Mantras are verbal formulas that are repeated by Buddhist practitioners. How did the Chinese go about depicting them visually?
Eugene Wang describes the accidental discovery of the crypt located in a pagoda. Inside was a wooden box adorned by the Four Heavenly Kings, a metal relic, and two woodblock prints with mantras written in Sanskrit and Chinese.
Wang describes important developments in eight century Chinese Buddhism, including the increasing prominence of “Great Sun Buddhas.” Practitioners thought they could become Buddha by practicing three techniques: mimicking his hand gestures, or mudras; chanting mantras; or through the process of visualization.
Wang compares the quest of eighth-century practitioners to “become” Buddha to a virtual reality project used to teach tai chi at the University of California Berkeley.
Blazing Light Buddha imagery became prominent in Chinese Buddhist art. Wang tells the mythological story of Rahu and Ketu and discusses deities in the Buddhist pantheon.
Wang explains how the woodcut prints found in the tomb in Fuzhou relate to the three realms. He explains the process of cleansing one’s mind by chanting in an otherworldly language.
The Four Heavenly Kings are associated with transporting beings from one realm to another. Wang alludes to Hungarian-born architect László Ede Hudec who built notable 20th century structures in Shanghai.
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The Buddhist mantra or spell (dharani) is to be chanted, but it was a common practice for the medieval Chinese to illustrate this verbal formula. What visual form could possibly capture the imagined efficacy of a dharani? The matter became more complicated when the Indian mantra met the Chinese spell. Were they visualized or pictured differently? Could they work together? What was the division of labor between them? To make the matter even more complicated, there were many cases when the visual renditions of verbal spells were hidden in places where they could not be seen. Why bother to make pictures that have no audience?
Length: 60 minutes
Copyright date: ©2013
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