Visualizing Enlightenment: Decoding the Buddhist Iconography

The Focus Gallery

March 20 through July 24, 2015

Amida Buddha 2
Amitabha, Japan, Kamakura Period (1185-1333): First half of the 13th century, Wood, lacquer, gilt, Gift of Sharon Pierce in loving memory of her son, J. Christopher Johnson, Conservation funds provided by Sharon Pierce and the Collectors’ Circle, 2013.6.1

Visualizing Enlightenment focuses on an exceptional Amitabha (or Amida Buddha) from the Kamakura period (1185-1333) in Japan. Over 6-feet tall, Amitabha is a rare example of such large scale in existence and was executed using the technique yosegi, in which a single image is carved from multiple pieces of wood that are joined together from the inside. Amitabha, “Limitless Light” in Sanskrit, is the Buddha of the western Pure Land and one of the most widely worshipped Buddhas in the Mahayana tradition due to its doctrine that assured salvation to commoners.

Buddhist art comprises a tremendous range of objects from paintings to sculptures to ritual objects. Images such as Amitabha have served as powerful pedagogical tools to help visualize the teachings and philosophical ideas of the religion. The intricately carved body halo and elegant lotus pedestal where the Buddha gracefully stands give a glimpse of the purified Buddha-field of Amitabha. The calmness and compassion of the Buddha’s facial expression gently affirms that all sentient beings can attain salvation through their faith in him. Every feature of the Buddha, from ushinisha(the bump of knowledge) to elongate earlobes and mudra (hand gesture), carefully follows the existing canon to illustrate him as an enlightened being, thereby encouraging the worshippers to follow his teachings. This small exhibition aims to explain some of the most commonly known iconography in Buddhist art with this prime example of Amitabha from the 13th century.