Sammy Yukuan Lee Lecture Explores the Self-Images of Buddhist Monks over the Centuries

Sammy Yukuan Lee Lecture Explores the Self-Images of Buddhist Monks over the Centuries

Raoul Birnbaum delivers 16th lecture in venerable series at UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History

If generals and warriors like to be painted or photographed in aggressive head-on postures, how do quietist Buddhist monks like to see themselves? UC Santa Cruz scholar Raoul Birnbaum offered answers to this question on Saturday, November 1, as he delivered the sixteenth Sammy Yukuan Lee Lecture on Chinese Archaeology and Art. As in the past the event was held in the Lenart Auditorium of UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

The lecture series was founded at UCLA in 1982 in honor of the distinguished art collector Sammy Yukuan Lee. It is funded by generous donations by the Lee Family Foundation. In recent years it has been sponsored by the UCLA Asia Institute, but this year the Fowler Museum of Cultural History joined the event as official cosponsor. It was also supported by the Center for Chinese Studies and the Center for Buddhist Studies.

Roy Hamilton, East and Southeast Asia curator for the Fowler Museum, opened the event, welcoming the audience of more than 125 to the lecture and encouraging them to also take in the Museum's Art of Rice exhibition. Geoffrey Garrett, Vice Provost for International Studies, then described the history of the lecture series, noting that Sammy Yukuan Lee and the Lee Foundation in addition to sponsoring the series also have donated a major collection of Chinese lacquer work to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and have provided full four-year scholarships to more than a dozen UCLA students since 1991. Geoffrey Garrett also reported plans by the International Institute and its Asia Institute to begin summer education and internship programs in Shanghai and Hong Kong in partnership with Tongji University (Shanghai) and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Professor Robert Buswell, director of the Center for Buddhist Studies and chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, introduced Raoul Birnbaum, who holds the Rebele Chair in History of Art and Visual Culture at UC Santa Cruz, and is an active student of Buddhist practices.

Birnbaum's talk was illustrated with slides and began with a photograph of the meeting of two venerable Chan (in Japanese: Zen) Buddhist meditation masters, Xuyun and Laiguo, in Shanghai in 1952. Entitling his exploration "Long-haired Monks? A Portrait of Two Chinese Buddhist Masters and Its Many Contexts," Birnbaum began by constructing the conventional images preferred by Chinese Buddhists. Xuyun and Laiguo, he said, were two of China's most famous Chan teachers. Xuyun was said to be 112 years old when the photograph was taken, reportedly born in 1840. Both figures in the photograph have long hair, which has a special meaning among Buddhist monks, who normally have shaved heads.

While Buddhist monks affiliated to monasteries conventionally shave their heads, there is a second tradition, of hermit monks living in the mountains who let their hair grow long. Chinese Chan masters Xuyun and Laiguo were among these. Laiguo lived alone in a cave on the slope of a mountain for fifteen years. It was so isolated that he had to use a large basket and a set of pulleys to hoist supplies or visitors up to his retreat.

The two figures, Birnbaum noted, have their eyes closed and appear before a blank background. These, he said, are very old conventions for the presentation of monks in statues, paintings, and, more recently, in photographs. It might seem odd that men and women pursuing a life that calls on them to renounce the world would be interested in having statues, paintings and photographs made of themselves in the first place. This, Birnbaum explained, arises from a convention among the monks that viewing or owning a likeness of the monk helps establish a personal karmic bond with the monk that will result in the viewer/owner meeting the monk again in another life. This suggests a certain gregariousness that might seem surprising to outsiders.

Lacquered "Statues" of the Tang

An earlier form of this convention, Birnbaum said, is the creation of funerary statues of dead monks during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). The actual presence of the dead monk provided the basis for the karmic connection. In some cases the bodies of dead monks were painted with many coats of lacquer, like the technique still used today in China to make furniture and decorative chests. These were then displayed in the monk's tomb for visitors to commune with. In other cases, the crematory remains of the body were mixed with clay and molded into a statue of the deceased monk.

From the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) onward it was more common to have commemorative paintings of the deceased monks or nuns made to provide the focus for the karmic link. In such paintings (and more recently emulated in poses for photographs), a conventional body posture was adopted. "The monk is most commonly shown seated cross-legged, slightly turned to the side, with shoes off. Often the portraits show the monk seated cross-legged on a chair. Chairs were brought from India and not commonly used in China. They were first used by Buddhist monks for meditation and were said to have been chosen to protect the meditating monk from creeping things on the ground. Thus chairs became associated with meditation and high status."

Another convention of such portraits was that they had either no background or a very neutral one. And the eyes were almost always closed.

What did monks do with these portrait images? Raoul Birnbaum suggested that they were sometimes a gift to a disciple as a mark of recognition of the disciple's progress. They might be given to a government official in an effort to forge ties that would be of mutual benefit, or to make a karmic bond. And they would have a memorial function of remembrance. These last were often used for a ritual invocation of the dead master on his or her birth or death day.

"In monasteries these paintings accumulated and on certain days were displayed in sets, one group who had been painted facing slightly left counterposed to another set of portraits that had been painted facing partially right."

In addition to ending in a monastery or in private hands, a portrait or statue of the dead monk would generally be placed in his or her stupa, or tomb.

Ancient Conventions in Modern Photographs

In recent decades photographs have largely replaced paintings, but the self-presentation conventions of earlier centuries remain unchanged. Birnbaum showed several photos of monks he knows, who chose to be shot sitting cross-legged, turned slightly away from the camera, with their eyes closed, with their shoes off, against some more or less neutral background. Such photographs engraved on stone plaques have taken the place of paintings in the tombs of monks and nuns.

It turns out, in fact, that the photograph that opened the talk (seen above) of Xuyun and Laiguo had been doctored so that it better fit the established tradition of showing the Buddhist masters in isolation against a neutral background. The original photograph, which Prof. Birnbaum presented for comparison, was taken with the two monks amidst a large and busy group. Such a photograph presumably could not convey the honored position these long haired monks occupied nor share the power they were believed to possess.

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Raoul Birnbaum in addition to holding the Patricia and Rowland Rebele Chair in History of Art and Visual Culture at UC Santa Cruz, is a professor of Buddhist Studies. He obtained his B.A. from the City University of New York, and his M.A., M. Phil. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University. His many publications focus on the world of practice in Buddhist China from medieval times to the present.

These publications include: Hongyi and His World of Practice: A Buddhist Monk in Twentieth-Century China, forthcoming; Studies on the Mysteries of Manjusri: A Group of East Asian Mandalas and their Traditional Symbolism, Society for the Study of Chinese Religions, Monograph No. 2, 1983; and The Healing Buddha, Shambhala, 3rd ed., 2001, as well as pieces for such publications as the Journal for the Study of Religion, The Encyclopedia of Religion, The China Quarterly, and the Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions.

This year's Sammy Yukuan Lee lecture was held in conjunction with the Fowler Museum exhibitions "The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in Asia," on view through April 25, 2004 and "From the Verandah: Art, Buddhism, Presence," on view through January 4, 2004.

The 2003 Sammy Yukuan Lee Lecture Selection Committee consisted of:

Hung-hsiang Chou, UCLA East Asian Languages and Cultures (chair);
Richard Baum, UCLA Asia Institute and Center for Chinese Studies;
Roy Hamilton, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History;
Howard Lee, Lee Foundation;
David Schaberg, UCLA East Asian Languages and Cultures;
James Tong, UCLA Political Science;
Louise Yuhas, Occidental College Art History;
and Keith Wilson, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Published: Wednesday, November 05, 2003