Introduction to Japanese Buddhist Art
Grade Level: Middle School – High School
Includes curriculum unit + CD-ROM + Daruma doll
Today, Buddhism is a major cultural force throughout Asia and even in the West. Buddhism is frequently mentioned in the news and media, whether in politics (Dalai Lama and Tibet), community (a new Buddhist meditation center in the neighborhood), travel (getaways to Southeast Asia), or the arts (the calm Zen interiors). Buddhism has shaped the government, culture, and society of different Asian countries for centuries. Understanding Buddhism then, can be a conduit to understanding Asia, as well as the large Buddhist communities that live outside of Asia.
An Introduction to Japanese Buddhist Art introduces students to expressions of Buddhism in art in the Japanese context. Lessons on art history, Buddhism, religious institutions, and curatorial practices encourage students, with examples of Buddhist art, to see objects in more ways than one and to realize that looking at and displaying these objects can shape our understanding of the world in significant ways. Students also learn about Buddhism's basic tenets and practices, and develop an appreciation for Buddhist cultural achievements by studying images of Buddhism.
The Setting the Context Activity introduces Japanese Buddhism through the daruma doll. In this activity, students develop object literacy skills by observing, interpreting, and generating hypotheses about Japanese religion and society. Students describe the doll in note-taking form, then listen to bits of information about the doll's make-up and meaning. Over the course of the activity, students make guesses about the purpose of the doll and its religious and secular significance in Japanese society and compare daruma dolls with their own beliefs and practices.
Lesson One asks students to think about the meaning of art history and discusses the relevance of art history to their lives. This lesson introduces key concepts of visual arts, such as light, form, composition, color, and line, and provides a framework for students to interpret visual art. During the lesson, students analyze two Japanese Buddhist paintings, the Sonshô Mandala and the Shukuzu Fragment, and discuss the use of visual elements in the artwork. An optional activity provides an opportunity for students to analyze print advertisements using their knowledge about visual art elements.
Lesson Two gives a brief overview of the history of Buddhism and introduces students to its founder, Shakyamuni Buddha. The students learn about the basic tenets of Buddhism and how it spread over time. Students also discover four important schools of Buddhism that developed in Japan and read about how the ancient Japanese Shinto religion and Buddhism coexist in Japan. Through a series of images, students have a chance to examine paintings of the life of the Buddha and to analyze the use of visual elements in the paintings. In an optional activity, students research the four schools of Buddhism presented in this unit and create a poster and class presentation on their research.
Lesson Three introduces the idea of symbolism in visual artwork. In this lesson, students learn about some of the symbols and hand gestures used in Buddhist artwork. They practice identifying the symbols in a series of images of Buddhist painting and sculpture and hear information about each piece of art. Optional activities for this lesson include making a collage of symbols from the students' own lives and researching and analyzing other Buddhist works of art.
Lesson Four introduces students to Buddhist temples and the symbolism of their layout. Students also learn about the symbolism of objects commonly found in Buddhist temples. They view a series of temple images and work in small groups to create a narrative description of the images to be viewed as a student-narrated slideshow. Students also view and discuss a series of images of Buddhist temple gardens. Optional activities include researching and creating a model of a Zen garden and describing the symbolism in each aspect of the garden, and visiting a local Buddhist temple.
The Closing Activity highlights the roles and responsibilities of museum curators. Students are asked to consider the criteria by which art works are chosen and displayed to the public. In this activity, students assume the role of a curator, creating a personal exhibit and explaining their choices in creating such an exhibit.
Each of the four lessons in this unit, in addition to the Setting the Context Activity and the Closing Activity, has specific learning objectives listed. The following are larger goals for the unit as a whole.
- be introduced to Buddhism and to Japanese Buddhism;
- be introduced to the elements found in visual art;
- learn about Japanese Buddhist artwork, including paintings, sculpture, and temple architecture; and
- actively interpret and analyze works of art.