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Thursday, August 11, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Face Of Buddha -- The Seattle Asian Art Museum's New Collection Follows The Birth And Growth Of A Religion

When the Seattle Asian Art Museum throws open its doors Saturday, many old favorites will step into the spotlight after years in storage: carved jades, intricate snuff bottles, and the gold-leaf screen that depicts "100 Crows."

The Seattle Art Museum is known worldwide as a center for Asian art. But never before in its history has it shown that collection in such depth.

In gallery after gallery, in stone and gold leaf, in metal and carved wood, the face of the Buddha reappears, along with Bodhisattvas, those saints who postpone nirvana to help others attain enlightenment. So rich is the SAAM collection that we can trace the spread of Buddhism and the progress of Buddhist art in these galleries.

Buddha, born Siddhartha Gautama in present-day Nepal about 446 B.C., was so concerned with human suffering that he renounced family and social status to search for the meaning of existence. After his enlightenment at age 35, he taught that attachments to sensory pleasures, and desire for permanence in a transitory world, cause the suffering that plagues mankind.

The earliest Buddha images at SAAM are directly ahead inside the main entry, in the Garden Court, alongside the Hindu figures of Brahma and Shiva. A carved panel shows Siddhartha before he became the Buddha, with his wife, being entertained by musicians and dancers. Below, the carving shows Siddhartha leaving the palace to seek enlightenment while his wife and servants sleep.

Two Buddhas in the Garden Court date from the second and third century, in the Gandhara region of Pakistan or Afghanistan, around the time of Alexander the Great. Carved in stone, they show the influence of Greek and Roman traditions, in the toga-like drapery of robes, body proportions, and the formal waves and curls of the hair.

Buddha figures are easily recognized by their elongated ear lobes, and a protrusion on top of the head that represents Buddha's cosmic consciousness. Convention calls for Buddha to wear a simple robe draped over one shoulder, with no adornment. Bodhisattvas, in contrast, are shown as princely figures, who wear jewelry and crowns.

Buddhism spread from India to China along the Silk Road, the ancient overland trade route. The earliest Chinese Buddhist images at SAAM show their Indian origin - one stone figure even has delicately scalloped eyelids. A standing Buddha crisply carved in stone is a dignified, static form, with a clear sense of the body beneath gauzy drapery.

SAAM devotes an entire gallery to Chinese Buddhist art. Some of the figures still display Roman sculptural traditions, including long, straight noses and wavy hair.

But major changes came with time, and with them a sense of movement. That is seen dramatically in a thousand-armed, 11-headed gilt bronze figure seated on a lotus throne. A pair of armored guardian deities stand at each side in defensive position.

Buddhism prospered in China, becoming a dominant intellectual and religious force during the fifth and sixth centuries, until a series of empire-wide persecutions burned its temples, melted down bronze Buddhas and dispersed Buddhist communities.

A new sect arose: Chan Buddhism, with its central belief in sudden enlightenment. Chan later traveled to Japan, where it became better known as Zen Buddhism.

Chan Buddhism gave rise to one of the most remarkable pieces in the SAAM collection: the life-size wooden carving of a monk at the instant of enlightenment.

The figure, carved in the late 13th or early 14th century, shows a monk - a foreigner, judging by his potato-shaped nose and non-Asian eyes - with his face uplifted in amazement, caught in the act of moving his legs out of a posture of seated meditation, just beginning to pull his cloak over a shoulder. The swirl of action is frozen in time like a photograph.

After centuries of idealized portraits and stiff, static forms, the candor and naturalism of this sculpture are astonishing. Bits of the figure's original bright paint still cling to the wood.

The figure is especially rare because Chan/Zen traditionally is free of sculptural icons. Nothing remotely like it is known to exist, either in this country or in China. It is thought to have come from a monastery that originally held hundreds of such figures, commemorating actual people. So far as is known, all of the others were destroyed.

When Buddhism went to Japan, the Buddha's image changed. No longer was it made of stone. Wood and lacquer predominated.

In the SAAM Japanese galleries, small portable Buddhist shrines were used by a sect that scaled mountains to claim the mountain for Buddha. Nearby, a case of ritual implements - incense burners, vases, bells, and special cups - were used to perform incantations and practice magic in esoteric Buddhism.

Never before seen at the museum is a spectacular gold-lacquered Buddha slightly larger than life size, with crystals set in its forehead and hair. The sweetly idealized figure, with taut gold skin and supple limbs, is shown seated in a serene meditative posture.

The piece, which dates from the 12th century, is on one-year loan to SAAM from the collection of Drs. Elaine and R. Joseph Monsen.

It embodies a then-revolutionary new carving technique that used hollowed-out blocks. The technique freed sculpture from the columnar form of a tree trunk, and allowed sculptors to give lifelike animation to large, lightweight figures.

-------------------------------------------------. SAAM opening.

Ribbon-cutting ceremonies for the refurbished Seattle Asian Art Museum are set for 10 a.m. Saturday on the front steps of the museum in Volunteer Park. A full schedule of family activities will continue until 5 p.m. (Museum members only will be admitted today and tomorrow.)

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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