News Was Blind, But Now I See

A 3-D digital scan throws a Buddha statue’s carvings into sharp relief

What makes this sixth-century Chinese object, the Cosmic Buddha, exceptional are the detailed narrative scenes that cover its surface, representing moments in the life of the Historical Buddha as well as the Realms of Existence, a symbolic map of the Buddhist world. A laser passing over the surface of an object produces a digital scan made of millions of measurements points. These data can be manipulated in a variety of ways to reveal new information and advance research. Image courtesy Smithsonian’s Digitalization Program Office

What makes this sixth-century Chinese object, the Cosmic Buddha, exceptional are the detailed narrative scenes that cover its surface, representing moments in the life of the historical Buddha as well as the Realms of Existence, a symbolic map of the Buddhist world. A laser passing over the surface of an object produces a digital scan made of millions of measurement points. These data can be manipulated in a variety of ways to reveal new information and advance research. Image courtesy of Smithsonian’s Digitalization Program Office

WASHINGTON (RNS) For nearly nine decades, the Cosmic Buddha statue stood alone at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art.

Museum-goers would pass by the headless, handless statue, a relic of sixth-century China, without a second glance. Few came close enough to even notice the intricate scenes covering the entire stone surface whose paint had worn off.

When exhibit curator Keith Wilson first arrived at the museum 10 years ago, he understood why the statue didn’t catch everyone’s eye.

“It is a difficult sculpture to love because it’s so complicated,” he said. “It’s not sensuous. It’s not a beautiful, white marble surface.”

Yet, as an expert in ancient Chinese objects, he understood the major religious and historic implications of those scenes carved on the form-fitting robe depicting Buddhism’s six realms of existence, from the heavenly realm of the devas at the top to the hot and cold hells of the dead at the bottom.

The interactive 3-D model of Cosmic Buddha highlights hot spots and zones. Image courtesy of Smithsonian’s Digitalization Program Office

Tired of seeing the statue’s significance ignored, he chose to have it scanned in 3-D for the Smithsonian’s digitization project, a process that began in 2011. Now, it is accessible online as an interactive 3-D model showcasing in brilliant clarity images of humans and animals in detailed landscapes across the length of the Buddha’s body.

And because it’s online, this object of devotion is now available outside the confines of the museum gallery.

“You can’t take a field trip to Washington, but you can use these 3-D models remotely,” said David Morgan, professor of religious studies at Duke University. “They give a sense of the object, a sense of its scale, a far better sense of its complexity as an object and as a surface. It’s really quite amazing.”

The Cosmic Buddha stands in the lower level of the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery as the center of an exhibit titled “Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D,” which closes July 9.

Interactive screens, informational posters and two touch-screen computers tell how technology was able to capture the intricate carvings without damaging the statue, as previous methods such as ink rubbings had done.

The technology has also brought about an added benefit: For years, museums have largely ignored the religious teachings that form a large part of their art collections. 3-D scanning allows viewers to explore it once more.

The original limestone Cosmic Buddha from China, made during the Northern Qi dynasty, 550-577. Photo courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art/Neil Greentree

The process “allowed me to see way more detail on the surface, which is also encouraging me to go back to the sutras themselves,” Wilson said, referring to the texts that form the basis of Buddhist wisdom teachings. “You can see the decisions that illustrators have made in how to represent a story and its basic moral.”

Wilson believes the statue was created to be a teaching tool. So, he created a virtual tour of the model explaining what some of the scenes depict.

The whole process brought home the potential innate in the sculpture and reminded him how religious art once served  as visual learning experience.

Over the past few centuries, Western society began separating religion from art, said Eileen Daily, director of the Doctor of Ministry in Transformational Leadership at Boston University. Mostly, she said, this came as a result of generalized literacy.

“Before that, religion was always involved with music, and statues, and paintings and dramas,” she said. “ … It just was part of one’s religious expression for a long time in most places. So it’s almost like we’re the ones who want to separate everything.”

Technology is now allowing museums to reunite the two — the artistic qualities of the work as well its religious meaning and purpose.

For example, Daily created an app in 2011, which users can take to museums or churches to learn about the history and religious significance of the artwork around them.

Daily originally planned to write a book to help the average person understand religious art, but she soon realized there was a smarter approach.

“What it boiled down to is no one is gonna bring a book to the museum,” she said. “So what one thing are people going to have in the museum? They’re going to have their phones.”

The app exclusively covers Christian art and is available only through Google Play for now.

Lis Wittkamper and her children visit the Cosmic Buddha display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., on June 7, 2017. RNS photo by Madeleine Buckley

That constant access to cellphones and technology also means works like the Cosmic Buddha are no longer exclusive to museums. Thanks to the internet, believers and scholars across the world can access its 3-D model from the comfort of their homes or as part of classroom instruction.

Wilson sees the prospect of more uses for 3-D imaging in studying Buddhist history and religion. For example, he said, curators and scholars can order up scans of all the objects in a Buddhist temple and re-create the space virtually, even if the pieces lie scattered in collections across the world.

Overall, Morgan said, technology and museums are changing each other for the better.

“Traditional museum practice tended to be to isolate the object, to put it on a plain white pedestal in an airless cubic space because the focus was on the object as an object, not on the object as part of a ritual process,” he said.

“So I think if you look at museum practice universally now, you’re seeing a very important shift that wants to move to try to understand objects as interactive. These 3-D technologies allow that.”

(The interactive “Body of Devotion” exhibit will close July 9, but the Cosmic Buddha will return to the Freer on Oct. 14.)

Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

 

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Madeleine Buckley

32 Comments

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  • Both men died and until someone can prove otherwise, they remain dead. If it makes you feel better Jesus has more followers. Of course millions more died in his name than in Buddha’s.

  • I was a Christian – baptized even – in my youth until I discovered the truth and it did set me free. The bible was right about that. And unlike the dog in Proverbs (26?) I will NOT return to my vomit, thank you.

  • Yes, you can argue that because the Resurrection is a matter of faith… and to help us all, Christ is sending his Two Witnesses at the end times ie very soon …. you did not know about them? Then go and read chapter 11 of the Book of Revelation or Apocalypse.. they will appear when the Jews start to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, there are prophecies and they will take place even if you believe or not in Jesus Christ!

  • Did this article offend your little snowflake sensibility? Is it possible that not everyone believes the same as you? Is it possible that people even (gasp) Christians appreciate art from other cultures without worshiping their revered subject? Buddha was a mortal who discovered the key to happiness. It is highly unlikely that he claimed to be a deity. But your narrow understanding of the world keeps you from looking outside of your cataract filled vision of humanity.
    The Taliban reacts similarly when someone brings up relics from other religions. Get over yourself.

  • You have to give the Buddhists credit, they are trying to catch up in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

  • Valid point. But I did absorb much of Jesus’s teachings as well as wisdom from Proverbs and nuggets from Psalms. Without the burden of the supernatural mumbo jumbo.

  • That the bible is a book of mythology and religions are manmade. And you all agree with me – except you believe yours is true. So we only differ by one religion.

  • They’ll never catch up. No way can mankind match the bloodthirstiness of your god himself – the flood of Noah, the genocide of the conquest of what would become Israel and the billions to be destroyed at Armageddon for nothing more than not accepting your god. Fortunately none of those events in the past have acccured nor will Armageddon come to pass. But you do have blood on your hands symbolically.

  • I am very familiar with Revelation even after 40 years. Those prophecies are worthless. John was mentally ill or had access to some strong hashish there on the Isle of Patmos. Can you tell me how the prophecies of Ezekiel have been fulfilled? Nehemiah?

  • Lol. Yes! I don’t even believe in you. Personally I’m dead so I can definitely believe in myself.

  • That’s very true. You are dead spiritually. You could be alive with Christ in God. Your choice.

  • And I choose to believe in humanity and what we do here and now. I choose to appreciate the accomplishments of artists of all or no faiths. But I’m sure your god will punish you for that.

  • Sandi Luckins, spare us the sanctimony! You really think that you found the one and only truth, and the rest of humanity is doomed to eternal damnation by your non-punishing God? You really think Christ would approve of your blind, deeply uninformed condemnation of most of humanity? “Judge not lest ye be judged”! Does that one sound at all familiar to you???

  • ” You really think that you found the one and only truth, and the rest of humanity is doomed to eternal damnation by your non-punishing God?” Yes, along with millions of other people.
    ” You really think Christ would approve of your blind, deeply uninformed condemnation of most of humanity? ” yes
    ” “Judge not lest ye be judged”! Does that one sound at all familiar to you???” Yes, it’s about nit-picking people. Christ taught that we should judge with righteous judgment.

  • Great!!! Keep judging people with SELF-righteousness! Keep hating others! Keep your blind ignorance about the profound religious traditions of our world! What a beautiful vision you have! What a great example you set for others. YOUR Christianity is the one sane people are fleeing in droves. Good luck living with yourself. God bless!!!

  • I’m not judging anyone Brad. I’m simply repeating what Christ told us to teach – His commandments.

  • According to you I am going to be punished for appreciating art from another religion, oh and not believing in your selfish deity. I am going to be punished for a sin I did not commit. I am going to punished for being who I am. Or I am going to be punished for taking actions because I can’t be who I am. Your deity punished all of mankind for not listening to it. Your deity punished cities for being unwelcoming and raping everyone came to visit. Your deity punishes people for eating pork, shellfish and getting tattoos. Your deity punished people for trying to get to heaven without dying. Fortunately none of this stuff ever actually happened.

  • You choose your punishment. You want nothing to do with Christ and His blessings here, He will grant your desire in the afterlife. Pretty simple, really.

  • But if it wasn’t a punishing deity it would not need my adherence to it’s ridiculous dogma or the acceptance of it’s offspring/physical manifestation. It would accept me no matter what.
    The reality is that people like you don’t accept anyone but those who buy into the narrow vision set up by a book published by an organ of the Roman Empire.

  • He created you. He knows what is best for you – more than you do in fact. He sets the rules, and you can choose to follow them, or not. You don’t want a relationship with Him here, He won’t force you into one afterward. Pretty simple.

  • you need to understand the nature of your own mind and just what is meant by judgment because by this statement it is clear that you don’t have such an understanding.

  • by your statement it is obvious that you don’t know that Christ taught we should tell the world what He commanded.
    Matthew 28:16-20

  • SarahJ, please don’t waste your time. Many good issues need to be discussed. Talking with a fundamentalist is a pseudo-discussion. Turn your attention to people who discuss, not the brain-dead.

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