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Getting Into The Spirit

© 1986 by Peter Zale

An examination and comparison of Buddhist and Christian Art.

Emotion and art go hand in hand.  It is said, for instance, that the artist thinks with emotion rather than logic.  The supposition then is that there is an intuitive path to a truth which may well be reasoned out later; as if a structure existed beforehand which could be sensed or "seen" by the artist and deduced finally by the logician.  This does not put an artist in a superior position because authority in Western culture is left to the logician.  Authority indeed implies hierarchy and so implies culture, civilization and the world.  The "day to day" puts out the laws keying proper conduct.  An artist, more a harbinger of the eternal, might wonder if all the fuss is just there so those who do the fussing might find the same excitement he or she feels in his or her work.

Yet, to give culture its due, the fuss it revels in has given rise to artistic inspiration, inspiration having been measured in terms of a plan, a Sastra, or canon or rules given to the artist for the representation of the exalted, inspirational figure:  The Buddha, the bodhisattvas, Christ, his apostles and numerous saints, all became, for a time, the ultimate focal point for the expression of the artist.  In religion, art could find a wife of sorts, an equally emotional thinker, yet one endowed with strict, unforgiving rules, rules reflecting the ultimate need, or fuss, of paving the way to salvation. 

The art of Christian Europe and Buddhist India share narrow perspectives and subject matters.  To delineate the reasons is a complicated matter, for we are dealing with two widely divergent cultures, but to try, we might reflect on the fact that for both life was simple and, by fact and inclination, transitory.  Life was short, and, by the light of the ruling spiritual principles, not terribly important.  In fact, it is not terribly hard to imagine a narrow artistic hierarchy built towards the idealization of a single image or small set of images in worlds both autocratic and largely uneducated.  As Benjamin Rowland says in reference to Byzantine art:


    It was the only style compatible with Byzantine theocracy, in which imperial power itself depended upon the ritual enactment on earth of the ordered hierarchy of heaven.


No doubt.  The Byzantine style is cited as the culmination of that art begun in the 5th century at the break-up of the Roman Empire.  The Canon of Byzantine style reflects a new order born out of the old and built to a zenith.

In the manner of transition, it is equally interesting to note the infusion, into Byzantine style, of Oriental and Near-eastern conventions (similar in effect perhaps to the influence of Classicism on Indian Art):  the body as symbol, frontality in portrayal, and the reduction of clothing to a linear pattern.  All of these are evident in the art of Indian Buddhism, and it should alight us to the consideration that the more time-honored conventions of the Eastern culture, while following their own path of development, could be borrowed by the West, due largely to a phase in its own development which happened to coincide with Eastern feelings and expressions.

So then we may mark a delineation:  the Eastern development of style (and here we will cite specifically the Gupta period in Buddhist Art for it is an acknowledged high point in religious work) reflects, in its simplicity and geometric abstraction, an ordered history, while the art of Christendom, culminating with the Byzantine style, with its emotionality, coincides with a world born of breaking, a world in reaction to a degree, and in itself reflects what is perhaps the archetypal Western tradition of acting and seeking towards a goal.  Action towards something leads often to reaction.

This is hardly a new thought.  It is a common treatise that the East believes in cycles (as in Karma) and the West in pathways.  Interestingly enough though the politics of Eastern religion in India turned on the ability to break that cycle, to offer a goal, an object, and, in fact, that object became the art.  Says Benjamin Rowland:


    The anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha almost certainly went hand in hand with a change in religion from Hinayana to Mahayana doctrine.


which offers salvation and a hierarchy with an obvious example of one who has achieved divine status and thus transcendence of the cycle.  The image is thus fixed in the devotees mind, and so a path is laid out for the Karmic spinning wheel to ride upon.

So we may see a give and take in both East and West, for, in the West, the gradual abstraction of the fixed image coincided with a discovery of concept indicative to Karma, that is process.  One looked at the glowing gold-leafed mosaic and was lifted by the promise of a path offered by the process prescribed by the Christian Canon, the process laid down by the saints there idealized in art.  The less real, the less one would focus on these images, and the more one would focus on the right lived life.

So what is that right lived life?  It is our geometry and abstraction.  To wit:  The Gupta Buddha image of the sitting figure at Sarnath (also called "The Fire Sermon") is reality blown up and architected out by prana, the breath of life.

The image of the Sarnath figure looks as if the spiritual breath has expanded and contracted the real body, and caused its impurities to mushroom out into a symbolic canon of the right lived life.  This is not simply Buddha plus symbolic image, this is Buddha creating, out of his breath of divine inspiration, a system carved out of his impure humanity.  He is perfect, the world is not, the symbolic reminders of the right lived life are his creations out of the diseased mortal life he has exhaled or caused to emanate from himself.  This is philosophy and art fused.

Another way of saying this is to note our aesthetic reaction to the piece.  Our eye is drawn to the hands and face, and down the well proportioned angles of arms, waist and legs.  We are then drawn by the tactile detail of the feet and toes, and then back up the image out to its surrounding halo-like disk.  The process of our looking is like a cycle of breath, and we associate the pleasant aesthetic sensation with the rightness of the teaching, of the process which is coalesced in the image of the Buddha himself, our goal.

Let us compare this with Classic Western Art.  Classic Art cares for symbol in a way very dissimilar to Eastern Art, though abstraction is equally essential.  The process of the Classic piece (for example the Callimachan "Aphrodite") is one which leads the viewer back to his or her self.  It is an unstated or "unliterated" lesson in the ideal of human perfection, a process which existed in the real world for the Greeks (if one remembers Plato's Republic one knows the plan was to make the real world identical to the ideal as much as possible).  We have inherited from them our belief that we may perfect our life.

Which the Christians never believed.  To them perfection existed (and exists) in and only in Plato's ideal plane, which they recast as the bosom of the one God and His main subsidiaries.  In the rupture of Classic civilization, self-faith was lost, sanity was lost, and human governance on the cranial and social level was given over to a single, corporate figure-head (king, pope, Lord of lords) which exacted work and remittance for its promise of checking the faithful one through the difficult business of life to final sanity.

Yet sanity in the Christian world was recast in emotional terms, terms of endearment one might say, with all the businesslike, temporal and loving connotations that implies.  Love, as we define it in the West, is heavily laden with the idea of sustenance, which is not the breath of prana, but a warm bed and a decently full stomach, not to mention tolerable company.  Love to us matches largely the fulfillment of physical needs, and it must have even more so to the people of the Middle and Near-middle Ages, living as they did, and living in a climate somewhat harsher than the Indus Valley.

While it is true both Buddhist and Christian doctrines talk of avoidance of the physical life, the Christian leans more to wooing the rich man from pleasure (presupposing the poor one's in their pocket) while Buddhism shows a weary eye to a sad life and says:  "This can't be it."  We might simply make this point by saying the emperor Asoka turned to Buddhism after witnessing the horrors of his battles to supremacy, while Constantine embraced Christianity because, in combat, it seemed to maintain his power.  There is a larger social point perhaps in the greater number of what might be called peasants in the East compared to a relatively more blended hierarchy in the West.

But there remains a need to understand something of Christian Art, something of its magic on the observer, and here we must reverse ourselves from the cool detachment of the Buddha, and embrace the passion, death, and bearing witness of Christ and his saints.

Passion has to be brought first to Christian conversion, since sanity is given over, second comes mystery, for Church symbols make no sense outside of the inner circle (the Greek word for "fish" being initials for Jesus Christ?), and third must be the promise of salvation simply, one would think, to make up for the first two, though in reality existing as the ultimate well of emotional fulfillment we all may be poised to fling ourselves into.  The Christian doctrine poses no difference between life and death and is expressed by its inductees as warm (as opposed to cool) detachment from the dangerous (as opposed to Buddha's sad) life of physical sinning, and calm confidence in the pure love of God.

All these ideas are evident in a good Byzantine mosaic, and here I will be citing evidence from the mosaics found in various churches in Greece (the Hosios David in Thessalanski, the Hosios Loukas Church of the Monastary, and the Nea Moni in Chios to name a few).  The figures in these mosaics do something between standing and floating, and, in their diffuse reality, seem poised halfway between heaven and earth.  The use of symbol and text (often superimposed on the figure or somehow part of its anatomy or meshed in the larger plan of the mosaic) further abstracts the figure, turning it into message, and the idea of man accordingly into divine, thundering truth, as if to say divine word:  text and symbol, thunders the entirety of existence down to the base of the viewer's immortal, near damned soul.  It does quite obviously distend and define the figures on the wall.

All elements near equal in a mosaic, when one looks at a face, one looks not as directed by design, as much as by the choice of seeking out reflection, that is to look for that which is like yourself in this grand, colored, glowing design.  The fact that the eyes of the figures are nearly always so large and deep points to their vision at something within, and their stern commitment to that vision as they look on in a world of idealized art.  This is not heaven or earth, but a message-bearing crosspiece between, where a pose is a gesture of love paid by an artist to a subject who transcended his humanity either by wisdom (as the apostles and Christ are often portrayed with the hand gesture of the philosopher) or love (Mary, hand to chest in a gesture of retaining composure in the wake of the intense emotion of now holding the divine baby Jesus).

We have seen our comparison of Christian and Buddhist Art along the lines of its affect on its viewers, something completely natural even if completely unintended in the creation by the artist.  The intent to preach is something inherent in the contemplation and idealization of these religious figures and images.  The conversion of stone and painted glass to art must needs a priori to be here an attempt at a conversion of another kind.

And it may even work upon the artist, if only for a time, for it is hard to hold on to artists (although it can be easy to grab them).  Artists perhaps enjoy, or even are awed by certain types of earthly fussing about what is true, right and proper.  Yet, as harbingers of the eternal, they may realize (as the better ones usually do) the choice of earthly importance is just that, a choice, no more important than what it gives to them, and no more the eternal truth than the work they have finished and in which they are no longer interested.

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