A considerable western bias exists in the American education system. History, society, and culture are all taught through the skewed ideological lens formed by the very civilizations that we learn about. A great deal of western thinking and ideology arise from the Greco-Roman societies and the Judeo-Christian ethics. That being said, the great big world that is taught in these classes no longer seem so big. This exhibit consists of two pieces from Buddhist art: “Buddha Calling the Earth to Witness” and Borobudur. Both of these pieces were created between the 9th and 12th centuries C.E and reflect the ideological influence of Buddhism. The purpose of this exhibit is to display and explain through art the misalignment between western and eastern (in particular Buddhist) philosophy.
Buddhism as a religion and an ideology stem from the teachings of Siddhartha Guatama. The details of his life are still largely up for debate, but historians unanimously agree that he was the descendant of a high-ranking chieftain or oligarch born near the eastern border of India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. Buddhism differs from the dominant monotheistic regions of the west in many ways, the first being that there is no creation deity. In both religions, life is viewed as suffering. However, according to the four noble truths in Buddhism, this suffering is identifiable and controllable even in the physical world. This core difference in beliefs lead to a massive difference in the self-perception of Buddhists versus Christians. Buddhism rejects the idea of an entirely permanent soul. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to attain enlightenment through this attainment, one achieves spiritual nirvana. Buddhists believe in reincarnation based primarily on karma. Each life in Buddhism is viewed as an individual attempt to attain nirvana.
Art exists as a medium primarily to express a thought, belief, or value. Thus, it’s no surprise that the vast ideological differences between western and eastern philosophy are apparent in their artwork. In depictions of Siddhartha Guatama and other Buddhas to follow him, they are shown in meditation and with a vague happiness to suggest enlightenment. Traditionally, one of their hands is shown making contact with the ground to commemorate the original Buddha’s defeat over the evil demon Mara. This connection also emphasizes the importance of the interconnectedness of the universe in Buddhism. With regards to religious monuments in Buddhism, the structure is a representation of the Buddha himself, and perhaps that of the universe as well. There is a square base to represent the Buddha’s throne and the earth element, a dome to represent the Buddha’s body in meditation and the element of water, the conical spire on top of the dome represents the head of the Buddha and the element of fire, the upper lotus parasol and the golden tip represent the crown of the Buddha and the elements of air and space. Originally, there were ten stupas built to house the remains of Siddhartha Guatama, but as time has passed, many more have been built as places of pilgrimage and worship. The purpose of the stupa is not as concrete as religious structures in other religions. The structures act as reflections of the body and thus the soul, and just as these two are imperfect and malleable, so too are the stupas. Ultimately, Buddhist art shows a deep misalignment between western and eastern philosophies with respect to the soul, the origins of life, and physical life.