Monday, March 24, 2008

Cost of Enlightenment?

Above: Dainichi Nyorai, detail
Attributed to master sculptor Unkei (11th century)


Last week, Christie’s auction house sold this Buddhist statue for $12.8 million. Once you include the related fees, the sale was worth over $14 million, making it the most expensive purchase of Japanese art in history. It simply boggles the mind. How do you justify that kind of price tag?

You can check out photos and a pretty fascinating audio link on the Christie's website. When a group of scholars examined the statue using x-rays, they found three devotional objects sealed inside the Buddha's wooden body. The relics have remained intact after some 800 years.

The figure represents Dainichi Nyorai (大日如来), the chief deity of the Shingon sect of Japan. Dainichi is also known as Vairocana or the "Great Shining Buddha." Although it makes little sense, the deity is also associated with the Sanskrit letter "A." Maybe it helps to frame the idea in terms of the West. Instead of saying "I am the Alpha and the Omega," this is the god that says:
I am the Alpha, here becoming the Alpha once again.
Here, you can see Dainichi's hands forming the mudra usually identified as the "Wisdom Fist." (Sounds freaking awesome to me...) Of course, the translation may seem a little strange; "Wisdom Fist" sounds like it belongs in a video game rather than in a sacred text. But the intention is highly serious. Unkei is the most well-known sculptor of the Kamakura period. He's responsible for several gorgeous statues at Todaiji temple located in Nara.

The story cuts through a bizarre cross section of issues: religion and history, globalization, and the decline of the American dollar. Was there a more enlightened use of that money? I'm sure that they could use some help in Tibet, where the death count has climbed to 130 according to some sources.

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1 comment:

Fifth said...

I always wonder where collectors keep pieces like this. Maybe in their guest bathrooms, next to the shower?

I'm not sure you've ever explicitly mentioned this, but the most important thing I've ever learned from you about purchasing art is: don't buy unless you really want to lick it.