Extolling the Beauty of Religion

The Chung Tai World Museum

2020 / October

Lee Shan Wei /photos courtesy of Kent Chuang /tr. by Phil Newell

The Chung Tai Museum opened in Puli, Nantou County in 2009, and in 2016 the Chung Tai World Museum was completed, with the original building serving as its Wood Sculpture Gallery. The museum’s collections are the result of more than 30 years of collecting and restoring religious art, based on the vision of the “Five Directions of Spreading Buddhism” of Venerable Master Wei Chueh, founder of the Chung Tai Chan Monastery. The items on display ex­emplify the power of religious art to purify the human spirit. More than nine hectares in size, the venue has magnificent buildings in the style of the ancient city of Chang’an, yet is equipped with cutting-edge technology. The museum and gallery exhibit more than 1500 religious artifacts from many parts of the world and many periods of history. They inspire believers to hold fast to their principles and to act with love and compassion. A highlight of the museum is its collection of rubbings of Buddhist steles from the Beilin Museum in China, one of only two such collections in the world.

The Buddhist universe of space and time

Entering by the enormous yet simple gateway, in an instant you are in the world of Buddhism. The glittering beauty that greets the eye contrasts starkly with the sober exterior walls. The main hall, more than nine meters high, offers a broad and open view. A towering stone sculpture of Tathāgata evokes a sense of dignity and compassion. In the dome above, the caisson ceiling, with a circle enclosed by a square, reflects Buddhist ideas of space and time.

“Our biggest difference from other museums is that we had the artifacts first, and then designed the exhibition space,” says museum director Venerable Jian Chen, who was involved throughout the museum’s planning process. “The museum is the final piece in the puzzle of Venerable Master Wei Chueh’s vision of the ‘Five Directions of Spreading Buddhism.’” (The “five directions” link Buddhism with academia, education, art, science, and daily life.)

“In fact the Chinese word for ‘world,’ shijie, comes from Buddhist sutras,” notes Jian Chen. Shi refers to time, and jie refers to space, which is to say the Buddhist notion of a universe of time and space (known as shi fang san shi—the “ten directions and three divisions of time), the universe of the Avatamsaka Sutra, which nurtures all living things.

To give museum visitors a novel sensory experience, the lighting has been specially designed, and exhibition rooms are themed in different colors inspired by the “Ten Mysteries” of the Avatamsaka Sutra. For example, the hall of Indian Buddhist sculptures, “Ancient Splendor from India,” is decor­ated in orange; the room of bronze sculptures, “Cast in Brilliance,” is done up in royal blue; and the exhibition space for offerings to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, “Jeweled Flower Hall,” is of a solemn purple color. A strong ­atmosphere of Chan (Zen) Buddhist ideas permeates the venue. The design gives visitors a feeling of interacting with the artifacts across time and space as they appreciate their artistry.

The Orientation Foyer and the brightly lit, pure white L-shaped covered walkway at the entrance lobby symbolize the transformation of space and time. In the multi­media ­theater, animations illustrate the compassionate “joyful giving” of Buddha’s disciple Sudhanakumāra. “Combining Eastern design with Western construction has always been the guiding principle at Chung Tai.” Using up-to-date technology to explain the traditional Dharma allows Chung Tai to get closer to people.

The main museum has 18 exhibition rooms and a collection of 1176 artworks. Based on the ideas of “carry­ing the Way with words,” “awakening the mind with images,” and “transmitting the Dharma through scriptures,” it testifies to the history of the eastward progress of Buddhism. The museum, which has been called “the Louvre of religion,” lays out a storyline of Buddhism that enables visitors to experience its evolution through the ages.

Benevolent protection

Venerable Jian Chen has invested enormous effort into the museum’s development and has witnessed its progress from humble beginnings. With a reverent and joyful spirit, he has brought lifeless metal and stone into the world of the living. Also, “because wood sculptures require special conservation methods and a specific exhibition environment, at the preparatory stage we planned a special gallery for wood sculpture.” The gallery has strict temperature and humidity controls, as well as fire prevention and insect control measures, protecting artifacts so that the treasures of past millennia can be passed on to future generations.

For artists and for scholars of Buddhist artifacts, the ­Chung Tai World Museum’s Wood Sculpture Gallery is a treasure house where they can not only appreciate the beauty of the works on display, but also conduct analysis and in-depth study. “You can tell where Buddhist statues are from and the period when they were made based on their style and the methods used in crafting them.” Gallery director Vener­able Jian Pai, who has a master’s degree in art restora­tion from the University of London, tells us lovingly about the 400 pieces in the gallery’s collection. Works can be as large as several meters tall or as small as a knucklebone, with dazzlingly intricate craftsmanship that leaves visitors impressed with the beauty of religious art.

On some statues, the paint has flaked off to reveal the under­lying wood, providing excellent material for ­archeo­logical research. In the process of conserving and restor­ing these works, Venerable Jian Pai has carefully studied the evolution of Buddhist statuary, and this knowledge informs the future vision of the museum as a place of education.

Looking at the detail of the statues’ faces, there is a gradual evolution from the large eyes and bushy eyebrows of South and Central Asian features to the thinner brows and narrower eyes of Chinese faces. Jian Pai says: “The Northern and Southern Dynasties period was a watershed in the sini­cization of Buddhist images. Buddhist statues in the Song Dynasty were far more refined and delicate than those of the Tang.” Song works share in common the reserved ­facial expressions, meticulously carved features, and smooth texture of materials characteristic of their era.

Rubbings from the Forest of Steles

Highlights of the museum include the Buddhist Stele Square and the “Millennia in Stone: Buddhist Steles and Rubbings” exhibition room. “The originals are in the Beilin Museum in Xi’an.” It took two years to complete two sets of 1273 rubbings from the museum’s “Forest of Steles.” Today one set is held by Beilin while the other is at Chung Tai.

The most famous stele, the “Emperor’s Preface to the Holy Tripitaka,” brings together prefaces to Buddhist scriptures from the Tang emperors Taizong and Gaozong with the calli­graphy of the great ancient calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303‡361 CE). There are 1904 characters on the stele, compiled from Wang’s authentic works as collected by the emperors. “Many calli­graphers come to see this, and not just for one visit.”

The works on display in the third-floor exhibition room “Spirit of the Brush: Calligraphy Rubbings Through the Ages” exemplify the broad historical coverage of the museum’s collection. The exhibit reveals the evolution of calli­graphic styles as practised by master calli­graphers down the centuries, and is a rarity not to be missed.

Return to purity

“Every statue embraces the deep meaning of the Dharma.” Buddhist artists have transformed the sutras into images in order to preserve them forever. If you cultivate a mind without attachment, anticipation, envy or greed, you will find in them life’s blessings and wisdom. “We have a duty to preserve the Dharma.” With this deep sense of purpose, Vener­able Jian Chen is leading the museum in linking up with the world. Whether briefly sampling its collection or studying the works in depth, people of different ages and backgrounds will come away with different understandings. “It only takes one experience to be forever on the right path.”

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