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Two Berkeley exhibitions follow Buddhism around the world

Wednesday, Dec 17 2003
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In 1937, Theos Bernard, a young American lawyer and scholar, traveled to Tibet in search of wisdom and the secret teachings of Buddhism. Anointed there by lamas as the reincarnation of a Tibetan saint, he was soon initiated into the esoteric practices of meditation. Back at home, his lectures introduced and popularized yoga to Americans. But 10 years later, en route to an obscure monastery in western Tibet, Bernard was murdered along with his young Sherpa, their bodies tossed into a river by Hindus in one of the violent uprisings that followed the partition of India and Pakistan.

Bernard left behind a rich trove of diaries, photographs, and Tibetan art that has happily found its way to UC Berkeley. Some of the works are now on view for the first time in two shows at the university's museum, part of an ongoing project called "Awake: Art, Buddhism, and the Dimensions of Consciousness." The first exhibit, "Awakening," focuses on Buddhist paintings from Tibet, China, and Japan -- works that underscore both the religion's broad historical influence on Asian civilization and its evolution into remarkably distinct local adaptations. The second show, "The Garden," takes a more subjective and unconventional approach to its subject; it features an imaginative assemblage of art objects -- Eastern and Western -- that suggests parallels between Buddhist and non-Buddhist expressions of meditation, salvation, and compassion.

The project is a bold effort by Curatorial Associate Stephanie Cannizzo to explore some East-West crossovers without the baggage of art historical categories. Her thoughtful selection invites viewers to consider thematic links among diverse pieces from different cultures and eras: an ancient Chinese incense burner, Tibetan wood block prints, a sketch by Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Indian erotic miniatures, 20th-century American photographs, and abstract color field paintings. "The Garden" is arranged within the gallery in the shape of a Buddhist mandala, or meditation guide; pieces are paired to make subtle, often playful visual analogies.

The show opens with a dramatic image of salvation, a 14th-century Japanese hanging scroll, Parinirvana: Entry of Buddha Into Nirvana. The scroll depicts the sage's death and attainment of supreme enlightenment. On his green and gilt bier, the horizontal Buddha is surrounded by a crowd of weeping mourners from many walks of life: his disciples, or arahats; temple guardians with fierce expressions; courtesans; and commoners. Above them, five female deities called raigo descend to welcome Buddha's soul and bear it to paradise. Below this crowd is an Eastern equivalent of the Peaceable Kingdom: pairs of elephants, lions, blue herons, hawks, locusts, crabs, and a strange phoenix with a human head. The ensemble suggests reincarnation and the promise of universal emancipation from suffering -- a welcome message for Buddhists, for whom the ultimate goal of nirvana means liberation from the endless cycles of death and rebirth that imprison all sentient beings.

A Tiepolo sketch, Flying Female Figure, whose simply, exquisitely drawn subject seems to float on the page, suggests some mystical flight or ecstatic state. Its billowing drapery resembles the clothing depicted in a series of delightful Tibetan wood block prints showing monks meditating in trees with their robes flowing in the wind. Tibetan Illustrated Texts on Monastic Arts and Sciences, pages from a religious instruction manual, comes from the Theos Bernard collection. Both the Tiepolo sketch and the Tibetan wood block prints present images of the search for transcendence, a quest shared by Christian mystics like St. Theresa and these meditators.

Images of monks in natural settings are common Buddhist fare. They hearken back to the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, and his epiphany while meditating under a bodhi tree in India. The Indian prince had left the comforts of his sheltered aristocratic life to wander in the forest as a beggar, searching for the causes of human suffering. He realized that neither the decadent court life of his aristocratic past nor its opposite, the extreme self-deprivation of the yogis, was the correct path to enlightenment. Instead, he pursued a middle way that incorporated meditation and compassion toward all beings.

The Buddha seated on a lotus blossom or in the lotus position is a familiar icon, but an anonymous, untitled Indian painting of a seated Buddha drawn in ink and gouache directly on a papal-tree leaf is a captivating variation on this theme. The heart-shaped leaf is integrated into the image: Its veins and spine become the backbone and radiating aura of the meditating figure, seated on a large frond. This same posture is echoed in a sumptuous 19th-century Tibetan copper, bronze, and gold sculpture, Shakyamuni Buddha, which commands the center of the gallery. His penetrating, fixed gaze reflects his effort to heighten the awareness of everyone around him.

Cannizzo's exhibition adopts a mandala configuration, with the gold Tibetan Buddha as its navel. A mandala is a diagram or visual aid used in meditation. It can represent the physical, mental, and spiritual realms that comprise our existence -- obstacles a seeker must overcome to reach enlightenment. Behind the sculpture, on the back wall, are Indian miniatures and scrolls depicting the palace life and sensuous, material realm the historical Buddha abandoned. These images evoke the world of the senses: Malasri Ragini shows two women, adorned with jewels and wearing finely embroidered saris, exchanging lotus flowers -- a worldly counterpoint to the lotus images of contemplative Buddhas.

The mandala's erotic realm is suggested in Imogen Cunningham's photo Tower of Jewels, showing the splayed petals and unfolding fiddlehead pistils and stamen of a tumescent white magnolia. Its conelike interior mirrors the protuberance called an usnisha -- the topknot on the head of the Buddha. The usnisha signifies the attainment of wisdom, and appears in most images of Buddha in the show.

Several works in "The Garden" explore the idea that meditation can induce altered states of consciousness. Perhaps the most eloquent of these contemplative images is also the simplest, a watercolor by the contemporary American artist Geoffrey Hendricks, Laebo Island, Denmark Sunday 10 July About Noon. Hendricks, who designed the cover for John Lennon's Imagine album, gives this small waterscape a minimalist touch -- it's just a series of delicate, pale blue washes loosely applied to the white paper surface. The image has a Zen-like quality that's both abstract and immediate, and contrasts with the specificity of the title, as if the artist were noting the atmosphere and feeling of the place rather than a literal time and location.

I recommend viewing "The Garden" before "Awakening." The latter is a concise but more academic presentation of Buddhist paintings, its well-crafted text panels full of valuable information. (By contrast, the works in "The Garden" get no explanation or extended textual aids other than titles and dates, so their meanings are left to the viewer.) "Awakening" underscores how Buddhism reached every corner of Asia; no other religious or philosophical movement had a comparable impact. Yet everywhere it traveled it was adapted and transformed to include local traditions.

The comical, eccentric faces of the Buddha's disciples in the hand scroll attributed to Chen Hengshou, Lohan, seem rather like caricatures, reflecting the later Chinese view of Buddhism as a foreign cult, something to be treated with suspicion. (Indeed, its followers would suffer episodes of repression that included the destruction of temples and artworks.) Ultimately, they gave the faith a Chinese face, infusing it with native ideas that would form the basis for the Chan sect -- what became Zen Buddhism in Japan.

In Tibet, Buddhism evolved into its most complex, priestly, and ritualized form -- which is apparent in the exhibit's four thangkas, intensely colorful cloth hangings depicting Buddhist saints, deities, and mandalas and used as meditation devices. These remarkable images, gifts made to Theos Bernard by Tibetan teachers, include Wheel of Life, which represents Tibetan ideas about reincarnation. The Buddha is said to have devised this mandala image as a means of revealing to his disciples various cycles of death and rebirth confronting the human soul. Realms of deities, ghosts, demons, and animals appear alongside manifestations of the Buddha. The figure Mara (who represents death) grasps a giant wheel. Its concentric circles contain figures representing the impulses, cravings, and attachments that entrap us in existence: So long as we continue to be born, we cannot escape Mara's grip. Only through the practice of detachment can we find salvation. The mandala contains the core imagery and tenets of the Tibetan Buddhist path.

If you are drawn to Buddhism, meditation, or Eastern philosophies, these two small, well-conceived shows illuminate their subject in compelling ways. "The Garden" speaks from the heart of Buddhism; "Awakening" speaks to the mind. Both are a delight to the eye.

About The Author

Carl Nagin

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