Buddhist Arts of Asia from the Earlham College Art Collection
Buddhism, the world’s fourth-largest religion, began in the 5th century B.C.E. with the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. After a spiritual search involving six years of intense asceticism and yogic meditation, he is believed to have realized enlightenment and the status of “Buddha,” or “awakened one.” By the 3rd century B.C.E., King Ashoka embraced the fourth noble truths and eight-fold path of Buddhism, and the teachings of Buddhism gradually extended east, reaching Japan by the mid-sixth century.
While the first art associated with the faith was aniconic, the depiction of the Buddha as a human figure emerged in the Indian subcontinent by the first century B.C.E. As the works in this exhibition demonstrate, various forms of figurative art have performed as visualizations of Buddhas, salvific figures, disciples, monks, and guardians. Along the stages of Buddhism’s establishment across Asia, local belief systems and artistic traditions merged with Buddhist iconographies and new forms of art were born.
The scope of arts associated with Buddhism is broad, and this exhibition includes iconic art as well as art which references Buddhist themes. Modern artists such as Maeda Josaku have reimagined iconographies such as the mandala using the contemporary medium of the silkscreen print. And contemporary Zen Buddhist priests such as Shibayama Zenkei have continued the longstanding East Asian practice of using ink and brush to create dynamic calligraphic works of art.
When Shibayama Zenkei visited Earlham in 1971 he attended two Quaker meetings. It was recorded that the inspiration he felt from those experiences prompted the calligraphic work displayed here. His brushed words capture a Zen precept that can also be more broadly understood. The objects here represent only a sample of Earlham’s Asian arts collection, a shining jewel indeed.
- Meghen Jones, Teaching Fellow in Japanese Studies