The Fool Thinketh he is Wise, But the Wise Man Knows he is a Fool
By Corbin Weaver
In Buddhist culture, nothing has more excellent value than enlightenment. The primary purpose of all Buddhist practices is to break free of the material world, leave behind earthly possessions, and end the rebirth cycle, called samsara. This end of rebirth, also called the end to suffering, is known as nirvana. Buddhist practitioners achieve nirvana through a combination of karma and enlightenment. Karma is passed down from an individual’s past lives and affects their current life. To simplify, kindness in your previous incarnations will translate to blessings in your present life. Enlightenment is, in some ways, tied to karma in Buddhist beliefs; one achieves enlightenment through denial of earthly pleasures and acceptance of spiritual wisdom. There is no better personification of these two traits than the subjects of the painting Sudhanna Visits Avalokitesvara, by Kono Bairei.
Sudhanna (also transliterated as Sadhanna) was a man who sought enlightenment above all else. He craved knowledge and sought the best teachers. He was also devout to practicing their teachings and using the knowledge he gained to benefit those around him. Each of his teachers brought unique insight to whatever topic they professed to Sudhanna, “Sadhana learned about the sea from a fisherman; from a doctor, he learned compassion for the ill. A wealthy man taught him frugality, while a monk taught him how to attain peace through meditation.” (Bloom). Sudhanna studied under fifty-two different teachers until finally encountering Avalokitesvara, the Buddhist deity of kindness.
Avalokitesvara is a Bodhisattva who delayed his enlightenment to aid others towards enlightenment. A bodhisattva is a being who is capable of reaching Nirvana but chooses not to in order to help those around them. In Buddhism, bodhisattvas are similar to deities. He vowed to be a vessel for every sentient being to achieve nirvana before achieving it himself. “Avalokiteshvara supremely exemplifies the bodhisattva’s resolve to postpone his Buddhahood until he has helped every sentient being on earth achieve liberation from suffering and the process of death and rebirth.” (Ouellet). He is often represented with thousands of arms to express his willingness to help the entire world.
The painting, Sudhanna Visits Avalokitesvara, was created to depict the final moments before enlightenment. The Birmingham Museum of Art purchased this painting as part of a collection of Buddhist works of craftsmanship. The only notable detail about the painter is that this is outside of his typical style. Typically, Bairei depicted nature scenes with the focal point of the image being one specific plant or animal. Not only is this work peculiar because it is a religious piece done by an artist who seldom did anything other than depictions of nature, but also, he rarely created paintings with more than one subject in them.
Bairei often utilized a technique in which he used watercolor to make the background images appear blurred and out of focus, the same way modern cameras draw attention to the subject of interest in the shot. In another one of his works, The Pinecone Fish, he left the entirety of the canvas blank other than the fish, which is the piece’s focal point. This detail is a part of the art style that Bairei is a master of, called Kacho-e. The standard features of this style include the subject of the paintings being insects, flowers. Kacho-e is also known for being done in a soft color palette that is pleasant to look at and creates a calming presence. This style came about in the tenth century. However, it did not become such a dominant field until after the great earthquake in Japan in 1923. The most common explanation for this surge of popularity is that the earthquake gave the Japanese people a new reverence for nature’s beauty and power.
It is also worth noting that Japan’s culture was evolving rapidly during the creation of this painting. The Edo period was coming to an end, and the Meiji restoration was beginning. The Edo period was characterized by being very militaristic and based upon geographical growth. Art from this time is precious now, mainly because this art required true passion due to the lack of interest. This fact made the art industry not profitable and very hard to come by. Sudhanna Visits Avalokitesvara is one of the final relics from this era. The Meiji restoration, however, was comparable to a renaissance for Japanese art and culture. Many artists who made their name during the restoration were inspired by Edo period artists who chose to pursue their passion despite what their culture did to stop them.
Another famous piece of the Kacho-e art style is Two Swans, by Ohara Koson. As the name suggests, this piece focusses around two swans in a body of water. The blue of the water is a soft powder-tone, and the white feathers of the swans have been offset with a beige tint to de-saturate the bright color, even the orange bills of the swans appear to be mixed with a light shade of brown to avoid any strikingly bright colors. Interestingly, while the swans have reflections in the water, the plants in the background do not. This effect creates the immersion with proper light dynamics without drawing away from the image’s focus.
In the painting, Avalokitesvara does not have his many arms, but he does have the halo to symbolize his status as a deity, and he is sitting in the lotus position, which is a common trope in Buddhist paintings to symbolize wisdom or enlightenment. His facial expression is also notable; one would expect a deity known for kindness and willingness to serve to wear a more friendly face. However, this is simply a reflection of the classic Japanese art style that this painting represents. It is incredibly rare for a traditional Japanese image to have any subject with a non-neutral facial expression, and if there is an expression, it is usually a grimace to represent an evil being. Behind Avalokitesvara, there are objects that may seem out of place from a western perspective: incense and scrolls. The incense is often used in meditation practices to allow the individual to achieve real focus by calling attention to their breathing. Incense is a very logical thing for him because meditation is a highly respected practice in Buddhism. Likely, he would often be meditating with those he would guide to enlightenment. The scrolls are fitting for a similar reason, to bring others to enlightenment, he must also have some storage of wisdom. The scrolls likely contain a bounty of philosophy and moral teachings to be passed down to students.
Sudhanna is kneeling and bringing a gift to Avalokitesvara; this shows that he has already learned humility from his other teachers and the sort of reverence he should have for a being such as Avalokitesvara. Interestingly, Sudhanna is significantly smaller proportionally. This proportion could be to show how much more advanced Avalokitesvara is than any human. Conversely, it could also be symbolism for Sudhanna, making himself lesser to learn under Avalokitesvara. Sudhanna also has a shaved head, which is a common practice among Buddhist monks.
Sudhanna Visits Avalokitesvara is a work of art that transcends itself. It stands as a testament the passion of the determined in a culture that is angled against them. It represents religious and cultural history. The story it depicts is also one of passion, a man with a passion for enlightenment and a bodhisattva with a passion for kindness. This art presents a moral to all of its viewers: with enough work and passion, you can accomplish anything you set your mind and heart on.
Sudhana Visits Avalokitesvara
Medium: ink and color on silk
Artist: Kono Bairei
Location: Birmingham Museum of Art, 2000 Reverend Abraham Woods Jr Blvd., Birmingham, Alabama, 35203
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Corban Weaver ‘24 was a student in the first-year seminar on Religious Images in Birmingham (UCCA 102) in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Fall 2020.
Published November 24, 2020.