Seeing Dharma

Koun Franz reviews “Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism: Kukai and Dogen on the Art of Enlightenment”, by Pamela D. Winfield.

Koun Franz
21 May 2013

Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism: Kukai and Dogen on the Art of Enlightenment
By Pamela D. Winfield
Oxford University Press, 2013
240 pages; $27.95

When I was a novice at Shogoji monastery, every day I passed by some framed calligraphy by the main doors of the dharma hall, excerpts from the Ten Examples of Suchness (junyoze). For weeks, I gave it no attention at all; the schedule was strict, and there was always somewhere else to be. Then one day I looked at it and almost jumped—every Chinese character was also a picture in itself. Instead of the two-stroke character for “person,” there was an intricate painting of an actual man; the character for body, intended in the text to mean “substance,” was crafted out of a butterfly in flight. I don’t know how many times I came back to this bit of writing on the wall, but every time I did, every time I looked closer, I found some small detail that had always been there, some subtle new way in which the text had always been revealing itself.

When art is also a teaching, or when a teaching is presented as art, what are the possibilities, and limitations, of that expression? Can we express enlightenment visually? Can we facilitate enlightenment through an image? These questions are a starting point for how we might understand Buddhist art, and they go to the heart of Pamela Winfield’s Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism. This ambitious and scholarly work explores the refined aesthetics of two highly original teachers who revolutionized not only their own traditions but also Japanese Buddhism as a whole.

Winfield selects Kukai (774–835), founder of the Shingon school, and Dogen (1200–1253), founder of the Soto school, to represent two very different views of enlightenment, and by extension, the artistic means of expressing them. But the contrasts between them are significant in part because of how much they share in common: both traveled to China in search of answers they could not find in Japan; both returned to Japan as recognized patriarchs in their respective traditions; both wrote prolifically (Dogen’s ninety-five fascicle Treasury of the True Dharma Eye is considered one of the seminal works in all of Japanese literature; Kukai’s magnum opus, Treatise on the Ten Stages of the Development of Mind, is so lengthy that it has never been fully translated into any language); and both used their newfound authority to craft something original in Japan, carving out a subtle new lexicon for the language of realization.

The schools these two teachers founded represent the two Buddhist aesthetics most familiar to Western readers, with Soto representing the larger Zen world and Shingon standing in for its cousin traditions, the Vajrayana schools that evolved in Tibet. Both schools—as Winfield puts it, “arguably two of the most image-oriented sects in Buddhist history”—expand their vision of art (in the sense of iconography) into the larger realm of form (in the arrangement of objects, in ritual, in dress, in movement) and embrace that form as a teaching, complete in itself. In Shingon, and in Soto, much of what you get is what you see.

Winfield’s juxtaposition of Dogen and Kukai is a somewhat artificial construct; both monks explored and expressed visions of realization that defy easy categorization. But contrasting the two also serves a purpose, providing the reader with a vocabulary for two compelling views of religious art: one holographic, and one for which Winfield coins the term “holochronic.”

Winfield chooses to characterize Kukai’s vision of enlightenment—and its corresponding representations—as being holographic. If you have ever squinted at a mandala, getting lost in the layers upon layers of detail, the buddhas surrounding buddhas and enveloping buddhas seemingly into infinity, you already have a sense of what this can mean. Kukai’s version of esoteric practices “places unprecedented value upon the material forms of the universe,” writes Winfield. He “fundamentally envisions enlightenment as a reciprocal union of self and world in unobstructed space… Dainichi, the Great Sun Buddha, is concretely visualized as a distinctly luminous mental object in the sphere of the meditator’s imagination.” That is, enlightenment—like the object of one’s meditation—is located in three-dimensional space.

In exploring Kukai, Winfield spends considerable time dissecting the famous Diamond and Womb World mandalas, which serve two critical functions in Shingon design and ritual: they present “architectural floorplans that lay out what the realm of enlightenment looks like before and after enlightenment”; and they “condense and channel Dainichi’s macrocosmic power into the ritual hall, microcosmically make his palatial environment present in the space, automatically transform it into a pure land, and hence anyone in its vicinity into a Buddha.”

For Kukai, representations of enlightenment, rendered correctly, have immeasurable power—more than that, they play an essential role, rendering the space where that power is manifest. (According to Kukai, even text can have these same effects. I had no idea at the time, but the intricate picture-calligraphy I passed every day at Shogoji was, in fact, his brushwork.) Sacred images serve to “spatialize time,” establishing consecrated spaces in which the practitioner can engage with “all times, everywhere.” Mandalas, as well as visual objects of meditation, create (or re-create) the physical location of enlightenment.

Unlike Kukai, Dogen held cynical views about art and its relationship to practice; where Kukai saw images as powerful agents of enlightenment, Dogen saw the ever-present danger that the signifier might be mistaken for what it signified. To illustrate Dogen’s views on the function of art, then, Winfield chooses a work that many might not consider art at all: the shisho, one of the three basic documents of transmission. The shisho is a lineage chart, but its arrangement makes it much more than a mere list or history; all of one’s spiritual ancestors are arranged in a circle, the first name (Mahakashapa) and the last (oneself) sit side by side, and a red line with no beginning, no end, and no direction weaves through Buddha’s name and through all the names around the circle, back to the Buddha, into another circle at the center, and on. This, according to Winfield, is a holochronic expression of realization, a vision of enlightenment as multidimensional time.

In Dogen’s view, and in this document, lineage does not happen one generation at a time. The transmission of the shisho is concurrent, an encounter of all buddhas with all buddhas, a lineage that moves forward in time from the Buddha to oneself, backward in time from oneself to the Buddha, and in every other direction, from every ancestor to every ancestor, simultaneously. Though far removed from conventional views of what art is (it’s essentially a legal document) or even what “audience” is (theoretically, such a document is only ever seen by three people: one’s teacher, oneself, and one’s student when it is time to copy it), this, for Dogen, is a realized visual expression—one in which everything is happening at once, and only one thing is happening.

Where Kukai spatializes time, Dogen temporalizes space. Or, as Winfield puts it, “Kukai describes universes within universes, Dogen describes times within times.” Where Kukai’s spatial imagery renders the world with a vocabulary of nouns, Dogen’s interpenetrating temporality “unfolds via verbs.”

One could easily get lost in these mazes of space and time, but Winfield guides the reader with apparent ease. However, it’s fair to say that the greatest contribution of Icons and Iconoclasm is not even related to the complexities of artistic expression; rather, it is the introduction of Kukai (about whom very little has been written in English) to a wider Western audience, complete with real tools for placing his teachings on the continuum of Buddhist thought. Kukai’s resumé and the depth of his aesthetic are at times astonishing. And though Winfield is careful to point out that the Vajrayana of Shingon and the Vajrayana of Tibet are not parallel traditions, still, Kukai’s vision of the functioning of mandalas, and the power of the visual, offers readers a valuable lens through which to consider Tibetan Buddhist artwork. Further scholarship on Kukai could only enrich our understanding of Buddhism as a whole.

Winfield’s second major contribution—and, likely, the true underlying argument of the book—is the strong case for the inseparability of religious studies from the study of religious art. Winfield makes clear her intention to restore “the historical symbiosis between religious thought and artistic expression, before the academic disciplines of religious studies vs. art history were invented in the nineteenth century.” Scholarship that acknowledges an “endless feedback loop of religious thought, practice, experience, and expression” must, of necessity, place each of those four components on equal footing, making new—and exciting—demands of the field of religious studies.

In this sense, Icons and Iconoclasm feels like the start of a much broader discussion, not just of art in a conventional sense but also of how we might create, interpret, and inhabit ritual space. It serves as a reminder that dharma is expounded not just in sutras—or in Zen, not just with a shout. Winfield encourages us to take a second look at the Buddhist art we know and ask ourselves about its purpose. What, exactly, are we being invited to see?

For myself, I am left with a wish that Kukai and Dogen could somehow have met. Surely, despite their very real differences, they would have acknowledged something in one another and recognized what the other was trying to express. For that reason alone, there is a certain joy in embracing Dogen’s vision of transmission across multidimensional time—perhaps that meeting is already happening. Perhaps it always has been.

Koun Franz

Koun Franz

Koun Franz is a Soto Zen priest. He leads practice at Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia.