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Smile of the BuddhaReview - Smile of the Buddha
Eastern Philosophy and Western Art from Monet to Today
by Jacquelynn Baas
University of California Press, 2005
Review by Mark Welch, Ph.D.
Dec 16th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 50)

As Jacqueline Baas demonstrates in this slowly constructed book, the impact of Buddhist philosophy, and particularly a Buddhist aesthetic, has been very profound over the last 120 years or so. It is however, often a subliminal or subtle influence that has moved us towards a sense of simplicity and essence and away from ornamentation and direct representation. And it from this that we may have most to learn.

We are all familiar with the many and diverse images of the Buddha; the happy, smiling, plump fellow or the more austere serenity of some other traditions. We also know of Zen gardens and some Japanese crafts. We do not, it seems, often consider how the aesthetic appeal is infused with deep philosophical understandings of the nature of life. Nor do we often understand the way in which the different representations of the Buddha, not only relate to incidents in his life, the disillusion he found in extreme asceticism to the point of starvation for example, but different paths within Buddhism as a whole.

Baas does not embark on a grand narrative approach. Rather, she illustrates her points by considering a number of artists, and examining their work in greater detail. She covers a period from Monet to the present day, and from what may be considered mainstream to the avant garde. She considers the now familiar impressionists and the radical turn away from direct representationalism. In particular, the essay on Gaugin whose work if not his lifestyle bears the greatest evidence of a Buddhist influence among the early moderns, is of interest, but she also considers van Gogh, and the more tangentially influenced Duchamp and Redon.

She looks at the new aesthetic inspired by the West's sense of discovery of Japanese art. But it is when she begins to examine the work of the later twentieth century that she begins to really mine the philosophical impact of Buddhism. It is in consideration of these later artists that the impact of Buddhist philosophy, rather than aesthetics alone, begins to be felt.

A prime mover in all of this is John Cage. Cage's minimalism was far more than a revolt against the dominant trends. In his widely divergent career, he very consciously and quite deliberately set out to strip away the layers of pretence and veneer that obscured the purpose of art -- and I think Cage did see art as having a purpose. In between his more famous pieces, like 4'33'', he constructed a sense of essence in which the Buddhist notion of detachment was powerful and almost omnipresent. But this detachment is not to be likened to being uninterested, or even disinterested. It is more akin to becoming unshackled by ephemera; to be truly at one with the essence of life. Cage's influence on contemporaries and followers in the Fluxus movement is a major theme in the book. Other artists, abstract and conceptual, including Yoko Ono, Paik and Jasper Johns all of whom feature in the book, are in his debt, but not many will articulate these concepts so clearly.

There is a way, however, in which the Buddhist influence that Baas considers is only a small part of Buddhism, and often taken from a relatively minor area of practice. Zen Buddhism, which seems by far to have the most profound reach in the aesthetics of the West, is almost an outpost of mainstream Buddhism, and detachment, while being central to Buddhist philosophy, cannot be considered alone without compassion or desire as the cause of suffering. Nor are the influences of the Eightfold Path particularly evident.

It is, however, an interesting discussion how the nature of Buddhism as a discovered rather than revealed experience relates to the meditative qualities that infuse some abstract artists. Mark Rothko comes to mind, although he is not among the artists considered.

The book is produced in a very handsome format. It is worthy of any coffee table. It is illustrated with fine examples of the work of the artists, and also of traditional art. It is also a contemplative book; one in which the text and illustration tend to stay with the reader. One to which you will want to come back time and again. Sometimes, you will just want to look at the pictures, sometimes, you will self-awarely regard yourself, regarding them. Sometimes, if you look very closely at the smile on the Buddha's face you will not know what he is thinking, but that will be alright.

Most of the time, you will hope that you too can share that peace and stillness, that distilled and pure presence and you will be glad that he shared it with you.


© 2005 Mark Welch


Mark Welch, Ph.D. Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta and Co-Director of the PAHO/WHO Collaborating Centre for Nursing & Mental Health.


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