Sensorial experience—the good and the bad—is at the heart of the human condition and at the root of the suffering from which Buddhism seeks to liberate all beings. It is not surprising, therefore, that we find the five senses at the center of Buddhist stories, rituals, and monasticism, encompassing the ideas and ideals that engage the senses in order to teach how to overcome them. So how can we better understand the paradoxical position of the five senses within Buddhist practice, where they are at once obstacles on the path to buddhahood and the very tools one needs to become awakened?
As a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and Himalayan art, I am interested in how the senses are treated in Buddhist texts and how they are engaged in Buddhist rituals and sacred spaces—especially within the diverse religious cultures of Asia, where visual arts abound. In a series of blog posts that will be published over the next few months, I will delve into the relationships between Buddhist art, practice, doctrine, and the five senses, inspired by the exhibition I cocurated, Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice across Asia, and drawing on a recent scholarly convening on this very topic, which was sponsored by the National Museum of Asian Art and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. I will introduce some of the central themes discussed by this group of ten renowned experts on Buddhism and Buddhist art, giving you a taste of the scholarship shared in this gathering that is not yet publicly available and offering you a fresh look at some of the objects presented in Encountering the Buddha before the exhibition closes in January 2022.
Over two days in July 2021, ten scholars—each focusing on a single sense, either good or bad—presented on the many different ways that Buddhist (and Buddhism-inspired) authors, artists, and practitioners have defined and employed the five senses: as a hierarchy and a binary of positive and negative, as qualities of the Buddha, and as instruments for reaching buddhahood. We learned, among other things, how the smell of corpses is integral to meditations on the foul, how the monastic code legislates touch, how the Buddha has an unparalleled sense of taste, how sight motivates righteous actions, and how one musician interpreted the sound of the Bardo, the state between death and rebirth.
While these presentations demonstrated how the five senses permeate the narratives, teachings, and rules contained within the texts of the Buddhist canon, the curators of Encountering the Buddha sought to evoke the multisensory nature of Buddhist ritual. But how do you engage all the senses in a gallery space that naturally privileges only one? (Sight, of course!) Two immersive installations allow visitors to enter different worlds of Buddhist worship—an intimate Tibetan shrine room and a three-screen film capturing a day at a Sri Lankan stupa create a physical, auditory, and visual experience of living Buddhist practice. These spaces invite visitors not only to witness art and ritual within an architectural context filled with chanting and chatter but also to feel the vibrations of sound and to sense the vibe of a sacred place in action.
Following museum protocols to protect the art means that objects cannot be touched, incense cannot be smelled, and candles cannot be lit. But the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room, the Sri Lanka Stupa film installation, and the objects and images therein give visitors the tools to imagine what Buddhist practice smells, tastes, and feels like. Whether it’s the sour smell of butter lamps, the feel of bodies touching in a procession, or the taste of water soothing a throat made sore from chanting, through the power of suggestion the five senses are intensely present in the exhibition. And the elements of these immersive spaces spill out into the main gallery, giving further life and sensorial context to the objects isolated on pedestals and in frames.
While Encountering the Buddha offers a certain spectacle for the senses, there is so much more to be felt and experienced in the realm of Buddhist art, practice, and doctrine. And with the help of this prestigious group of ten scholars, I will illuminate the sensorial meanings, expressions, and contexts of some of the exhibition’s most important and intriguing objects—beginning with my next post on the wondrous senses and miraculous body of the Buddha. Stay tuned.