Adriana Proser, Ed., Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art

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Adriana Proser, ed., Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art. New York: Asia Society Museum in association with Yale University Press, 2010. xii + 212 pages.

I expect art books to be beautiful; catalogs of museum exhibitions, informative. Combine the beautiful and informative and you have a paragon of both genres. Adriana Proser's Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art, published in conjunction with a spring 2010 exhibition at the Asia Society Museum in New York City, is such a book. Impressive to behold--the oversize volume includes over 130 mostly full-color images--the work is also erudite, with essays and catalogue entries by leading and up-and-coming scholars of Asian pilgrimage in the English-speaking world: Sherry Fowler (University of Kansas), Janice Leoshko (University of Texas, Austin), D. Max Moerman (Barnard College), Ian Reader (University of Manchester), Robert Stoddard (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), Chun-fang Yu (Columbia University), and several others. Proser, the editor, is the John H. Foster Curator of Traditional Asian Art at the Asia Society Museum. In her words, the volume aims to demonstrate "how Buddhist pilgrimage practice relates to the historical Buddha's quest for enlightenment, regional developments in the pilgrimage tradition, the role of landscape in Buddhist pilgrimage, and how Buddhist pilgrimage has affected art--and how art, in turn, has influenced Buddhist pilgrimage" (ix). (1) By examining material culture, the volume explores the meaning and symbolism of religious sites and objects in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, China, Korea, and Japan--a veritable grand tour of Asia.

The catalogue is prefaced by eight short essays. The two opening essays offer helpful contextualization: Stoddard describes the geography and the spatial component of Buddhist pilgrimage; Moerman elucidates the meanings of pilgrimage within Buddhism. These two essays succinctly explain why pilgrimage--both contemplative and peripatetic--is a common form of Buddhist devotional practice, how various understandings of pilgrimage arose, how particular sites have become imbued with meaning (and how these meanings may have changed over time), and how pilgrimage inspires art. The six following essays each pertain to an individual site or pilgrimage context: Leoshko considers Bodh Gaya, the site of the historical Buddha's enlightenment in India--and the most important of the four major pilgrimage sites related to the Buddha's life; Katherine Anne Paul (Newark Museum) connects Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage with popular media, including images, recited texts, and dance and music performances; Donald Swearer (Harvard University) describes pilgrimage in northern Thailand; Yu comments on the import of mountains in Buddhist pilgrimage in China; Susan Beningson (City University of New York) profiles the earliest surviving Buddhist cave-chapels in China at Dunhuang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] and Reader discusses Buddhist pilgrimage in Japan. That the essayists include not only art historians but also scholars of anthropology and religious studies adds both depth and variety to the presentations.

Reader's essay on pilgrimage in Japan--the content with which I am most familiar--explores the syncretism of pilgrimage that arose in Japan from the beginning of the Heian era (794-1185). Reader focuses on popular route pilgrimages, including the Shikoku ES pilgrimage to eighty-eight temples on the island of Shikoku and the Saikoku MS pilgrimage to thirty-three temples in Western Japan (which I completed in spurts between 1996 and 1998). He briefly describes the role of their foundation legends (engi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) Yu) within the sacred landscape, the purpose of miniaturized pilgrimage routes, the reasons pilgrimages flourished historically and continue to be popular today, the transformations that have affected pilgrimage in recent generations, and the connections between pilgrimage sites and artistic and cultural heritage. …