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Buddhist Art of Myanmar at the Asia Society

Bagan. Death of the Buddha.
Bagan. Death of the Buddha.

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.

Seated Buddha.
Seated Buddha.

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.

Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.
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