Living Things: Buddhist Art in a Building by Tadao Andō
By Francesca Herndon-Consagra
I would like to think of [the Pulitzer] as . . . a space to inspire visitors and even expand their consciousness. I wanted to create a very stimulating place, where works of art are not exhibited merely as specimens but can speak to us as living things.
Tadao Andō, 2000
Reflections of the Buddha presents twenty-two extraordinary works of Buddhist art dating from the second century CE with three works of contemporary art that resonate with Buddhist themes. All are placed in dialogue with The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, the building designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Andō, which opened in 2001. Andō’s philosophy about architecture aligns with some aspects of Buddhist ethics and aesthetics, which may have contributed to his use of simple geometry, modest materials, and natural light. The end result is a space that animates art, and where art enlivens the space. In designing the Pulitzer, Andō worked with two artists, Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Serra, from whom Emily Pulitzer commissioned art for the site: “As a collaboration between architecture and art right from the first stage of planning,” Andō wrote nine years after the building opened, “this was an exceptional task, a pursuit of what I believe to be an ideal art museum.”  Reflections of the Buddha continues this reciprocal relationship between art and architecture in its selection and placement of Buddhist art in Andō’s spaces, allowing for an approach to exhibition narrative that is less historical and more analogous to poetry than to prose.
The Buddhist works in Reflections of the Buddha once served as aids toward or visual expressions of the indescribable state of enlightenment or awakening (Nirvāna), the spiritual insight or awareness that frees a person from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsāra), a concept central to Buddhism. Nirvāna refers not only to the state of an enlightened person after death but also to the state of mind “free of defilements,” grasped while alive.
Buddhism, one of the great religions of the world, is derived from the teachings of its founder, an Indian prince named Siddhārtha Gautama, who lived during the fifth century BCE. After witnessing a corpse and people suffering from frailty and illness, Siddhārtha, at age twenty-nine, became deeply melancholic and renounced his wealth. He wandered as an ascetic for six years, until one night he meditated on existence. Siddhārtha realized that all things are conditional and impermanent and in a state of constant change; all things are unsatisfying, since any pleasure — physical or psychological — is fleeting; and all phenomena lack a permanent self or soul, the realization of which leads to selfless, loving kindness and compassion for others. Through such insights he reached enlightenment. In later traditions, Siddhārtha became known as the Buddha Śākyamuni (sage of the Śākya clan), who became one of many past and future Buddhas (Awakened Ones).
The Buddhist works in Reflections of the Buddha are extraordinarily diverse. Coming from Afghanistan, China, India, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, and Tibet, they primarily represent two traditions of Buddhism that developed in northern India and spread throughout Asia: Mahāyāna (‘Great vehicle’), which began to flourish in the first century CE, and Vajrayāna (‘Diamond vehicle’), which evolved just prior to the sixth century CE. Vajrayāna is often seen as a branch of Mahāyāna, partially because both believe that many Buddhas and bodhisattvas (enlightened beings who have postponed Nirvāna to aid others in achieving it) exist in countless worlds. They are also united in an expansive and optimistic concept that all conscious beings have inherent Buddha natures and are therefore capable of achieving Nirvāna. Yet each tradition emphasizes a different journey to Buddhahood. Mahāyāna’s takes many eons to complete, while Vajrayāna’s emphasizes Tantric rituals and techniques transmitted from master to disciple that offer the possibility of reaching Buddhahood within a single lifetime. The varied works in the exhibition display figures (from Śākyamuni himself to his various celestial counterparts and an array of bodhisattvas) that provide believers with exemplars of fully realized states. These works inspired Buddhists throughout Asia to travel the path toward Nirvāna.
The title of this exhibition refers back to a Tibetan elaboration on the legendary origin of all images of Śākyamuni: An artist was sent to render an image of Śākyamuni, but he could not bear to gaze directly at his brilliance. He could work only from a reflection that Śākyamuni cast on the surface of a pool. Reflections of the Buddha develops the metaphor of this legend by showing how Buddhism has been reflected over the centuries in different cultures across Asia. The exhibition also considers how Buddhists use art as a way to seek reflections of the Buddha within themselves, and how reflections from the Pulitzer’s water garden enhance Buddhist concepts and the experience of art in the building.
A Note to Readers:
This exhibition essay continues in two parts. “Transformative Functions of the Art” examines how works in the exhibition embody and represent Buddhist meaning and experience. “Transformative Functions of the Building” relates Andō’s architecture and the Pulitzer’s building to Buddhist philosophy. To continue reading, we invite you to download the complete print catalogue for this exhibition, which includes the essay in full, along with the gallery guide and exhibition checklist. Thank you.
 Tadao Andō, “The Result of an Intense Dialogue,” in Abstractions in Space: Tadao Ando, Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Serra, ed. Laurie Stein (Saint Louis: The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 2001), 9.
 Tadao Andō, Process and Idea (Tokyo: TOTO, 2010), 226.
 Benjamin Rowland, The Evolution of the Buddha Image (New York: The Asia Society / Harry N. Abrams, 1963), 5–6. See also Denise Patry Leidy and Robert A. F. Thurman, Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment (New York: Asia Society Galleries / Tibet House; Boston: Shambhala, 1997), 133.
 Andō calls the Pulitzer’s water court a “water garden” in his latest book, Process and Idea, 225.