On the Trail of Itinerant Teachers Who Strove to Escape the Ego

ART REVIEW | 'ETERNAL PRESENCE', By HOLLAND COTTER, New york Times, November 5, 2004

KATONAH, N.Y. (USA) -- Miss Chasin is the high school English teacher I remember best. She was young and, I could tell, a little nervous about her new job. But she had a gift for saying difficult things in an easy way, for talking about literature as if she were talking about life, which in turn made life sound like art. I later learned she was a poet, though she had never said so.

The Buddha, who was before all else a great teacher, had the same gift. You might describe his entire career as a process of explaining mortality to a class of clueless, distracted adolescents - us - using catchy stories and familiar pictures. And he came to the subject, umpteen rebirths earlier, pretty clueless himself. This is important. It makes a teacher a bit of a hero if you know he or she has walked the talk.

"Eternal Presence: Handprints and Footprints in Buddhist Art'' at the Katonah Museum of Art is all about teachers - the Buddha among them - walking, talking and leaving impressions. It's a wonderful show; ideal, even: compact, novel in theme, poetic in tone, composed of unusual objects from some great international Asian collections like Musée Guimet in Paris and the Museum für Indische Kunst in Berlin.

At one time, we saw such exhibitions fairly regularly in Manhattan, before Asia Society and Japan Society were the high-gear operations they are now. This one will come to the new Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan next summer, but shorn of its European loans. That's why I wanted to catch it here, where it originates, and why I encourage interested parties to put a snap in their step and do the same.

The Buddha was a walker. He covered much of northeastern India as an itinerant monk. But he began life, or at least the most recent life that we know about, as a prince living a life of pleasure and protected from the world.

One day he slipped out of the palace, though, and saw four sights that shocked him: an old man, a sick man, a corpse and a monk; decay, death and the possibility of escape from the panic they instilled.

Soon after, he started his walk. It took him out of the palace and into a forest retreat, where he subjected himself to mortifications. But self-punishment turned out to be pleasure in reverse, another habit, another way of clinging to the ego. What he needed to do was let go of it.

So he left the forest, walked to a park, sat down under a tree and resolved to stay put until he had done exactly that.

It was rough going. Doubts and fears flooded in. But when he put his hand to the ground to steady himself, he relaxed, maybe for the first time in his life. He knew where he was supposed to be, right there. He grew lighter, became all give and no take, became the Buddha. The next step was to spread the word, the news of what was possible. So he started walking again. A few people tagged along. His fame grew. Crowds gathered. Periodically he sat down for long stretches to talk and rest, then he hit the road again. This was his pattern for more than 40 years.

When he died, the people who loved him wanted to keep him close and palpable, so they held onto scraps of him and visited places he had been. Maybe because he had put such emphasis on losing a self, no images of him were made for a long time. And those that finally were made weren't portraits in any realistic sense.

Full-length figures were highly stylized, pieced together from a set of symbolic features, like long earlobes stretched by earrings, a sign of royal birth, and wheel-shaped marks on the soles of the feet, reminders that his ministry had started the wheel of truth spinning. Both are found on the sandstone seated Buddha, carved in India and dating to the first or second century A.D., that opens this show on a vivacious note: with his avid, candid face he looks as if he's ready to shake your hand in greeting.

Along with figures, abstract images emerged, carved footprints being especially popular. Called buddhapada, they came in many sizes. One pair in the show, carved from gray stone in what is now Pakistan, has feet nearly three feet long, while those on a lapis lazuli seal measure only an inch. As with much Buddhist art, their meaning is paradoxical: they are evidence of the Buddha's presence, but also memorials to his absence.

Nor was the Buddha the only teacher so honored. In Tibet, footprints and, less often, handprints of revered lamas appeared on paintings called thangkas; unlike buddhapada, they were often taken from life, like the prints of Hollywood stars at Grauman's Chinese Theater. More than two dozen such paintings, almost half the number known to exist, have been brought together by Kathryn Selig Brown, an assistant curator at the Rubin Museum of Art who organized the show. They make a fascinating ensemble.

In some cases, the prints were made by a leader of a particular Buddhist sect and flank a depiction of the sect's patron deity, so the painting becomes a kind of a team banner. Other paintings, where the prints flank an image of a lama himself, are portraits. And in a painting where prints appear alone, they can function like personal signatures.

But complications abound. Not all prints are taken from life. Some are imaginary; others are second- and third-hand, copies of copies of live prints. Even direct impressions are painted over with gilding, as if to perfect their shape, eliminate evidence of the unsightly bunion. Not all prints necessarily belong to the person whose portrait they accompany, as Ms. Brown demonstrates in the case of a gorgeous 18th-century Eastern Tibetan work on loan from the Norton Simon Museum.

And any simple formula for how these pictures work breaks down when applied to a half dozen closely related late-17th-century paintings from the Guimet and the Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels. The person they honor is the charismatic fifth Dalai Lama, Nawang Losang Gyatso (1617-1682). But while his hand and footprints are on all the thangkas, only one bears his actual portrait. The others depict earlier Dalai Lamas and rulers whom he claimed as previous incarnations. His assertion of lineage is technically legitimate, but it is also a master stroke of political positioning.

Ms. Brown supplements the Indian sculptures and Tibetan paintings with samples of print-bearing objects from Burma, China, Japan and Thailand. Their formal variety is great, but to the people who approached them with belief, they all meant the same thing. The footprints and handprints represented the physical touch of spiritual beings, chief among them the Buddha himself, and radiated their personalities and blessings.

Creatures without feet have my love,

And likewise those that have two feet,

And those that have four feet I love,

And those, too, that have many feet.

That's the Buddha himself weighing in, with characteristic zest, on the subject of feet. And even less generous-minded 21st-century museumgoers may find themselves warming to the impressions of them in this show. "Someone was once here," the prints seem to say, "and now they aren't. But they are."

It's one of those crazy Buddhist paradoxes, a message of simultaneous loss and recovery, grief and sorrowlessness. And it's told with concrete, easy-to-grasp images, the kind that poets and artists and buddhas, our great teachers, use.

Even agnostically, these emblems have deep personal and poetic resonance. Like the empty shoes at the end of Virginia Woolf's novel "Jacob's Room,'' the image of the Buddha's footprints translates an overpowering vision of loss and change into a reassuringly concrete, graspable, familiar form. Someday we will have to confront the vision face-on; neither teachers nor art can alter that. And that's when we grow up.

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