“How to Read Buddhist Art” by Kurt A Behrendt and “Becoming Guanyin” by Yuhang Li

Buddha from Gandhara (via Wikimedia Commons) Buddha from Gandhara (via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a well-worn assertion, even a cliché, that art and spirituality are inextricably linked. A concrete representation of the subject for religious meditation is, we could say, a visible aid to devotion: not so much the object itself, but what it symbolizes, which is important to the viewer (or listener if it’s music).

Viewing a painting or sculpture concentrates, for a devotee, on the abstract rather than the concrete, almost as if the object itself were emanating something transcendent. These two books together discuss all these and more. Kurt Behrendt, Associate Curator of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, guides us elegantly and concisely through the complexities of Buddhist painting and sculpture from various parts of Asia, while Yuhang Li, Associate Professor of Chinese Art at the University of Wisconsin, takes us into the fascinating world of female Buddhist devotion to Guanyin (Japanese Kannon), the Chinese goddess of mercy, through a wide variety of arts and objects of material culture created by and for women.


How to Read Buddhist Art, Kurt A Behrendt (Metropolitan Museum of Art, January 2020)
How to Read Buddhist Art, Kurt A Behrendt (Metropolitan Museum of Art / Yale University Press, January 2020)

Behrendt’s book is the more general of the two, intended as an overview of Buddhist art, and not centering on representations of Buddha himself, although he includes plenty of these. But the various “teachers, bodhisattvas and tantric deities” together contribute to an understanding of Buddha’s transcendent nature, and offer a visual expression of how the artists themselves see that nature. The representations of the bodhisattvas, the protectors of those who seek Buddha’s ways, and teachers, actual or legendary, also demonstrate how Buddha-nature was discerned in these people by those who created their images. The bodhisattvas, such as Maitreya, are themselves already transcendent, but the great teachers, such as the monk Bodhidharma or Vimalakirti, a disciple of Buddha, are seen as human beings on their way to enlightenment. Of the latter, the most striking for me was a Chinese masterpiece dated about 1000 CE of an arhat (Chinese luohan), a person sufficiently enlightened to enter nirvana at death, finally free from the cycle of rebirth. It’s made of stone and glazed in three colors, and, “unlike the idealized representations of the Buddha, representations of the arhats show each as an aged individual with an implied personality.” His lined, wise yet compassionate face (Behrendt thoughtfully provides a close-up) reflect the years of study and practice as a result of his “deep understanding of the dharma.” These characteristics are exactly what viewers would want to contemplate and replicate in themselves.

Compassion and serenity are similarly reflected, but in a different way, in an imaginative sculpture of Maitreya, the future Buddha, dating from 3rd century Gandhava in Pakistan. Unlike the arhat, who certainly looks like he might have been a real person, Maitreya, for whatever reason, has a transcendent look about him. As Behrendt tells us, “he conceptually resides in heaven,” and thus is depicted as a godlike figure with a halo. A depiction of Maitreya, whom no-one has yet seen outside visions, does not, Behrendt explains, depend on relics; “his princely appearance, with his prominent moustache, hints at his final incarnation when he will be born to a royal family.” He’s depicted with a water flask, which suggests asceticism, and his face is “formal, with a crisp, hard appearance that rejects humanity”, a feature that the sculptor renders purposely, intending that Maitreya have “a perfect body that is unmarred by human flaws and befitting a celestial deity.” Behrendt contrasts this rendition of Maitreya with a Chinese one that has “an attenuated face”, and “rejects the Indian focus on the body as a physical expression of transcendence” in favor of depicting Maitreya after he has become a Buddha. Behrendt explains the complexities briefly noted here in clear and concise language, which is one of the hallmarks of this excellently-presented and beautiful book.


Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China, Yuhang Li (Columbia University Press, Fe8ruary 2020)
Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China, Yuhang Li (Columbia University Press, February 2020)

Yuhang Li’s equally attractive book concentrates on female devotion to Guanyin, but part of its focus is essentially the same as Behrendt’s. The art and other objects discussed in this lavishly-illustrated, impeccably-researched, ground-breaking book have the same purpose as the paintings and sculptures in How to Read Buddhist Art, which is to demonstrate that physical objects of devotion have the power to raise the consciousness of their viewers, in this case Buddhist women, to the point of transcendence.

What distinguishes Li’s book from others is her interest in not just “art” but also in actual objects made by women such as hairpins and embroidery made from hair, as well as more obviously expressive art-forms such as song and dance, some of the latter being associated with courtesans. All these things were created against the background of late Imperial China, where Confucian values and patriarchal hierarchies reigned supreme. Yet they were not “subversive” ways of expression, as they fitted into the structure of Chinese society, but they were certainly feminine.

Fascinatingly, Guanyin, the object of their devotion, was originally an Indian male deity of compassion and protection, Avalokiteśvara, who, over the space of a thousand years, changed his gender and became the most famous and popular goddess in the Chinese pantheon. You can see impressive Thai and Cambodian depictions of him as a boddhisatva in Behrendt’s book, the Thai version sporting four arms. Li tells us that scholars don’t know exactly why this transformation happened. One explanation may have been that compassion, Guanyin’s prime attribute, is associated with women rather than with men, related, she says, to the mother-image in Chinese culture. The other is a “connection between the gender of the worshippers and the gendered transformation of the worshiped.” Also, compassion may be viewed differently by Indian and Chinese devotees, as Buddha’s (and Avalokiteśvara’s) prime attribute is compassion, and Buddha is male. Wisdom, on the other hand, was symbolized in Mahayana Buddhism as a mother-figure, but in Chinese indigenous culture mothers symbolize compassion. Li suggests, but does not assert, that over time the two ideas may have got fused, and that “Guanyin’s dual gender may be a hybrid formation of the Indian feminine symbol of wisdom and the Chinese value of maternal compassion.”


Li asks a simple question in this book; as she puts it, “What did Buddhist laywomen in late Imperial China actually do to forge a connection with the subject of their devotion, the bodhisattva Guanyin?” The answer is, as Li explains in four fascinating chapters, they danced, painted, embroidered, and created jewellery, especially hairpins. With the exception of painting, these were female skills; “women,” Li explains, “fashioned meaning in their lives through the creation of powerfully evocative symbolic objects.”

Connecting physically through dance or materially through jewellery gave these Buddhist women an intimate connection with Guanyin, perhaps, in some cases, even an identification with her. Their devotion was mimetic, that is, imitative, although not merely copying but re-imagining through objects specifically associated with women, thus giving them a way to express their devotion outside the confines of the patriarchal structure and away from the often snide and patronizing attitudes taken towards them by male writers.

I found the chapters on dance and jewellery of particular interest and novelty, rarely discussed in books on art, particularly in the context of religion. Of course, we have temple dancers and sacred prostitutes in ancient civilizations, but Buddhism does not usually figure in discussions of them. It would seem that in late Imperial China courtesans actually made themselves into mirror-images of Guanyin, thus establishing a relationship between the erotic and the sacred, much like devadasis in India. And of course, as many of illustrations in this book make clear, Guanyin is often depicted as a beautiful and sensual woman.

Buddhist writers are rather ambivalent about this; on the one hand courtesans were degraded, but at the same time, as Li tells us, “their sexual identity was “deployed by scholars as a teaching device to ‘demonstrate illusion’.” Perhaps more remarkably, Li introduces readers to Xu Jinhong, a courtesan-dancer whose biography was written (1610) by one Pan Zhiheng (1556-1622), and five years after his subject had become a nun. She was widely-known for her Guanyin dancing, but that’s not what Pan chose to write about her—indeed he emphasizes that she “disdained singing and playing instruments,” and would rather write poetry. This makes little sense, given her fame, but another writer says that she was not a very good singer and couldn’t play any instruments, thus leading her to choose dancing not just as a way of expressing her devotion, but also as one the skills a courtesan was expected to demonstrate. If this is true, she combined the two aspects admirably, and they became inseparable. Li gives a detailed description of what the dance might have been like from a contemporary account, and we can read there how the dancer somehow “becomes” Guanyin in motion as she moves, a bodily portrayal of the goddess but also a sensual human expression. The “illusion” is contained in the knowledge that the dancer is not actually Guanyin, but beyond her body, if viewers can see it and she has the skill and spiritual essence in her, is more than just a dancing girl.

The chapters on embroidery and jewellery are linked, in that both were very often done with human hair, which would have been a very intimate and feminine form of connection with Guanyin. “Hair embroidery,” we are told, “intensifies the meaning of the object, because of the pain experienced in the process of making it,” which, Li explains, “could be used to channel Guanyin into the mundane realm of the devotee.” As an example, Li uses a painting of Guanyin by Guan Daosheng (1262-1319), a well-known female artist; in her portrayal of the deity she uses her own hair to make Guanyin’s eyelashes, eyebrows and hair, but embroidered silk thread for everything else. Li explains that using her own hair where it “naturally” would occur on Guanyin “might at first glance suggest a kind of hyperrealism,” but it’s actually symbolic, as “transplanting a person’s hair to an icon’s head indicates a recognition of hair as a site of vital regeneration.” As for the hairpins, they have mimetic significance as they may be found on representations of Guanyin, enabling the women to “metonymically mimic Guanyin and thus seek enlightenment.”


We have, then, two important books on how to look at art created by Buddhist devotees. Behrendt’s book shows us how the artists render iconographic images which allow those who view it to contemplate not just the beauty of the art and marvel at the skill of the creator, but to see the religious significance as well, especially when contemplating the face of the Buddha.

Both books go beyond painting or drawing; Behrend gives us discussions of reliquaries and monumental rock sculptures, while Li concentrates on smaller, more intimate material objects such as hairpins. A reader will come away from these books with a deeper understanding of what Buddhist art can do if one knows how to look at it, and the beautifully-reproduced illustrations in both books make the experience so much the more meaningful; both publishers are to be highly commended for their attention to the quality of the illustrations.

The accessible texts allow readers to really communicate with this art, although “understanding” it completely may be a rather different matter. Yet, as Max Hollein writes in his introduction to Behrendt’s book, “Artworks help us to understand this deeply philosophical tradition because they are meaningful across linguistic and cultural boundaries”.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.