Two feet tall and a prized possession of the Harvard
Art Museum, the 13th century wooden sculpture of Prince Shotoku Taishi at Age 2 is a diminutive figure in a world dominated by giants. Carved by an anonymous pair (or perhaps many pairs) of hands in a Japanese monastery during the Kamakura period, the figure of the legendary prince, believed to be the founder of Buddhism in Japan, is a phenomenon in the world of art.
Art connoisseurs, collectors and curators have waxed eloquent on the craftsmanship. Numerous documentaries talk about its provenance, the remarkable journey that it made from Japan to the US, and the 70-odd dedicatory objects that were packed inside its miniature frame. Stacks of academic papers speak of the impact the prince has had on the idea of Japan and its complex world of prayer and ritual.
Few, however, speak of the intangible legacy that the object carries within itself or pay equal attention to the gentle footprint of stories that bind Shotoku the Shakyamuni to three ancient cultures. The prince most likely lived in the early 7th century. The sculpture represents a moment in his life when he was two years old, when he is believed to have taken two steps forward, folded his hands and uttered his first words as a prayer to Buddha
and a relic (the eye of Buddha) manifested within his palms. The figure was carved in a monastery of Buddhist nuns and used in prayer rituals as evident from the marks on the body and the dedicatory offerings stuffed into its hollow form.
The object and the story of the prince reflects an invisible chain of ideas that link to the ancient world. The tangible often comes enveloped in a quilt of intangibles that are not highlighted or celebrated enough.
The eye, for instance, is universally regarded as a symbol of the sun (Indian, Egyptian, Aztec, among others) and is one of the most potent forms of divinity.
Even more interesting are the stories told and patterns traced by the objects found inside the body of the prince. A page of the Lotus Sutra, which expounds upon a religion born in India and fostered in China and further developed in Japan. A set of beads from India that represent that body of the Buddha
and a tiny icon of the Japanese god, Aizen Myoo, who is an embodiment of rage but worshipped for his passion. Aizen Myoo is shown as a flaming red figure with six arms, two of which hold a bow and arrow. His iconography draws upon the Tibetan deities and also borrows from the Hindu god of love, Kama.
Museums and galleries across the world are full of such objects and paintings. The stories they tell are numerous and complex and layered but interestingly (and rarely noticed) they are representatives of a world where ideas were shared and identities overlapped with no respect for barbed wires and national boundaries.
While museums and academia marvel at the art, ritual and belief systems that the objects embody, it is time perhaps to retell the stories that inspired these creations. And to shine a light upon a world where the multicultural ethos was more like a puzzle where not all pieces fit neatly, but they did make a pattern.
This is a story that the art world needs to tell today, especially as communities seek to harness its restorative power. Under the brutal impact of the coronavirus, many governments and institutions have sought ways to alleviate and address the pain of the people. Already the conversation around creating a lasting legacy for the unimaginable losses inflicted by the coronavirus has veered towards memorials and commemorative art works to help people make sense of the loss.
For instance, towards the end of 2020, London Mayor Sadiq Khan set aside space for a garden to honour the dead, the Uruguay president began work on a memorial monument and in the US, temporary installations popped up in the form of murals and video collages.
But we need to ask ourselves if this is the best way to unburden the world of its grief? Instead, if one were to dip into the intangibles, the stories that live within the public institutions of art and culture, we may create a more intimate and lasting memorial. As Neil McGregor writes (Living with the Gods), “a society with a belief in something beyond itself, a narrative that goes beyond the immediate and beyond the self, seems better equipped to confront threats to its existence…”
This is an idea that several sociologists have expanded upon too. Emile Durkheim and many others have spoken about the belief systems that different faiths share and how these stories create a sense of community. These stories, no matter how ancient they are, are timeless and can help create a sense of being together in a moment of crisis. And at the same time, perhaps, create healing spaces that reflect the borderless world of stories and beliefs.
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