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Buddhadharma : Summer 2019
PAMELA D. WINFIELD 35 was also the tension between the outer form and inner content of the icon, as the decontextualized and objectified outer forms of aes thetic “art”—not the empowered icons and venerated expressions of the dharma—are what moved my Jewish group to deeper levels of appreciation and crosscultural understanding. The sheer beauty of the images in the museum preceded any associated doctrinal ideas. But as we spoke, the ideas soon surpassed the images in conceptual richness and depth. The effect was transformative. For my university students as well, just unpacking the elaborate symbolism of the wheel of life, held in Mara’s maw, is a lesson in Buddhist cosmology and soteriology. They learn about the three root delusions, the bardo stages, the six realms of transmigration, the twelvefold links of causation, and the prospect of emancipation with Buddha pointing to the full moon of enlightenment. In Pure Land Buddhism, the Taima Mandala envisions not only Amida’s Pure Land of Bliss and Repose in the Western Paradise, but also concisely narrates the origin tale of Queen Vaidehi’s desperate plea to learn how to visualize, in sixteen steps, how to be reborn in one of nine possible rebirths there. In Zen, the ten oxherding pictures are partic ularly effective in mapping out the process of enlightenment, as the boy–novice sequentially tames the unruly beast of his mind in medi tation (frames 1–6), empties this mind from his mind and ultimately himself entirely (frames 7–8), and finally reaffirms his transformed self both in and as the world (frames 9–10). Although one may have studied Seigen’s “mountains and rivers, no mountains or rivers, and mountains and rivers again,” sometimes seeing is believing. A pic ture (or ten) can be worth a thousand words. A Buddhist image can therefore serve as a symbol, something that always points beyond itself to some displaced referent—in this case, the dharma. Kukai, the ninthcentury founder of esoteric Bud dhism in Japan, for example, claimed that his imported Diamond and Womb World Mandalas effectively contained all the sutras and doctrines. At the same time, however, if symbols presuppose a divide between the thing itself and its meaning (the signifier and the signi fied), then signs collapse that divide, so that the thing itself and its