Buddhism has millions of followers worldwide. Throughout the regions where it is practiced, countless shrines, temples, and pilgrimage sites stand in honor of the figure known as Avalokiteshvara, who is the embodiment of compassion. Yet there has never been a wide-ranging, pan-Asian examination of his iconography and significance in an American museum. Embodying Compassion in Buddhist Art: Image, Pilgrimage, Practice, which opens at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College on April 23, is a first-of-its-kind exploration of this supremely important Buddhist luminary.
Known by many names—Guanyin, Kannon, Chenrezig—and taking varied forms, Avalokiteshvara is represented in this exhibition by 30 masterpieces of Indian, Nepalese, Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese art. The sculptures, scrolls, paintings, textiles, texts, and ritual objects on view are lent by esteemed institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum, The Rubin Museum of Art, the Asia Society, and The Newark Museum, augmenting objects from the Art Center’s permanent collection and other sources (For a full list of objects in the exhibition, please see the checklist).
A catalogue featuring 70 color and black-and-white illustrations will accompany the show, underwritten by the Agnes Rindge Claflin Fund. In addition, an Embodying Compassion smart phone/tablet application includes an acoustic guide to the exhibition and numerous other features created by students at Vassar College. An innovative, interactive website presents high-resolution reproductions of the works, as well as dozens of comparative images and a rich array of interpretive texts, videos, maps, and a glossary of terms. The user can access these tools to continue learning about Avalokiteshvara beyond the walls of the galleries. The show remains on view at the Art Center through June 28, but the published and media resources will be available indefinitely.
The exhibition and its related programs have received generous support from The Henry Luce Foundation, the ASIANetwork, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, and a variety of private donors.
“Embodying Compassion will introduce visitors to Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist envoy of benevolence and altruism,” explains Karen Lucic, professor of art at Vassar College, and curator of the exhibition. “Bodhisattvas are somewhat comparable to Christian saints, and they each have specific jobs to do. Avalokiteshvara's job is to spread unbiased compassion for all.” With outstanding works from South and East Asia, the exhibition will give visitors a rare opportunity to compare diverse representations of this Buddhist deity from disparate times and places. They will see how Avalokiteshvara took on many different faces and names while at the same time adopting a fluid gender identity. “A wide variety of postures, gestures, attributes, and attendant figures will be on display. For example, audiences will observe how Indian sculptors conceived of Avalokiteshvara as a lordly, commanding figure, while Japanese painters rendered the same Bodhisattva as an androgynous contemplative,” says Lucic.
The exhibition is divided into three thematic segments: Image, Pilgrimage, and Practice.
Image addresses how historic representations of Avalokiteshvara vividly model actions that embody compassionate wisdom. The objects in this section—sculptures, hanging scrolls, and thangkas (paintings on fabric)—demonstrate key visual attributes and meanings, showing how the original Indian iconography transforms and takes on new, efficacious associations as it spreads throughout Asia. Especially significant is the shift from a princely figure in the Indian context to a more maternal, nurturing presence as Avalokiteshvara became established in China, Japan, and elsewhere in East Asia.
Pilgrimage includes scrolls and sculptures that transport the visitor to Avalokiteshvara’s sacred sites: the Jokhang Temple and Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet; the Saigoku pilgrimage route in Japan; and Guanyin’s most important center of worship in China, Putuoshan island. “A crucial theme here is the resurgence of Buddhist pilgrimage practices in recent decades, especially in places such as Lhasa and Putuoshan, whose temples and shrines were leveled during the Cultural Revolution,” Lucic points out. These two sites now brim with activity in terms of architectural reconstruction, the erection of re-imagined sacred buildings, and the throngs of pilgrims who now visit these places.
Practice highlights key objects in relation to daily spiritual activities, such as reciting scriptures, prostrating before statues or paintings, or engaging in elaborate techniques of visualizing the deity. “The ‘worship’ of this figure in the artistic realm relates to widely practiced rituals such as mantra recitation or the spinning of prayer wheels,” says Lucic. “Both art and practice aim to purify devotees of impediments that block their potential for unbiased compassion, so that they themselves can emulate Avalokiteshvara.” The objects included in this section—such as prayer wheels, prayer beads, mandalas, devotional statues, and calligraphic texts—establish this Bodhisattva’s key role in assisting devotees to attain Buddhism’s most sacred goals.
To celebrate the exhibition’s opening, three lamas will construct a Tibetan sand mandala over a five-day period in the Villard Room of Vassar’s Main Building. The lamas will also ritually dismantle it at its completion. There will be daily viewing hours to watch the process of planning, consecrating, executing, and dissolving the mandala, which will occur at the heart of the Vassar campus. The completed circular mandala (actually made of powdered minerals instead of sand) will be about three feet in diameter. This event will take place April 21-26, with an informal talk about the significance and practice of mandala making at 5pm on April 21. A colorful finale on April 26 will involve dismantling the mandala, sweeping up the mineral particles, and carrying them in procession to pour into a body of water. The sand mandala is sponsored by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, Asian Studies Program, and the Religion Department.
A full list of exhibition events is below.
Creation of a Chenrezig Sand Mandala
Tuesday-Sunday, April 21-26, 10am-1pm and 2-5pm daily
Main Building, Villard Room
Featuring Tibetan Buddhist lamas of the Drikung lineage: Ven. Khenpo Choephel, spiritual director of the Three Rivers Dharma Center, Pittburgh, PA and originally from Drigung-til Monastery, Tibet; Lama Konchok Sonam Karushar, spiritual director of Drikung Meditation Center, Boston, MA and originally from Katsel Monastery, Tibet; and Dr. Hun Yeow Lye, founder and spiritual director of Urban Dharma North Carolina, Asheville, NC. Dr. Lye holds a PhD in religious studies from University of Virginia and is a Vajra Master in the Drikung Lineage.
Tuesday, April 21
Lecture: Dr. Hun Yeow Lye, “Mandalas—Circles of Awakening: The Meaning, Uses, and History of Mandalas in Buddhism.”
Main Building, Villard Room
Dr. Lye is the founder and spiritual director of Urban Dharma North Carolina in Asheville, NC.
Exhibition Opening Symposium and Reception
Thursday, April 23
Symposium: “Many Faces, Many Names: The Bodhisattva of Compassion” Taylor Hall, room 203, 5-6:30pm
• James Mundy, The Anne Hendricks Bass Director of The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Welcoming Remarks.
• Karen Lucic, professor, Department of Art, “Introducing Avalokiteshvara’s Journey.”
• Karen Hwang, assistant professor, Department of Art, “On Compassion for the Ungrateful: A Fifth-Century Painted Commentary Along the Silk Road.”
• Michael Walsh, associate professor, Department of Religion, “A Space for Compassion; Or How to Visit a Buddhist Temple.”
• Sherry Fowler, associate professor, The Kress Foundation Department of Art History, University of Kansas, “Printing Piety on Paper: Kannon Images from the Saigoku Pilgrimage in Japan.”
Opening Reception, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, 6:30-8:00pm
Dissolution of Mandala and Procession
Saturday, April 26
Main Building, Villard Room
Thursday, April 30
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
Perry Yung, A Concert of Shakuhachi Flute Music
Perry Yung has studied shakuhachi—a uniquely Japanese form of bamboo flute—with prominent masters of this instrument in Japan and the US. He is a master flute-maker and has studied historical shakuhachi performance in the context of early Zen Buddhist musical traditions. Yung has performed on soundtracks for films and television; he appears frequently on stage, most notably with Vangelis in Doha, Qatar, in 2012. He has received artist grants from the Japan United States Friendship Commission and the Asian Cultural Council. His concert will create a meditative soundscape in the galleries that will complement the serene works in the Embodying Compassion exhibition.
Saturday, May 2
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
An afternoon of hands-on activities, including mandala-making, inspired by the Embodying Compassion exhibition. Free. Drop-ins welcome. Best suited for children ages 5-10.
Curator’s Gallery Talk
Thursday, May 14
Curator Karen Lucic will introduce visitors to the many forms of Avalokiteshvara in the Embodying Compassion exhibition and discuss how the works have inspired countless individuals throughout the world.
To schedule a group tour, contact Margaret Vetare, Coordinator of Public Education and Information at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, firstname.lastname@example.org, (845) 437-7745.
Complementing the installation at the Art Center is an Embodying Compassion website. Visitors to the website will discover an expanded context for the objects on display. There they can also download a smart phone app—designed to be used while in the exhibition—that provides additional audio and visual features. Students in Professor Lucic’s art history seminar last semester created the innovative content for these digital resources, in collaboration with talented undergraduate web developers at Duke University and Vassar College. Another complement to the exhibition is an installation of contemporary objects in the Vassar Art Library. This array of paintings, sculptures, printed materials, and ritual implements will be on view concurrently with the Art Center exhibition. These modern works demonstrate that Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara still plays a vital role in the lives of Buddhists today.
About the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center was founded in 1864 as the Vassar College Art Gallery. The current 36,400-square-foot facility, designed by Cesar Pelli and named in honor of the new building's primary donor, opened in 1993. Vassar was the first U.S. college founded with a permanent art collection and gallery, and at any given time, the Permanent Collection Galleries of the Art Center feature approximately 350 works from Vassar's extensive collections. The Art Center's collections chart the history of art from antiquity to the present and comprise over 19,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and glass and ceramic wares. Notable holdings include the Warburg Collection of Old Master prints, an important group of Hudson River School paintings given by Matthew Vassar at the college's inception, and a wide range of works by major European and American 20th-century painters.
Admission to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is free and all galleries are wheelchair accessible. The Art Center is open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, 10:00am–5:00pm; Thursday, 10:00am–9:00pm; and Sunday, 1:00–5:00pm. Located at the entrance to the historic Vassar College campus, the Art Center can be reached within minutes from other Mid-Hudson cultural attractions, such as Dia:Beacon, the Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt national historic sites and homes, and the Vanderbilt mansion. For additional information, the public may call (845) 437-5632 or visit fllac.vassar.edu.
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.