The art world of New York City is a notoriously tough nut to crack. Recently, though, many Big Apple dwellers were struck by a profusion of subway posters and magazine ads depicting a statue of a golden, multi-armed bodhisattva (Samantabhadra, the protector of all who teach the dharma). Newspapers and websites were abuzz. Shinjo Ito, the late founder of the Shinnyo-en order, was getting the posthumous star treatment.

Were Mr. Ito, who died at age 83 in 1989, alive today, he might be surprised to find his sculptures, engravings, and calligraphy admired for their artistry as well as their educational value. He received no formal training in art and created his spiritual images as a means of passing on Buddhist teachings. As a young man growing up in prewar Japan, Mr. Ito trained in the Shingon tradition, a form of Tantric Buddhism. At 30, he left his job as an aircraft engineer to found, with his wife, Tomoji, the order that would later become Shinnyo-en—literally “Borderless Garden of Truth”—which centers on teachings from the Nirvana Sutra. Mr. Ito’s daughter, Shinso, is now the head of the order, with an estimated 900,000 followers.

The carving above is part of a worldwide tour celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Mr. Ito’s birth. “Centennial Exhibition: The Vision and Art of Shinjo Ito” will be in Los Angeles through the end of June.

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