For me, and likely many people, art was my introduction to Buddhism. I don’t remember when I saw my first Buddha statue, but I feel that I’ve always known them since I was very little.
Devotional art has been part of much of my life. When I was a child, my mother made part of her income from creating carvings of angels and miniatures of Noah’s arc. Now I find myself creating religious crafts of my own in the form of Buddha stamps and knotted malas.
Spiritually inspired art seems to be a truly universal language between religions. The first temple of Jerusalem was said to be decorated with angels. Many churches are known for having some piece of art in nearly every nook and cranny of the structure. At Amida Malvern, I could rarely turn a corner without being in the presence of a buddha or bodhisattva.
For many Buddhists, devotion may be expressed through a statue of Shakyamuni, or a scroll depicting Quan Yin. For Ippen, it was a painting of Shandao’s allegory of the “White Path,” a scene depicting a traveler attempting to cross a river of water and fire by way of a thin white path to meet Amida on the other side. Without words, such imagery depicts much of the wonder and challenge of the spiritual life.
Even in more secular circumstances, devotional art thrives. My Twitter feed is often full of fan art of Link, Princess Zelda, Aloy, Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Goku, Vegeta, Cloud, Daisy, and Saitama.
Art made in devotion to something brings form to the abstract. In the context of a video game or anime character, it may be a way for a fan to communicate a faith and affection towards what that character represents. I would argue that, in many contexts, it is a kind of spiritual devotion.
For one who lives a spiritual life, every painting, sculpture, rosary, and carving, made in reverence, is faith manifested into a rupa (form). Likewise, a rupa nourishes the faith of those who encounter it. In this way, art expresses Dharmavidya’s teaching that “faith and practice cannot be differentiated.”
In my case, expressing my faith through art brings me into a deep encounter with the Dharma. It creates a connection that is beyond words and doctrine. Like the Nembutsu, it gives me a way to celebrate in gratitude.
Namo Amida Bu