The reservoirs of an important art museum are deep, locked, and mostly invisible. The Newark Museum, occupying an urban block in New Jersey next to Rutgers University, houses a widely respected Tibetan Buddhist art collection, which His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has toured five times. ­Yet few people may be aware that the museum owns an equally impressive Japanese Buddhist art collection because most of it has never been on display.

In a new exhibition, Beyond Zen: Japanese Buddhism Revealed, on view through January 5, 2020, the museum has brought out what it calls “baroque” Buddhism: paintings, objects of pilgrimage, shrine ornaments, and gloriously gowned bodhisattvas and household-shrine buddhas. They abide in golden palaces, gem-studded gardens, under silken canopies. Aesthetics are ornate and materials are luxurious: gold, silver, lacquer, silk, and porcelain.

The exhibition provides a rare chance to peer deeper into the Newark Museum’s rich collections and offers insights into the evolution of Buddhism in Japan, especially in the Edo period (1603–1868). Much of the museum’s Japanese Buddhist art was acquired in 1909 from a Western collector who traveled through the countryside, buying what he liked and creating a casual but illuminating cross-section of Buddhism in pre-modern Japan. These sorts of objects are not often on view in art museums, not because they lack beauty but because curators do not consider them to be antique enough. The works speak to Japan’s reverence for Buddhism and the religion’s familiar presence within the daily lives of ordinary people. The art’s “baroque” qualities filled a demand.

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Zocho-ten, Guardian of the South | Image courtesy of the Newark Museum

At the entrance of the exhibition, a scowling wooden temple guardian, Zocho-ten, the Guardian of the South, offers a glimpse into a more distant era. The sculpture is said to be from the Heian period (794–1185) and is typical of the wrathful defenders early Japanese Buddhists called on to help defeat the enemies of enlightenment. It’s unusual in this exhibition because of both its great age and its having been purchased by the museum in 1965.

Guest curator Midori Oka, associate director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Japanese Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, selected around 50 objects for the show, ranging from sculpture and paintings to tiny votive pieces and netsuke [miniature sculptures worn with traditional Japanese dress]. Overall, she chose for dramatic emotion, vibrant imagery, and a wide view of Buddhism’s appeal. Golden clouds hand-painted on the gallery walls lift one’s spirits and recall the gilded aesthetic that created the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, suggesting a continuity between the Muromachi (1336–1573) and Edo periods. An elegant, wooden museum-built frame divides the gallery into two “rooms.” The dramatic entry houses four silk-scroll paintings of different manifestations of Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, all four not seen together till now. These and other objects in the exhibition are described below:

Beyond Zen

Fish Basket Kannon (from top left), Merciful Mother, Willow Branch Kannon, and the bodhisattva unadorned by other identities | Images courtesy of the Newark Museum

Kannon, Bodhisattva of Compassion: Four hanging scrolls, painted in teal, coral, black and gold on silk in the Meiji period (1868–1912), depict four of Kannon’s many manifestations: Fish Basket Kannon, Merciful Mother, Willow Branch Kannon, and the bodhisattva unadorned by other identities. Kannon’s robes are elegant, transparent and gauzy, draped and ornamented, and gloriously opulent, as befits a well-heeled bodhisattva wishing to convince humans of the elevating supremacy of compassion.

Bodhidharma (Daruma) | Image courtesy of the Newark Museum

Bodhidharma (Daruma), Zen Patriarch: Zen practitioners will be familiar with conventional black-ink drawings of a starkly sober Bodhidharma staring wide-eyed—his eyelids legendarily cut off so that he can meditate without closing his eyes—in a vaporous white space. This wooden Bodhidharma, however, wears a flowing red-lacquer robe that flips up in the wind blowing across his forehead and lifts off his feet. The flapping robe is a traditional imagining of the tale of Bodhidharma’s miraculous crossing of the Yangtze River on a reed. He is on his way to spend nine years meditating in a cave. Made in the Taisho period (1912–1926), the statue feels modern and cinematic, and Bodhidharma looks like an action figure whipping through time and space. 

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Jizo Bodhisattva | Image courtesy of the Newark Museum

Jizo: In the Edo, an artist envisioned a brilliance for the bodhisattva Jizo (Skt., Ksitigarbha), who rescues children and beings lost in hell. Sculptures of Jizo can be inelegant and lumpy, a squat figure formed from clay, or refined and elegant, as this one is. Here, the artist has given the bodhisattva the golden robes and aureole of a standing buddha. The face, with its high forehead, has the deepened gaze and unshakable serenity of ultimate wisdom. We recognize that Jizo has the power to reach even into the worst suffering.

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Scenes of Hell | Image courtesy of the Newark Museum

Scenes of Hell: Dramatic visions of hell have always been appealing to artists. From the Edo period, this handscroll—created with ink and vibrant color on paper—itemizes both the garments that new arrivals will wear (“to determine the weight of their sins,” the curator writes) and the dark destinations that await them. Demons and writhing snakes skewer we humans, roast us in red flames, and boil us in grinning pots, having great fun at our expense.

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Bodhisattva Seishi | Image courtesy of the Newark Museum

Bodhisattva Seishi: In Pure Land Buddhism, the power of wisdom (Seishi) merges with the saving grace of Kannon and the inexpressible magnificence of Amida, Buddha of Boundless Light,  to manifest enlightenment. Yet this lovingly carved wooden bodhisattva from the Kamakura period (1185–1392) is more personable and humble than we might expect from one with such a heavy duty. Traditionally, Seishi and Kannon are attendants of Amida. This statue is probably from an altar set that showed Amida at the center and Seishi and Kannon on either side. Seishi bends in gassho, hands together, a gesture of oneness. Viewed from the front, the bodhisattva appears to be magically beseeching us. Are we to cast aside our petty concerns and join him on the path?

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Amida Buddha | Image courtesy of the Newark Museum

Amida Buddha: In this Edo-period scroll, a dying soul (off-camera, so to speak) is welcomed into the Western Paradise (Jodo) where gold-robed Amida Buddha sits on a lotus throne amid stupendous scenery. Kannon leads an entourage to welcome the newcomer. Jizo, Seishi, and 23 other celestial beings have joined the party. Singing and playing heavenly instruments, they float on pearly clouds in the land of enlightened peace and beauty. Just in case you thought you might prefer hell.

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The Monk’s Path | Image courtesy of the Newark Museum

The monk’s path: In four ink-and-color Edo-period scrolls, each with 24 scenes, the monk Tokuhon (1758–1818) is shown in his “severe self-mortification and tireless missionary work” (the exhibition text says) as he traverses the path of good deeds and miracles. He has many adventures, he meets with diverse beings and humans, and he assembles a whole novel’s worth of stories. He’s an ascetic wanderer whose life is nonetheless rich and lustrous. Monks and nuns used these etoki paintings—based on handscrolls—as a kind of slide show for spiritual and moral instruction.

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