Making Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art

Excerpt: Curator Adriana Proser on the relationship between Buddhist art and sacred site. (1 min, 57 sec.)

Excerpt: Curator Adriana Proser on the relationship between Buddhist art and sacred site. (1 min, 57 sec.)

NEW YORK, March 15, 2010 - Throughout the Buddhist world, the objects that resonate most closely with Buddhist pilgrims are those related to the sacred sites, the journey, merit, mementos and sacred bonds, says Adriana Proser, Asia Society Museum curator.

At a lecture held on the opening night of Asia Society Museum’s Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art, and introduced by Tom Phelps, director of the Division of Public Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities, Proser spoke on the sites, the pilgrims, and the journeys that have inspired Buddhist art across Asia. 

The historical Buddha Shakyamuni was “the quintessential Buddhist pilgrim," said Proser. She presented sculptures from India and ancient Gandhara that depicted the Buddha at the sites of his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, and his first sermon at Sarnath. These major places of pilgrimage are “teeming with pilgrims,” to this day. When the Buddha passed away, his remains were placed in beautifully crafted reliquaries and enshrined in funerary mounds known as stupas. The stupas and reliquaries became new, widespread pilgrimage sites.

Proser showed images of pilgrims and examples of the precious equipment they carried to sacred stupas, mountains, and monasteries.  A print by Katsushika Hokusai depicted climbers on Mount Fuji, making the pilgrimage understood as “travel from this world of the living to the world of the dead and back.”  Tibetan pilgrims carry prayer wheels that generate spiritual merit and offer protection from “falling off of cliffs or being attacked by wild animals.”

What is a pilgrim to do if a pilgrimage site is inaccessible? Mandalas, diagrams of sacred sites, allowed a Buddhist believer to carry out a journey “without his or her feet ever touching the ground.”  Those who did make a demanding trip brought back mementos, such as votive plaques stamped with images of the Buddha. Devout Buddhists might be buried with their souvenirs. As Proser concluded, “a pilgrim’s journey … will continue past death to enlightenment.”

Reported by Lara Netting

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