Many approaches to the study of Buddhism and media overlap with traditional Buddhist studies methods such as textual analysis, art theory, ethnography, and ritual studies, as well as studies of material culture. Media studies may concern itself with contemporary media messages and forms, but it need not be limited to the realms of mass media and popular culture. In foregrounding media and material cultural, scholars can trace the development and flow of Buddhism as a global religion and cultural phenomenon. Such studies also invariably draw attention to the lived aspects of the religion: How do Buddhists enact or perform Buddhism? How do Buddhists communicate ideas about Buddhism both to other Buddhists as well as to outsiders? And how do these communicative acts change one’s understanding of Buddhism? Such questions go beyond the merely textual, historical, or philosophical and call us to answer deeper questions about the nature of Buddhism in the contemporary, global age.
Scott A. Mitchell
Sharon A. Suh
Film serves as one of the most recent contributions to the variety of Buddhist visual forms that can offer a perspectival shift in interpretation for its viewers akin to other meditative devices such as mandalas. As a relatively recent subject of study, Buddhist films present innovative opportunities to visualize the Buddha, Buddhism, and the self in nuanced ways. Buddhist film can be understood as a spiritual technology that reshapes vision, and the act of viewing becomes a ritual process and contemplative practice. Ranging from films with an explicitly Buddhist theme and content to more abstract films without obvious Buddhist references, Buddhist films have become the subject of scholarly studies of Buddhism as well as occasions to reimagine Buddhism on and off screen. Buddhist films found in Asia and the West have proliferated globally through the rise of international Buddhist film festivals over the past fifteen years that have increased both the interest in Buddhism and the field of Buddhism and film itself. Most studies of Buddhism in film indicate that what constitutes a Buddhist film continually evolves and, as such, can be seen as a contemporary instantiation of the skillful means of the Buddha.
Erberto Lo Bue
Tibetan Buddhists view images primarily as religious supports and secondarily as works of art. Buddhist images are aimed at improving one’s karma by earning merit in view of future existences, at removing obstacles, and at creating wellbeing. Their commissioning may be occasioned by various circumstances, including illness and death, besides the need for a specific religious practice. Since they are primarily expressions of faith, their age has a limited importance and their originality hardly any: a religious image is valued less for its rarity and aesthetic value than for its apotropaic virtues and for its particular connection with a holy place or master. Hence the application of Western post-Medieval aesthetic criteria to the appreciation of Tibetan art ought to be complemented by an appreciation of the specific religious meaning of an image, the interpretation of its particular symbolism, and the aim of its client within the specific cultural and historical context in which it was produced. This article is preceded by a historical introduction sketching the development of Buddhist art and architecture in Tibet from the 7th to the present century, mentioning the role played by foreign artists, mostly Newars from the Nepal Valley, and dwelling on particularly significant monuments, such as the monastery of Sàmye (8th century) and the Great Stupa of Gyantsé (15th century), representing the two highest moments in the history of Tibetan religious art and architecture, the Pòtala being basically a fortified palace. The first section, on Tibetan Buddhist art, deals with iconography and iconometry as well as materials and techniques, contrasting the prevalent approach to the subject by collectors, and even art historians, with that of Buddhist masters and devotees, pointing out the importance of the consecration of images, without which the latter remain worthless from a religious point of view. The second section, on Tibetan Buddhist architecture, deals with the construction of religious buildings, their materials, their religious functions and their symbolism. Although stupas are referred to throughout the article, they are dealt especially in this section. Sanskrit terms, whether in phonetic transcription or in transliteration, prevail in the first section because the relevant terminology is largely the Tibetan translation of Indian Buddhist terms, Tibetan terms in phonetic transcription and transliteration prevail in the second section, except in the part dealing with the stupa.
Sonya S. Lee
Wall paintings are integral to the built environment of the Buddhist world. Images of deities, celestial spheres, and biographical narratives of all sorts constitute an integral part of Buddhist architecture, serving as the material and conceptual interfaces between art, society, and the ecosystem that link their viewers to the world they live in and realms in their imagination. Buddhist wall paintings are meant to make abstract doctrines and concepts comprehensible through visual means while promoting key moral lessons to devotees in vivid and memorable ways. They provide donors with an opportunity to express piety and accumulate merit for creating a beautiful home for the Buddha that would enable his followers to follow his footsteps and at the same time impress nonbelievers. Though far from a vehicle of individualism, the medium of wall painting challenges artists to be innovative with age-old iconographic formulae and compositional schemes in order to make the tradition anew for their own time and place. This important artistic medium developed in tandem with the emergence of Buddhism as a world religion during the 1st millennium ce. To underscore the remarkable flexibility that Buddhist concepts and practices exhibited as they were adapted into disparate local cultures, the present study will focus on major sites in the Taklamakan and Gobi Deserts in China to explore the inter- and intraregional connections in the dissemination of Buddhist wall painting across Eurasia.
Michelle C. Wang
The oasis city of Dunhuang lies at the eastern end of the southern Silk Routes, in Gansu Province in northwestern China. In the 2nd century BCE, Dunhuang was established by the Chinese Han dynasty as a center for military operations and trade. Over time, Dunhuang became an important hub for multicultural trade as well as for the transmission of commodities, ideas, and religions. The status of Dunhuang as an important regional center for Buddhism is demonstrated by a wealth of paintings and manuscripts that provide crucial insights into the unfolding of religious praxis and developments in visual culture over many centuries. A few centuries after the establishment of Dunhuang as a military garrison, the construction of cave shrines in the area began. Four major groups of cave shrines were constructed in the Dunhuang region: the Mogao, Yulin, and Western Thousand Buddhas caves, and the Five Temples site. The most well-studied of these are the Mogao 莫高, or “peerless,” cave shrines, which are located 25 kilometers southeast of Dunhuang at the eastern edge of Mount Mingsha 鳴沙山 (Mountain of the Singing Sands). From the 4th to the 14th centuries, 492 man-made caves were carved from the sandstone cliffs, stretching 1,680 meters from south to north. They were painted with over 45,000 square meters of mural paintings and installed with more than 2,000 painted clay sculptures. To the north, 248 additional caves were carved. Mostly unadorned, the northern caves served as habitation chambers for monks. In addition to the mural paintings and inscriptions in the Mogao caves, more than 50,000 manuscripts and portable paintings were discovered in 1900 by the caretaker and Daoist priest Wang Yuanlu 王圓籙 from one cave, numbered Mogao cave 17, popularly though perhaps problematically known as the “library cave.” These objects were dispersed in the early 20th century to library and museum collections, the most prominent of which are the Stein collection in the British Museum, British Library, the National Museum of India, and the Pelliot collection in the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet and Bibliothèque Nationale de France. For this reason, the study of Dunhuang art and material culture encompasses both objects held in museum and library collections worldwide as well as mural paintings and sculptures located in situ in the cave shrines. Bringing these two bodies of material into conversation with one another enables a nuanced understanding of Dunhuang as a religious and artistic center, focusing in particular on the Mogao caves.
Craig R. Prentiss
With the slow realization that race was not a category in nature, but rather the fruit of social imagination emerging from colonialism, scholars in the late 20th century shifted their focus to the cultural elements feeding that imagination, including religion and the arts. Although most studies in the field address fairly conventional constructions of religion and the arts (two categories that, like race, have also been destabilized), some studies reveal the potential for these three categories to be co-constituting. Studies addressing religiously themed music, including spirituals, gospel, hip-hop, and a significant portion of country music, have shed light on the ways in which these genres encode and inform racial paradigms. Portraits in theater, dance, and film of ideas and practices associated with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and other social groupings have proven active sites for the production of influential, and often competing, conceptions of race. Stereotypes linking religious and racial classifications are perpetuated as well as challenged in these artistic media. Given that the racial imagination in the United States is articulated using the language of color, painting and sculpture have been instrumental in conveying vivid connections between race and religion. For instance, many paintings celebrating Christianity’s triumph over America’s indigenous people concurrently depicted white dominance over them as well. A theological system rooting skin color in divine decree, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did in its Book of Mormon, helped assure a fair-skinned and fair-haired Jesus would populate its art. The politics of Jesus’ color continued to be played out in painting and sculpture in the United States to the present day, and exemplifies the interaction of racial, religious, and artistic categories.