Inspired by Buddha, Admired as Art

By LILY KOPPEL, The New York Times, Feb 19, 2008

New York, USA -- The stars of the show arrived in wooden crates at Kennedy Airport on New Year’s Eve. They had already enjoyed a hugely popular run in Japan and were now embarking on a world tour.

<< The "Great Parnirvana" sculpture by Shinjo Ito, depicting Buddha on his deathbed, is prepared for a show of the artist's works, which opens Thursday in Chelsea. Michael Nagle, The New York Times

All the attention is for 100 sculptures and engravings by Shinjo Ito, a renowned Buddhist artist and the founder of the Shinnyo-en order of Buddhism.

The images of Buddha are meant to inspire quiet contemplation, but they have also become the objects of artistic veneration. The show, “The Vision and Art of Shinjo Ito,” opens Thursday at Milk Gallery in Chelsea.

In Japan, 300,000 people went to see the exhibition during its 54-day run, but outside his home country, Mr. Ito, who died at 83 in 1989, is little known except to his followers, an estimated 900,000 worldwide. The show, which celebrates the centennial of Mr. Ito’s birth in 1906, is the first time his works have been presented to the general public outside of a religious context, in an artistic setting.

“People’s faces looked very calm and peaceful while viewing the sculptures in Tokyo,” said Hiroko Sakomura, 59, the show’s executive producer. “It will be interesting to see what happens in New York, the most powerful, intense metropolis with an emphasis on art.”

Mr. Ito, whose first name, Shinjo, means “True Vehicle,” and his wife, Tomoji, founded the Shinnyo-en (“Borderless Garden of Truth”) school, based on the Nirvana Sutra, the final teaching of the Buddha delivered on his deathbed, 2,500 years ago. A passage in the sutra was the inspiration for Mr. Ito’s first major sculpture, the “Great Parinirvana,” depicting the reclining Buddha, who had raised himself on one arm to address his followers in the moment before his death and entry into final nirvana. Completed in 1957 in only three months, the 16-foot-long resin Buddha is Mr. Ito’s largest work and Shinnyo-en’s central devotional image.

The sculpture is traditionally displayed with a halo in a temple, but the show’s producers decided to forgo the halo for the exhibition. They wanted to allow viewers to circumnavigate a full-scale cast of the massive golden, smiling Buddha, eyes half-closed and lighted so that he appears to be emanating a warm glow from within.

Buddhists believe that the experience of being in the presence of an image of the Buddha can be a reminder of one’s Buddhahood, the potential for compassion, inherent in all humans.

Taken out of crates on Sunday and put together in three pieces in the stark white gallery, the “Great Parinirvana,” positioned as if lying on the beach, seems ready to receive visitors in New York.

“The Buddha was a man, not a god, who found enlightenment,” said Margaret Miles, a professor emeritus at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., who is a part of the committee that brought the exhibition to the United States. “People relate to the sculpture. The effect is immediate.”

In addition to Mr. Ito’s spiritual images, he produced sculptures of family members, notably his two sons, who both died in childhood, at 2 and 15 years old. In his earlier years, Mr. Ito built radios from scratch, studied aircraft engineering and took up aerial photography. While he excelled at science and mechanics, he felt drawn toward spirituality. At 30, he resigned from his job as a technician at the Tachikawa Aircraft Company to become a Buddhist monk.

One of Mr. Ito’s daughters, Shinso Ito, 65, the spiritual head of Shinnyo-en, will hold a ceremony at St. Peter’s Church on Thursday and will be the guest of honor at a private opening reception and dinner, with Robert Thurman, a professor of Buddhism at Columbia, as host.

The guest list features a cast of boldface “very spiritual, meditative” New Yorkers, as the show’s publicist put it, including Donna Karan, Padma Lakshmi, Russell Simmons and the Victoria’s Secret model Miranda Kerr.

The Shinjo Ito Center in SoHo, an educational site teaching about the life of the Buddhist master and artist, will open Thursday and will operate until the show ends March 30.

On Friday night, the anniversary of Buddha’s death, known as the “Feast of Nirvana,” was commemorated with a service at Manhattan’s Shinnyo-en temple annex on West 36th Street.

After the ceremony, the lobby, outfitted with orange Ikea furniture, was abuzz with Shinnyo-en members eagerly anticipating the art show. “I never looked at the founder’s work as art before,” said Eitaro Hayashi, 36, a priest who runs a Shinnyo-en temple in White Plains that serves 500 people throughout the East Coast. Mr. Hayashi was introduced to Shinnyo-en in 1996 by a friend while working behind the fish counter at a Whole Foods store in San Francisco.

Another follower, Leo Abea, 33, who paints fashion images, met his “guiding parent,” as mentors in Shinnyo-en are called, in the handbag department at Barneys, where he works.

“As an artist myself, I think about how, with each piece he created, the spiritual emotion he channeled,” Mr. Abea said. “It actually made me a better artist.”