Through the Eyes of Another: Visions of Arhats in Song-Dynasty China

Through the Eyes of Another: Visions of Arhats in Song-Dynasty China

Talk by Phillip E. Bloom, Indiana University, Bloomington

Crafted between 1178 and 1188 for ritual use in a small temple near Ningbo, the one hundred hanging scrolls of the Five Hundred Arhats (Daitokuji, Kyoto, Japan) possess a striking peculiarity: more often than not, the set’s eponymous semi-divine monks are simply shown gazing. They gaze at natural wonders, they gaze at supernatural feats performed by their peers, they gaze at episodes from the mytho-history of Buddhism, and most importantly, they gaze even at paintings. How are we to understand these scrolls’ insistence on acts of viewing, and how might Song worshippers have responded? Through their practice of gazing, do these arhats merely model for us how we ought to look, or are other motivations at work? To make sense of the multiple forms of spectatorial engagement facilitated by these scrolls, this presentation will bring them into dialogue with contemporaneous poems that describe imaginative acts of entering painted worlds and with liturgies that prescribe the performative inhabitation of other subject positions. Drawing on such texts, I shall argue that the Five Hundred Arhats and other works of Song Buddhist art seek to create possibilities for intersubjective experience—for viewing the world through the eyes of an awakened other.

Phillip E. Bloom is Assistant Professor of East Asian Art History in the Department of Art History at Indiana University, Bloomington. He specializes in the history of Song-dynasty Buddhist art and ritual. His work has recently appeared in The Art Bulletin and Ars Buddhica (Bukkyō geijutsu), and he is currently completing a book manuscript, tentatively titled Nebulous Intersections: Ritual and Representation in Chinese Buddhist Art, ca. 1178.

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