolism in Himalayan Art
    Deepak Shimkhada

    The Buddhist art of the Himalayas is essentially symbolic in nature and is rich with esoteric elements. To unlock its mysteries the viewer must use semiotic codes. Since the Himalayan pieces featured in the exhibition are primarily employed in the service of Buddhism, they are religious in nature. Hence, they were produced in large part either by monks who practiced it, or by the artists [who were knowledgeable in Buddhist iconography]. The practitioners, of course, understood the meaning and symbolism but the laypeople did not. Deepak Shimkhada, assistant professor of art and religion at Claremont, McKenna College is an expert in the subject of Himalayan art and will unveil the mysteries of the mudras and mandalas as seen in the Buddhist art of the Himalayas. The lecture will be augmented with recorded music, slides and ritual objects used in esoteric practices by the monks. Free with Museum admission.
    Sponsored by Tom Grayson.
  • Saturday November 16, 1-4pm Family Festival
    Buddha: Faces of Enlightenment Festival

    Join the Himalayan Arts Council for an afternoon devoted to the arts and cultures of Tibet and Nepal. The event will begin with a Moh-Puja ceremony. Following this will be performances by Tibetan artists and a tour with artist, Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo of her exhibition, Sacred Stitches. Visitors may also attend docent led tours of the exhibition, Visions of Enlightenment and view an exhibition of Nepali Life by Sharmila Mali. Ongoing children's workshops include making personal thangkas, a crash-course in Nepali handwriting, and traditional Nepali doll-making. Nepali snacks will be available for sampling. Free.
  • Sunday November 17, 2-4pm Authors on Asia
    Don Farber, Visions of Buddhist Life
    Renowned photographer Don Farber will discuss his experiences photographing Buddhist life in Tibet, Japan, India and other cultures. A display of his photographs is currently showing in the museum’s Foyer Gallery through January 12, 2003.
  • Saturday November 23, 8:30am-5pm Local Tour
    Buddhist Temple Bus Tour
    Local TempleVisitors are invited to attend a Buddhist Temple tour of temples throughout Los Angeles with USC Pacific Asia Museum. Led by Meher McArthur, curator of the exhibition, Visions of Enlightenment, participants will enjoy Tibetan Buddhist chanting followed by visits to Hsi-Lai Temple (Chinese Pure Land), Zenshuji Zen Temple (Japanese Zen) and Wat Thai Temple (Thai Thervada). The tour will focus on the different types of Buddhism practiced throughout Asia. The fee for this event is $40 for members and $50 for non-members. Breakfast and lunch included. For further information or reservations, please call 626.449.2742 ext. 31.
  • Sunday November 24, 2-4pm Authors on Asia
    Meher McArthur, author of Reading Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs and Symbols
    This new book, written by Meher McArthur, Curator of East Asian Art at USC Pacific Asia Museum, and published by Thames & Hudson, explores the iconography and symbolism of Buddhism. It presents the principal symbols, objects and figures of worship in an easy-to-use format that serves as an art-lover's reference tool and as an introduction to the principles of the religion itself. With a comprehensive glossary of key Buddhist terms and a well researched bibliography, this book will be indispensable to anyone with an interest in Buddhism and its arts. Reading Buddhist Art is available for purchase at the Museum Store in hardback for $31.95. Museum members receive a 10% discount.

    Books will be available for purchase and signing. Authors on Asia programs are presented free of charge but reservations are recommended. For information and reservations, please call 626.449.2742 ext. 20.

  • Saturday January 11, 1:30-2:45pm Slide Lecture
    Buddhist Art in Korea & Japan
    with Meher McArthur, Curator of East Asian Art, USC Pacific Asia Museum and curator of Visions of Enlightenment

    This slide lecture will focus on the highlights of Buddhist imagery in Korea and Japan over the centuries. Free with Museum admission. For further information, please call 626.449.2742, ext. 19.
  • Saturday January 11, 3-4:30pm Authors on Asia
    Bhante Walpola Piyananda, Saffron Days in L.A.: Tales of a Buddhist Monk in America
    Teaching stories are integral to many religions, and Buddhism has a particularly rich tradition. Bhante Piyananda, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk in Los Angeles, shares a series of simply told, yet profound tales about his adventures in the West, which range from the tragic to the farcical, but which all serve to illuminate essential facets of Buddhist thought and conduct.
    Books will be available for signing. Authors on Asia programs are presented free of charge but reservations are recommended. For information and reservations, please call 626.449.2742 ext. 20.
  • Related Exhibit
    September 29, 2002 – February 16, 2003
    Sacred Stitches: Tibetan Buddhist Images Pieced in Silk
    by Leslie Rinchen Wongmo

    Known in Tibetan as gˆchen thangka (precious cloth scroll images), or gˆku (cloth images), these pictures are a patchwork or mosaic of fine silk satins and brocades depicting Buddhist figures of worship more...