Truth revealed in art

Honolulu to host first
overseas exhibit of
"Sacred Treasurers of Mount Koya"

By Joleen Oshiro

Think of Buddhist art, and what probably comes to mind is a statue of the Buddha sitting in repose, eyes closed, legs crossed, face serene, index fingers and thumbs forming that meditative "O." He is the picture of enlightenment.

Yet today, the Honolulu Academy of Arts opens an exhibition of Buddhist art that displays statues of fierce creatures with teeth bared, hair standing on end, wearing necklaces of skulls. Some have three heads and numerous arms and legs. Not the stuff most folks associate with the contemplative religion.

But in fact, the "Sacred Treasures of Mount Koya: The Art of Japanese Shingon Buddhism" reflects a vast collection from a Buddhist sect that incorporates art into its beliefs. "Sacred Treasures" displays 91 paintings, sculptures, textiles, applied arts and printed works dating back from the Heian period to the Showa period (11th to 20th centuries).

Shingon Buddhism, referred to as esoteric Buddhism, was introduced to Japan in 816. Its headquarters is located on Mount Koya, where 120 temples currently exist.

"In the 18th century there were more than 1,000 temples on Mount Koya. Therefore, tremendous amounts of art were produced there. Almost 5,000 national treasures of Japan are owned by Mount Koya," says Willa Tanabe, dean of the School of Hawaiian, Asian and Pacific Studies and a professor of Japanese art history at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. (National treasures are objects of artistic and historical value deemed "treasures" by Japan's government.)

'Sacred Treasures of Mount Koya'

The Art of Japanese Shingon Buddhism

Where: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 900 S. Beretania St.
When: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 10
Admission: $7 general, $4 military and seniors, free for children 12 and under
Call: 532-8700

The exhibit comes in celebration of Shingon's 100th anniversary in Hawaii and marks the first time any part of the Mount Koya collection has been displayed outside of Japan. In fact, opportunities to view Mount Koya art are so rare that 1,000 Shingon from Japan are coming to Honolulu to view the exhibit.

THE REASON BEHIND all this emphasis on art lies in Shingon's belief in the Dainichi Buddha. Dainichi was never mortal; instead, he is a universal presence, the essence of truth that underlies every Buddha throughout history and every living being in the universe.

"It is a standard Buddhist idea, and a standard religious idea, really, that the final truth is beyond words. But Shingon says the truth can be expressed, and therefore be experienced, through art," says George Tanabe, a religion professor at UH. (He is Willa Tanabe's husband.)

Because art is an aesthetic experience, "it is a way to gain access to truth that is beyond ... intellectual understanding," he says. "It is an appeal to the emotions to inspire a spiritual experience.

"Given that approach, production of art is important."

Rituals are integral to Shingon, and one of the ways art has historically helped Shingon priests in their rituals is through meditative practice, George Tanabe says.

"In Shingon meditation, the objective is to merge with deity. But before you can do that, you have to be able to see them in your mind's eye. But before that, you've got to see them literally," he says. "That's why even though the Dainichi (the principal Buddha) is abstract, he can be portrayed in art.

"Art is the vehicle through which vision is formed."

Buddhist art demonstrations

Buddhist sculpting and scroll and mandala painting by visiting Japanese artists

Where: Honolulu Academy of Arts courtyards and galleries
When: 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. today and Sept. 8; 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 to 3 p.m. Tuesday
Call: 532-8700

Unlike exoteric Buddhists, who believe in reincarnation, esoteric Shingon Buddhists believe in enlightenment in this life. This idea of spiritual transformation in the here and now fuels the Shingon belief in a diversity of deity which, in turn, inspires their diverse art.

"There is an openness in Shingon," George Tanabe says. "There are dozens and dozens of deities, including deities from Hinduism and Shinto."

Willa Tanabe describes a particular mandala that shows a deer pictured along with Dainichi and other prominent Buddha. The deer represents a Shinto shrine.

"If Dainichi is present in everything, then even Shinto gods could be brought (into the artwork)," she says. "Shingon is not at odds with other religions; they can work together.

"The various deity represent different aspects of the fundamental Buddha."

The fierce deity who wears skulls around his neck and snakes for a bracelet, for example, protects believers as they walk their path to enlightenment.

"The gentle statue of Kobo Daishi (the sect's founder in Japan) and the passionate deities with three heads, six arms and four legs ... portray different aspects of life. There is strength and passion, not just passivity, in Dainichi," she says.

ONE WONDERS HOW the Shingon masses, the vast majority of whom have never seen Mount Koya art, much less meditated on them, will connect to the pieces.

"A lot of the pieces are actually everyday items used in prayer," says Reyn Tsuru, director of the Shingon Mission of Hawaii. "Yes, the art was created for aristocrats, but the everyday lay person will be able to relate to the items."

On a more fundamental, universal level, Tsuru says, the works are the products of religious labor.

"To express religious devotion is to manifest it in art form," he says. "Anyone can identify with that life expression of faith.

"I think people will be shocked" by the art on display, he admits. "Most people in Hawaii think that Buddhist art is black-and-white ink drawings. But our passions, our feelings of fear and regret (are depicted) artistically here. And in reality, Buddhism is a living teaching based on daily life. It addresses all of our evils and our coming to terms with turmoil.

"Our message is one that's timeless."

'Family Day Program'

With Buddhist art demonstrations; storytelling, ink brush painting and printmaking projects for children

Where: Honolulu Academy of Arts
When: 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Sept. 8
Admission: Free
Call: 532-8700
Also: The academy is offering guided tours in Japanese for groups of 10 or more with advance reservations; 532-8726

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