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New book looks at role of imagery in Buddhism

Assistant Professor Pamela Winfield explores the intersection of art and religion based on the writings & teachings of two Japanese Buddhist masters.

Assistant Professor Pamela Winfield


In Buddhism, there is no higher level of consciousness than enlightenment, also known as “nirvana.” It is a point, loosely speaking, where followers fully realize and understand Buddha’s true teachings.

How does one reach enlightenment? That’s a question almost as old as the religion itself and one answered by many Buddhist masters over the millennia, perhaps none more prominent than two men from pre-modern Japan: Kukai, who established esoteric Buddhism in the 8th and 9th centuries, and Dogen, who developed his own Zen philosophies four centuries later.

For Pamela Winfield, an assistant professor in Elon University’s Department of Religious Studies with an interest in the intersection of religion and art, other questions remain: Can art ever represent what it means to realize Buddhahood? If so, how?

Winfield explores those ideas in her first book, Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism: Kukai and Dogen on the Art of Enlightenment, published this winter by Oxford University Press. Winfield describes the book as her contribution to a new “symbiosis” between the disciplines of religious studies and art history, fields that for decades have remained apart from each other.

“These guys are ‘rock stars.’ They really are,” Winfield said. “They’re inherently interesting and I hope people might learn more about them because they represent two leading schools of Buddhist thought.”

What makes the two masters of interest to Winfield is their opposite approaches to the use of imagery, symbols and rituals. Kukai, who grew up a member of the Japanese aristocracy, studied for two years in China before returning home with countless art pieces, statues and more. He quickly became a close confidant of the emperor.

Kukai’s use of imagery was not limited to enlightenment. “For Kukai, art had a ritual function,” Winfield said, citing rituals that aimed to address rainmaking, epidemic controls and even earthquake prevention. “It wasn’t just an expression of the faith.”

Dogen, however, is a different story. He believed that “just sitting” in Zen meditation without visual props or mental elaborations would lead to enlightenment.

“Enlightenment is something that happens. It’s not something that can be fixed on a temple wall like a painting,” Winfield said of Dogen’s philosophy. “To try to represent the meaning of enlightenment is like mistaking the menu for the meal. It’s like chocolate. How can you experience chocolate without tasting it?”

With both Buddhist masters, there were nuances. In his private writings, Kukai at times expressed doubt about the need or significance of imagery, while Dogen, in his later writings, showed signs that some imagery was, in fact, helpful.

Winfield delves into the apparent contradictions to show that artistic expression and religious thought truly are intertwined. Her work has earned rave reviews from colleagues in the field.

“Winfield’s study not only demonstrates the benefits of this conjunction of fields, but shows that no longer can Buddhist studies ignore art history, nor can art history remain uninformed by Buddhist thought,” Richard K. Payne, dean and Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, remarked in a review of the book.

Winfield’s interest in imagery and religious studies stems from her undergraduate studies. After majoring in French and Italian at Georgetown University with a minor in art history, Winfield had planned to teach in China following her graduation to “do something different,” but that changed months later with the Tiananmen Square massacre.

After an internship in the Asian Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Japan became her “Plan B.” A year later, she moved overseas to teach, and the Japanese culture captured her imagination. “Initially I went to all the temples and shrines for the festivals and celebrations,” Winfield said. “That’s where the parties were. It’s where all the good food was, and the music and the color, and I was intrigued.”

Winfield started reading more about the many temples she would visit and Buddhism in general, and her interest in the intersection of religion and art was born. She returned to the United States, worked for a short time in New York City, and then moved to Temple University for her master’s and doctorate degrees.

At Elon, she teaches several courses in the Department of Religious Studies, including classes on Buddhist traditions, religion and art, and Asian religions.

Her research interests are in esoteric Buddhist art and doctrine in Japan, Zen icons and iconoclasm, new religious movements in Japan, religion and art, religion and healing, sacred space and comparative mysticism.

Support for the book was made possible by Elon University’s Faculty Research & Development committee. Several of Winfield's students also assisted with the project by providing feedback on ideas and chapter drafts.

Eric Townsend,
3/22/2013 10:10 AM