War and Peace at the Metropolitan

A fundamental precept of Buddhism is the ability to reach Enlightenment – an awakened state of spiritual alertness – in a single lifetime. Avenues to this higher state of being include the chanting of mantras and the performance of mudras – ritual hand gestures.

Another path to Enlightenment, one often used in conjunction with mantra-singing and mudras, is meditation upon particular religious diagrams known as mandalas. These extremely complex rituals are usually taught and performed within the presence of a highly trained master. A select few of these original mandalas are now on display at a The Metropolitan Museum of Art in an exhibit entitled “Japanese Mandalas: Emanations and Avatars.”

At the very center of these often tremendously colorful mandalas rests the personification of all Truth: Buddha Dainichi Nyorai. All around the Buddha rests derivations of his being, most of whom are seated in the meditative position. These highly detailed painted scrolls come in gold, red, green and blue and can take the form of several feet in height and length, some even dating back to the twelfth century C.E.

Also on display at this exiting exhibit is the fascinating Scroll of Mudras, an eleventh century guide to meditative hand gestures formations (mudras) and several figurines and statues of Buddha and other deities that are over one thousand years old. This exhibit abounds with colorful scrolls and detailed paintings, and offers a prime example of how one of the world’s oldest religions contemplated the divine.

Also, Peaceful Conquerors: Jain Manuscript Painting, a similar exhibit is currently being featured. Jainism, a famously pacifistic manifestation of Buddhism, considered manuscript painting a religious endeavor, but not because its meditative enhancements. Thanks to these medieval traditionalists, details of myths and folklore such as celestial scenes of birth and love are portrayed on these delicate manuscripts – some of which were complicatedly painted on textile.

Although, like the one before it, the primary focus of this exhibit is the kaleidoscope-like manuscripts, it also features small decorative figurines of Buddha. The most captivating one is a seventh century copper alloy meditating atop a throne supported by lions. Bearing the markings of an Enlightened Being, he sits in yogic position aloft his throne with an enviously tranquil countenance. This exhibit is another wonderful example of the artistic and contemplative energy to be found in Far-Eastern religions.

Yet, lest one think that all Far-Eastern culture resembles a serenely peaceful monolith, the Metropolitan has provided the viewer with a remarkably contrasting exhibition entitled Art of the Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armor. Calling it “the first comprehensive exhibition devoted to the arts of the samurai,” the exhibit combines the finest variety of Japanese weaponry, including swords, archery equipment and firearms. The items on display date from ca. 1156 until 1868 – the year of the abolition of samurai culture.

This exhibit includes the original full armor of the infamous sixteenth-century fighter Honda Tadakatsu, as well as an amazingly precise facsimile made for a young member of his family. The most interesting element of this exhibit is the elaborately decorated warrior helmets. Reaching over a foot and a half in height, this ornate headgear appears to be more suited for a fashion show than a battle.

This trio of exhibits is an exceptional opportunity to experience a kernel of the vast treasures that Oriental culture has to offer. Although very different in nature, the exhibits allow for a more refined perception of Oriental traditions and non-Western ways of life that date back thousands of years.

The Commentator


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