Gallery Exhibit: Resonances of the Buddhist Tradition

This post was written by Eric Haruki Swanson and Rachel Wen-Paloutzian.

The Buddhist tradition is multifaceted in its expressions and practices across the globe in historical and contemporary contexts. In collaboration with the William H. Hannon Library, Professor Eric Haruki Swanson’s spring 2023 course, “The Colors and Sounds of the Dharma,” offered a unique opportunity for theological studies students to explore the world of Buddhism through direct engagement with rich materials in the library’s special collections.

With dedication and hard work, students co-curated the Terrance L. Mahan, S.J. gallery exhibit, “Sounds, Words, Textures: Resonances of the Buddhist Tradition” that we unveil in spring 2024. The exhibition showcases rare Buddhist artifacts from the Jim and Jeanne Pieper Collection. In consultation with Swanson, we additionally acquired historical Buddhist texts that enrich the exhibit and bolster our collections.

Student Engagement with Collections

Shikoku pilgrimage temple stamps and calligraphy

Focusing on the examination of Buddhist ritual, visual, and material culture, we asked students to reflect on the limitations of language and text and to evaluate how Buddhist concepts of faith, salvation, death, and emptiness were negotiated and expressed through the written word, the sonic aspects of chanting, and the textures of physical objects. These included statues and paintings of Buddhist saints and heavenly deities, as well as visual representations of Buddhist cosmology ranging from the violent depictions of hells to the vibrantly illustrated Buddhist mandala. Each student selected a specific Buddhist artifact that resonated with them and spent the semester reflecting on this object while conducting the critical research necessary to write a label for the exhibition. In a series of sessions, students worked with Rachel Wen-Paloutzian, archives and special collections instruction librarian, and Alexander Justice, reference and instruction librarian for theology, to learn and research about a variety of Buddhist artifacts from different eras and regions. The student research and exhibit labels were the final culmination of their works for the class.

As part of the course, we asked students to reflect on museum design and the larger significance of curating an exhibition as a form of storytelling. Through off-campus excursions to local institutions such as the Japanese American National Museum and the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, students had the opportunity to interact with professional curators and hear their thoughts on the process of curation. Students brought back these insights to the classroom to reflect on what aspects would be important to highlight through the artifacts, and what kind of exhibition experience they could curate for the visitors.

Selecting a Theme

For the exhibition theme, we decided as a class to frame it around the notion of “resonance” as articulated in one of the treatises we read in our seminar by the 9th century Japanese Buddhist monk, Kūkai. In a work titled “Meaning of Sound, Letter, and Reality,” Kūkai presents a vision of the world as a profound resonating of all things in the universe, including the vibrations between our own consciousness that makes sense of the world and the physical properties of the objects that populate it.

Tara Bodhisattva

We took this notion of resonance and applied it to our renewed understanding of the Buddhist tradition. The individual notes heard in voices of ritual chanting, the ideas expressed through the words on the text, and the whole range of textures in the materials used in the production of visual culture all resonate with each other to reveal the full complexity of the Buddhist teachings as both vastly diverse in its expressions and deeply interconnected. We decided that this invitation to listen deeply to these various resonances of the Buddhist tradition was what we wanted the visitors to experience as they walked through the gallery. We hope that the Buddhist artifacts in our exhibition may tell you a new story of the Buddhist tradition: one that is complex, full of wonder, and constantly waiting to be heard.

We would like to acknowledge the student curators: Natalie Azar, Monica Castañeda Cedeño, Rhys Foulke, Megan Glaudini, Rukhbaan Hayer, Andrea Libby, Sage Sullivan, Hannah Van den Thillart, Isabella Vitullo, Sam Yaziji, Osiris Guinea Zepeda.

The exhibition “Sounds, Words, Textures: Resonances of the Buddhist Tradition” is on display through May 24, 2024 in the Mahan Gallery on Level 3 of the William H. Hannon Library. Hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.