Buddhist Art of Myanmar at the Asia Society
By Bobbie Leigh
“Buddhist Art of Myanmar” at New York’s Asia Society is a pathway to a deeper appreciation of Buddhism. You can view this exhibition as an art historical show full of treasures that have rarely been seen in the United States. At the same time, it could also be an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the role of the Buddha in Theravada Buddhism, the doctrine practiced today in much of Southeast Asia.
After British colonization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in 1962 Myanmar was closed to the world by a military junta. The country’s name, Burma, was tossed out along with the chance for scholars and tourists to wander freely. Today the military regime is still the powerhouse in Myanmar although some democratic reforms are in place.
Perhaps 90 percent of Myanmar’s 53 million people are devoted followers of Theravada Buddhism, literally “the Doctrine of the Elders.” It is based on what is considered the oldest record of the Buddha’s teachings. This ancient school of Buddhism stresses monasticism, scripture study, and gaining merit through good works and meditation.
In one section of the exhibition, the dark walls low lighting, and chanting of young monks reciting holy texts gives you the sensation that you are in a religious space rather than a gallery. Visitors also see film clips of novice monks getting their heads shaved and walking the streets dressed in crimson robes with alms bowls in hand. The monks and the monasteries where they live depend on local people to support them either with food and other necessities, while those who give alms earn merit for the next life.
In every gallery, you are surrounded by images of the life of the Buddha in stone, clay, bronze, marble and lacquered wood. They depict him in many forms from birth to the end of his life at 81. Among the most poignant is an 1198 large sandstone panel depicting the death of the Buddha. Until recently, it was in its original temple niche in southern Myanmar. The gods Brahma and Sakka appear above the reclining Buddha on the left with a row of gods on the upper right and a row of monks beneath. The Buddha lies on his right side and instead of wearing the flowing robes of a prince encrusted with jewels and a topknot as in other images. He wears the simple robes of a monk. His right hand supports his head and his eyes are slightly opened as if he is meditating. Perhaps his subtle not-quite-smile reflects his liberation from the cycle of rebirths and achievement of nirvana.
Although the exhibition is organized thematically rather than chronologically, you get a good idea of the Buddha’s historic life with images depicting his birth from the right side of his mother, Queen Maya, to the cutting of his long hair with a sword as he leaves behind his life as Prince Siddhartha. After leaving his father’s palace, the Buddha soon realized: “These locks of mine do not belong to a monk.” The 11th or 12th century sandstone image shows his unwound, twisted hair usually associated with the iconic Buddha topknot.
A few pot-bellied demons, amusing mythic characters, are the most beguiling creatures in this exhibition. Their roles were to block the Buddha’s path to spiritual enlightenment. According to legends, the evil king Mara sent demonic warriors to distract Siddhartha from his meditations. Two of Mara’s demons are depicted with weapons drawn. They are 15th century, green- glazed earthenware tiles, dubbed “beastly brutes,” in the catalog.
Among the more benign mythic creatures on view are a pair of wood, lacquer, gold leaf and glass figures, half-human and half-bird creatures, dressed in court costumes. Graceful in ballet-like poses, they are considered welcoming figures on pagoda platforms, reminders to the faithful of the celestial regions that await those who keep the precepts.
Asia Society: 725 Park Avenue, NYC, asiasociety.org; on view through May 10.