Gaining Enlightenment Through Technology

by LEE LAWRENCE, Wall Stree Journal, JUNE 2, 2011

Washington, USA -- By the time Katherine R. Tsiang visited the temple caves of Xiangtangshan in 1990, the sixth-century complex bore witness to both the Northern Qi's glorious sculpture and its irrevocable despoliation by looters and traders. Crude clay heads perched on finely carved seated Buddhas; haloes of floral reliefs encircled bare patches where faces had been chiseled off the cave wall.

<< A still from the Digital Cave, in which 3-D reconstructions of missing statue fragments are rendered in yellow.

Walking through "Echoes of the Past" at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, it is easy to understand the looting. Were it not for size, weight and alarms, it would be tempting to steal any one of the show's 25 stone carvings. The Northern Qi (550-577) might have been China's shortest-lived dynasty, but it was also among its most creative. And thanks to the innovative work of Ms. Tsiang and her team at the University of Chicago's Center for the Art of East Asia, scholars not only know more about the role that Xiangtangshan played in artistic and theological shifts; they have also acquired valuable new research tools.

The most striking aspect of these works is their emotional resonance. The first Buddha we see cocks his head ever so slightly, as though puzzled by some aspect of the human condition—possibly the destructive folly of desires symbolized by pot-bellied monsters parading beneath him. In the next gallery, a larger-than-life Buddha head gazes down, eyes slightly crossed, modeling the "soft focus" advocated in texts on meditation, while in the last gallery a disciple stands, feet parallel, body held tight, eyebrows flexed in concentration. And little wonder: He holds a cylinder containing the Buddha's ashes.
[echoes] Jason Salavon/Travis Saul

These three figures were also part of the show when it first opened last fall at the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago, but here they are part of an exhibition almost double in size. Thanks to the addition of 12 sculptures - nine from the Sackler's nonlending sister institution, the Freer Gallery, and three from the University of Pennsylvania - we see not one, but three life-size standing bodhisattvas, getting a better feel for the Northern Qi's treatment of body and ornament. And when we encounter seven representations of a figure known as Pratyekabuddha, we realize something theological is afoot.

Many sixth-century Chinese Buddhists feared the Buddha's teachings were in decline. So they emphasized meditation, believing that rebirth into a paradise presided over by Amitabha Buddha was available to all, even those who did not follow Buddhist teachings. This comes across most vividly in a relief on a stele believed to have been carved at Xiangtangshan: Amitabha, flanked by monks and bodhisattvas, sits within the enclosure of two trees; outside the frame, two Pratyekabuddhas stand on lotus pedestals. Above them, tree branches bloom with reborn souls.

This bigger show also enabled Sackler curator and associate director J. Keith Wilson to build a chronological narrative—from the larger Northern group of caves (550-570) to smaller, southern ones (565 onward). Beautifully displayed against dark walls, the carvings shift in scale from monumental hand fragments to close-to-life-size heads, giving us a feel for the difference among the caves.

It is next to a small display representing the last Northern cave that we come across the Digital Cave, a three-screen projection that held pride of place at the Smart Museum. Chronologically, it makes sense, but this placement risks obscuring the fact that the video brings to life the scholarly project behind the show: Ms. Tsiang's virtual reconstruction of the cave temples. Scouring collections around the world, Ms. Tsiang traced some 100 pieces to Xiangtangshan, then tackled the question of where in the caves they belonged. With records being scarce to nonexistent, Ms. Tsiang and her team enlisted a technology that translates accurate measurements into three-dimensional imagery.

They had hoped to simply feed data into a computer and have it match heads to necks and hands to torsos based on the contours of breaks. But worshippers and dealers had smoothed out fracture lines. And there were no telltale signs relating freestanding statues to particular plinths. Still, imaging technology allowed the team to virtually place a fragment on a spot, rotate it as needed, and see if it fit.

In one of the Digital Cave sequences, artistic director Jason Salavon virtually reinstated the fragments. But rather than blending them in, he colored them bright yellow. The show uses the same color to differentiate facsimiles made with Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), a technology that translates 3-D computer images into three-dimensional objects. While the Sackler uses them as stand-ins for objects, the Smart showcased them as tools for art historians whose discipline has always depended on reproductions, from photographs to plaster casts.

"One of the great results of this project," the Sackler's Mr. Wilson says, "is a much clearer understanding of this site and its pivotal importance" in artistic and theological developments. The Sackler's installation stresses the lessons learned, while the Smart's highlighted the underlying detective work. If visitors take time with the monitor screens and the projection, they can come away with the best of both.

Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Through July 31

Ms. Lawrence is a writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: