Young girl looking at a Buddhist figurine in a museum display

In Review

Leaning toward Enlightenment

“The Vision and Art of Shinjo Ito” exhibit. Courtesy the Center for Information on Religion, Shinnyo-En Center, Tachikawa, Tokyo

By Margaret R. Miles

It is February 2008 in New York City. Outside the Milk Gallery in SoHo, a large banner bearing the image of the Tathagata Amitabha Buddha blows in the cold wind. Inside, in large rooms intersected by white louvers, delicate gold Buddha figures sit on columns at eye level. These small sculptures are placed in the open, not in glass cases as one might expect. They are accessible, offered to the viewer’s caressing vision. Dominating all, the Great Parinirvana Buddha reclines in solitary splendor at the center of the exhibition. The smaller buddhas are in his orbit, creating a circle around the 16-foot figure of the perfectly enlightened one.

More than 400 people have come to the opening of this exhibition of the art of Shinjo Ito, monk, sculptor, and founder of the Shinnyo-en Buddhist order. There was a great deal of excitement: these works of art were created for a temple setting and had never before been seen by the public, even in reproduction. The mood is festive. New Yorkers are dressed for the occasion: women in colorful silk or lace dresses and high heels; champagne and hors d’oeuvres circulate. Taiko drummers, Buddhists for whom drumming is a meditative practice, accompany their rhythms with loud cries and grunts. The perfect, relaxed, compassionate buddhas are strangely juxtaposed with New York City, bustling, aggressive, and fashionable.

The Parinirvana Buddha presides at the center of the exhibition. Often called the “sleeping Buddha,” he reclines on his right side, his head supported by his hand. This traditional depiction of the Buddha shows him at the moment in which he enters nirvana, simultaneously the moment of his death. The Buddha was not a god, but a man who sought and found the path to enlightenment and revealed this path to others. Shinjo Ito’s sculpture bears the traditional 32 marks of the Buddha, from the gold body to the elongated earlobes, but Shinjo Ito has given the traditional image a new interpretation. In the traditional image, the Buddha leans heavily on the arm supporting his head, thus emphasizing his imminent death. In Shinjo Ito’s image his youthful face and alert posture communicate aliveness and energy; here, the Buddha’s vitality and the triumph of his entrance into nirvana are the focus. His welcoming smile invites the viewer’s smiling response. Each of these subtle but significant changes emphasizes Shinjo Ito’s message, namely, the accessibility of the Buddha’s path, the path of enlightenment.

In each of its North American venues, the exhibition was accompanied by other events that extended and enhanced the experience of the artworks. In New York City, a Buddhist service was conducted in the oldest Roman Catholic church in North America, St. Peter’s, which is located directly adjacent to Ground Zero, the site where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood. The Roman Catholic rector of St. Peter’s, who participated in the service, described the church’s role in the rescue efforts after the 9/11 disaster. The parish priests, he said, gladly allowed their beautiful vestments to be torn into emergency bandages for the injured. But the implicit message of the beautiful service of chanting was the importance of interreligious dialogue. Shinjo Ito’s inclusive vision did not designate committed followers as an elite that excludes, or makes peripheral, others who may be seekers. Thus, people who see the artworks simply as spiritual in a general way, or people of other religions, as well as those who are committed to the Order, are all included. An American Shinnyo-en priest told me that many people who come to his temple in Burlingame, California, grew up in a religion other than Buddhism. Often, they still treasure features of their earlier religion. He tells them that they need not leave their original religion at the door when they come to the temple. They can integrate the valued features of their earlier religion with Buddhist practice.

At one of the events accompanying the New York exhibition, it was my great privilege to have a public conversation with Her Holiness Shinso Ito, together with the exhibition’s executive producer, Hiroko Sakomura, and an American scholar of Buddhism, Robert Thurman. I asked Her Holiness: Why did Shinjo Ito think that a new order of Buddhism needed to be created? What did he think was lacking in the ancient religion, so that he felt the need for a new order? Her Holiness replied that in the mid-twentieth century, many people had begun to think that one could only practice Buddhism properly on a full-time basis, that is, as a monk. Shinjo Ito wanted to emphasize that it was entirely possible to be on the path of enlightenment in the midst of an ordinary life in society. In fact, he insisted that the challenges of everyday life could themselves be used to learn the truth of Buddhist principles. As if to illustrate and reinforce this message, at the Chicago Illuminating Company venue, elevated trains ran just outside and alongside the gallery, reiterating Shinjo Ito’s conviction that Buddhist practice can exist at the heart of busy secular life. In Los Angeles, at the Westwood Art Forum, the accessibility of Buddhist teachings was evident: the Great Parinirvana Buddha could be seen from the street, inviting shoppers and other pedestrians to come inside and look more closely and thoughtfully.

In creating each of the exhibitions at their different sites, Hiroko Sakomura was keenly aware that Shinjo Ito’s artworks are both beautiful and powerful works of art in themselves and profoundly religious images. She identified venues that suggested both the museum setting in which works of art are usually viewed and the temple ambience in which the works were originally placed. For example, recognizing the importance of allowing viewers to see the sculptures from all angles, she placed large three-dimensional figures, like the Great Parinirvana Buddha, in such a way that viewers could circumambulate the sculptures—since, in the Buddhist tradition, circumambulation is a form of meditation.1 Placed in several venues on a lit display table, the Buddha seemed to radiate light, making wonderfully visible the teaching that the Buddha is the source of illumination.2 At the Chicago Illuminating Company, as the day progressed, the light gradually moved across the room until it shone fully on the great Parinirvana Buddha. By about four o’clock in the afternoon, his gold body seemed to glow from within.

Shinjo Ito did not write scholarly papers to make his religious ideas accessible to many people. He used his art to communicate the accessibility of Buddhism to all people. During his time—the mid-twentieth century—when many people had the impression that only monks, full-time practitioners of Buddhism, could be on the path to enlightenment, Shinjo Ito used both words and images to open Buddhist practice to everyone, using his skill as an artist to produce something new and vibrant. His images must be seen not only as art but also as religious images if we are to understand why and how they differ in slight but significant ways from traditional Buddhist art.


“The Vision and Art of Shinjo Ito,” a worldwide exhibition that began touring in 2006.

Gold figure of a reclining Buddha

Courtesy the Center for Information on Religion, Shinnyo-En Center, Tachikawa, Tokyo


At the New York exhibition, I participated in a meditation training event. During the meditation, a priest came to each person to offer a few words of advice. The priest who came to me suggested that I seek balance in my life. Of course, that is a general enough piece of advice that it might be useful to anybody. But I decided to consider it more deeply. In my life, the highs are really high and the lows are really low, so I thought that to work toward a balance in which I don’t just ricochet from one to the other would be a good thing for me. Thinking about—living with—this advice for weeks and months afterward, I believe I have finally understood the concept of balance. Balance is not a dilution of two extremes to a watery middle. Rather, it is about holding two extremes together in a very energetic tension. For example, it does not mean that when I am extremely happy I should remember my sorrows in order to modify my pleasure; or, if I am experiencing grief or pain, that I should remember happy moments. Balance is about experiencing my life as a whole that includes—that holds together—both happiness and sorrow. It is this whole that is my life, my particular and unique life. When I experience the whole, I experience its richness and beauty. Neither happiness nor sorrow dilutes or erases the other. Neither one alone is the truth of my life. It is the richness of the mixture that creates the beauty.

The goal of meditation more generally is to experience the order and beauty of the world. But the world is not normally experienced as an integrated whole. It usually feels like a disintegrated chaos, in which the many living creatures live their lives in conflict with each other, dissociated from their creative source. In fact, most of us are not used to looking at the real world at all. We live immersed in our own projects, fears, and desires. We experience ourselves as in competition with other people’s projects, fears, and desires. But, in meditation, we understand that in the context of the whole whirling universe, our projects are so small, despite their apparent urgency. Meditation is about “getting over oneself.” It is the practice of imagining the real. In meditation, the fragmented world of our everyday experience returns to its original order, and the richly varied diversity of the universe can be experienced, not as chaos, but as complex harmony.

I have been considering the difference in religious rhetoric between calling people to “unity,” or thinking of “harmony” as the desired condition. Harmony is a musical metaphor. In an orchestra, the instruments are very different from one another; some are plucked, some are bowed, and some have sound that is formed by the players’ breath. The notes each part of the orchestra plays are also different, but the diverse instruments and the parts come together to form beautiful music. Too often the demand for unity has led to the persecution of dissidence. But the concept of “harmony” allows for differences that can be understood as contributing to the colorfulness, the richness of the religious tapestry. While “unity” has seemed to imply that everyone should think alike, “harmony” allows for a broad spectrum of diversity that is not only tolerated, but actually delighted in.

In both the American and the Japanese contexts there was an interesting tension between seeing Shinjo Ito’s works as religious objects or simply as art. Americans are not used to looking at images as religious images. We are comfortable with seeing the artworks as art, but we would like to ignore the fact that they were created to focus and accompany a religious practice. In each American city in which the exhibition was shown, a Shinnyo-en Center was created for people who wanted to know more about the teachings. In this way, the delicate balance between art and religious teachings was maintained. In Japan, people may be likely to associate the images with religious practice and have difficulty seeing them as artworks. More than 310,000 people, most of them Shinnyo-en Buddhists, saw the exhibition in the five venues in Japan. These people had not formerly seen the works as artworks. Those who had seen the images had seen them in the temple setting. So in Japan, Hiroko-san thought it important that the works be seen first as art rather than as objects of worship. She wanted the exhibition to establish Shinjo Ito’s reputation as a twentieth-century artist.

What difference does it make whether one sees Shinjo Ito’s work as art or as religious images? How does a religious viewing differ from a viewing of an artwork? In devotional looking, the viewer expects to be shaped by her engagement with the sacred object. She expects, not to be entertained or to analyze, but to be acted upon, and to participate in a conversation with the image. The devotee expects the object to affect him at the level of feeling, even though he may not be able to articulate precisely how that occurs or to name the feeling that is evoked. Plato described vision as a kind of touch. Vision occurs, he said, when a stream of light, a visual ray, proceeds from the eye and touches an object. This ray is generated from the same fire that animates and warms the body, a fire that is at its most intense and concentrated in the eye.3 Moreover, the visual ray is a two-way street; as it touches an object, the object moves back up the ray into the eye and imprints itself on the viewer’s memory. In the act of vision, the worshiper is connected to the sacred figure through the visual ray.

Museums and exhibitions almost always prohibit viewers from touching the art. But, according to the visual ray theory, seeing is touching—a kind of touch that does not change or harm its object. In fact, although visual ray theory has long ago been superseded by theories of vision that are more accurate physiologically, it nevertheless describes to perfection the act of religious viewing. It pictures a two-way street that connects viewer and object, a space in which the viewer communicates with the object and, in turn, receives the message the object represents and embodies.

Ancient Vedic literature also understood vision as touching its object. Extending the metaphor, the Indian philosopher Bhavaviveka described the Buddha’s teachings as rays that touch the minds of others. He wrote that the Buddha “opens the minds of fortunate beings with the pure, cleansing rays of teaching just as the sun [opens the blossoms in] a pond of lotuses.”4 Several of Shinjo Ito’s images depict a pillar of fire which surrounds the Buddha, a traditional image that indicates his capacity both to purify and to illuminate the minds of his adherents.

As a Westerner, it is irresistible to me to compare the dominant images of Buddhist practice with those of Christianity. The Buddha is usually depicted seated in deep meditation, embodying and exuding peace and compassion. By contrast, the dominant image of Christianity is the crucified Christ. The assumption informing this violent image is that God’s love for humanity is best communicated by the sacrifice of his only son to redeem humanity. Christian scriptures and teachings support the crucifixion image as central to Christianity by describing humans as needing a savior, not a teacher and example—as needing to be granted salvation, not to be shown a path and a practice. Yet historical Christianity did not lack other visual interpretations of love; for example, the medieval and early modern image of the Virgin Mary feeding the infant Christ at her breast interprets God’s love for humanity as life-giving, the generous daily provision of nourishment and care. Images of the nursing Virgin communicate a calm beauty similar in mood to that of the meditating Buddha. But this image has not achieved the centrality or recognition that the crucifixion image has received. Indeed, within Christianity, scenes of crucifixion have supplanted images of the nursing Virgin as visual representations of God’s love for humanity.

It seems to me that in our world, saturated as it is with media images of violence, all of us need to identify images that help us to visualize and work toward making ourselves and our world calmer, gentler, and more peaceful, more attentive to the common good, and more understanding of people of other religions, races, and values. And while one might get caught up in the fractured and dissonant world of competing and warring objects, it is of the highest importance to be able to interpret religious art as Shinjo Ito has, not leaning into death, but toward enlightenment.


  1. Malcolm David Eckel, Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2002), 66.
  2. Malcolm David Eckel, To See the Buddha: A Philosopher’s Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness (Harper San Francisco, 1992), 140.
  3. Plato, Timaeus 45b–46c.
  4. Quoted in Eckel, To See the Buddha, 144.

Margaret R. Miles is Emeritus Professor of Historical Theology, the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. Her most recent books is A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 13501750 (University of California Press, 2008). She was Bussey Professor of Theology at Harvard Divinity School from 1978 to 1996 and was dean of the Graduate Theological Union from 1996 until her retirement in 2002.

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