Saturday, February 12, 2005

Art and religion...

Joe Carter has an interesting post today on "Christian art."

He writes "When did art stop being important to evangelical Christians? How did we go from Rembrandt to Kincaid?"

Well Joe, I guess your qualifier is "evangelical."


This church is St. Ignatius of Loyala, at East 84th St. and Park Avenue in New York.




This is the church were Jackie O. had her funeral. Probably John Kennedy Jr., too.

It's a rather wealthy parish. But I digress, except to say I guess they can pay for good arts.

The church is built in the style of the Jesuits- all Jesuit churches are built more or less on this style. Unlike some churches the acoustics inside this church are awesome.



And that's good, because despite the over-arching Catholic nature of this church, parish, etc. (it is, after all Catholic), it's gotamazing modern liturgical music- unlike any heard elsewhere. It's sacred, solemn, accessible, and not pop-ish.

So within Christianity, even today, there is a tradition of outstanding art. But, like all good art, it's got a subversive, non-conservative element to it. The Jesuits, of course, are the most liberal of Catholic orders.

Within the Buddhist tradition, art has been important since the Buddhists met the Greeks somewhere in or near Transoxiana all those centuries ago.

For example, there's Tiantong (Heaven Child) temple, near Ningbo, in Zhejiang province in China...

Tiantong Temple [Tiantong Si] (The Temple of the Heavenly Child) is one of the most important Chan (Japanese: Zen) Buddhist temples. Originally built during the West Jin Dynasty around 300 AD (some date it precisely from 265-316), it ranks second among the five sacred Chinese Zen Buddhist mountains. A very large complex of buildings, its one time total of 999 rooms has now shrunk to a "mere" 730 today arranged in twenty groups of buildings rising up the mountain slope. As one might imagine it is also one of China's largest Buddhist temples. Located in Zhejiang Province, about fifteen miles east of Ningbo and very near the Ayuwang (Asoka) temple [see on this site], Tiantong Temple is set into the sacred East mountain in the Tiantong Forest Park amidst thick woods and numerous famous scenic spots.




I might add, if you want to see an absolutely stunning example of feng shui (風水) this is the place to go. Trust me (I've been there, and if anyone wants to go at some point my wife and I might arrange a tour), this image doesn't come anywhere near doing the place justice. The whole temple complex is set perfectly among local mountains as though it were the focal point in a convex mirror. It is simply amazing to behold, and the monks are very lucky to have survived the Cultural Revolution with their lives and this treasure intact.

Within the Zen/Chan tradition of Buddhism, the Zen arts are very important- they are a means of practicing Zen, as well as self-expression. While Catholics may say, "To sing is to pray twice," in the Zen tradition, one only plays the instrument once, and plays it as though it is the last time you ever play it. This is true of all Zen arts: writing, tea, archery, etc. Needless to say it makes for high quality art, especially given the continuous practice and cultivation of attention.

Which brings us back to Carter, and, by implication "evidences" for Buddhism: Cultivation of attention and proper breath so as to cultivate attention and tranquility are very important in Buddhism, and give rise to an ability to create art. So does the emphasis on individual self-expression- which is inherently subversive, and the counter to "theologically correct." It's why Sogen Oki can do a scroll that induces curiosity and wonder at existence itself, and Thomas Kincaid makes a painting to try to make you forget a wall is there.

It's also why there's no evangelical Leonard Cohen...

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