Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Western paradise

Went to the beautiful Buddhist - pardon me - Asian Art Museum in San Francisco today! It seemed a Buddhist art museum not just because much of its art is Buddhist, but because the "spread of Buddhism" is one of the "principal themes" around which the collection is organized. (The others are "trade and interchange" and "local beliefs and practices.") Their exhibition starts with Buddhist South Asia - Gandhara, not Mohenjo Daro - and manages to present Hinduism as a sort of background phenomenon. Southeast Asia follows (after a single room on Persia, taking the place of all Muslim Asia), then Tibet. The China collection starts long before the arrival of Buddhism with splendid Shang bronzes, but has plenty of Buddhist statuary (including my fave, the Northern Wei); Daoist and popular religion are mentioned, Confucianism barely. Korea and finally Japan are beads strung on the Buddhist thread, too (Buddhism thriving again in Korea after Confucian repression). I'm not saying there's a better way to provide coherence to a museum of "Asia" than this, just noticing how effortlessly Asia's "world religion" lends itself to this quixotic task. I'm remembering the ringing words of my Singaporean friend L when a famous professor of liberation theology recommended Asian theology to him. "Professor Cone," L tells me he said, "Asia as such does not exist!"

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