Monju, or Manjusri in Sanskrit, is the bodhisattva (bo-dee-SAHT-vah) of divine wisdom and protector of Buddhist law. He is shown in this scroll painting as a divine youth, elaborately dressed and adorned with jewelry, riding a ferocious lion. In his hands, Monju holds the sword that cuts ignorance and a lotus with a book of Buddhist scripture.
Buddhism is believed to have been brought to Japan by foreign monks or diplomatic envoys in the sixth century or before. During the Nanbokucho Period (1336-1392), more Japanese than ever before ascribed to Buddhism, and the new courtly and warrior classes proved to be prolific patrons of the arts. Zen Buddhism, most famously gained popularity throughout Japan, but Tantric Buddhist influences remained present as seen in this scroll painting of Monju.
Monju, or Manjusri in Sanskrit, is the bodhisattva (bo-dee-SAHT-vah) of divine wisdom. The lotus, sword that cuts ignorance, and book of Buddhist scripture are attributes of Monju and identify him as the subject of this scroll painting. Attributes are objects that carry special meaning or symbolism. They can be used to both identify a figure and gain insight into the figure’s purpose or character. The objects Monju holds symbolize aspects of the transcendent wisdom that leads to enlightenment.
Monju is shown in this painting as a divine youth, elaborately dressed and adorned with jewelry, riding a ferocious lion.
Bodhisattvas are spiritual teachers in Buddhism who aid Buddhist followers along the path to enlightenment. They have achieved enlightenment but have chosen to forego Nirvana and remain on earth to serve as spiritual guides for others. There are many different bodhisattvas in the Buddhist tradition, and they are one of the most popular subjects in Buddhist art.
Monju, the Buddhist prince of wisdom, is a bodhisattva who swore, after achieving enlightenment, to assist those capable of achieving buddhahood throughout the universe. In this scroll painting, Monju is shown as an aggressive figure holding a sword and riding a tiger. However, he is often pictured in sculptures and wall hangings sitting on a double lotus throne in a tranquil and self-reflective pose. Regardless of his appearance, as the bodhisattva of wisdom, Monju protects the Buddhist law and strikes down ignorance.
Buddhism originated in India and is based on the teachings of Prince Siddhartha (sid-DAHR-thah) Gautama (go-ta-ma). Prince Siddhartha was born in 567 B.C. and became known as the Buddha, or Enlightened One. He taught that all life is suffering, but renouncing desires and the self can lead to a state of enlightenment beyond both suffering and existence. Over time, diverse interpretations of the Buddha's teachings led to a variety of sects. Buddhism is no longer widely practiced in India, but has spread to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Far East through missionary activity. Today it is one of the world’s largest religions.
Buddhist teachings are based on the Four Noble Truths: all existence is suffering, the cause of suffering is desire, to renounce desire is to renounce suffering, and one can achieve renunciation by following the Noble Eightfold Path. This path includes right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Siddhartha is also often referred to as the Buddha Shakyamuni (SHAHK-yah-moo-nee]. The Buddha was born into the Shakya clan, and the name Shakyamuni may mean “glory of the Shakya” or “sage of the Shakya.”
Though considered to have officially been introduced to Japan in 538 A.D., Buddhism may have been brought by foreign monks long before that. At the time of Buddhism’s introduction, some in Japan opposed the arrival of this new religion due to the prevalence of Shintoism, a religion that deifies nature spirits and the spirits of ancestors. Many early Japanese-Shinto spirits eventually fused with Buddhist holy figures.
Several forms of Buddhism gained popularity throughout Japan, most famously Zen Buddhism, but Tantric Buddhist influences remained present as seen in this hanging of Monju. Tantric Buddhism evolved out of the earlier traditions of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism that originated in India. Tantric Buddhism is based on the Tantra, a 1500 year old set of Indian spiritual practices that emphasizes esoteric knowledge and practices to speed the path towards enlightenment. A key distinction between Tantric Buddhism and previous forms is the concept of a more rapid progression towards the achievement of enlightenment. Tantric Buddhists believe that Buddhahood can be attained in a lifetime rather than after many reincarnations. New deities inspired by Hinduism appeared as well, such as males (compassion) and females (wisdom) in sensual embrace and wrathful protectors, in addition to a myriad of bodhisattvas such as Monju.
Nanbokucho Period (1336-1392)
Nanbokucho means “period of southern and northern courts.” This refers to the period of nearly sixty years of instability after 1336 when Ashikaga Takauju usurped the northern court in Kyoto and the exiled Emperor Go-Diago established a southern court in Yoshino. The establishment of a northern and southern court directly followed an attempt by supporters of the Emperor to restore political power to the throne rather than continuing to allow military rule of Japan by shoguns and their samurai warriors. The previous Kamakura Period saw the shift in power from courtly nobility to landowning military persons in the provinces. This reflects a system of government that lasted for seven centuries, whereby the military shogunate wielded political and the emperor served as a figurehead.
Military rule and the establishment of a warrior class created a new set of patrons of the arts. The warrior class preferred realism and subject matter that communicated honesty and energy rather than restraint and idealism. Buddhism during the Kamakura period saw many reforms and counter-reforms. The courtly and warrior classes continued the traditions of Amida worship and Esoteric Buddhism, and during this period, more Japanese than ever before ascribed to Buddhism.
Ink paintings were first brought to Japan from China in the thirteenth century by Buddhist priests. During this time, cultural exchange between China and Japan was common, and upper-class Japanese turned towards China for artistic and cultural inspiration. The ink painting tradition, which had been practiced for centuries in China, captured the Japanese imagination and profoundly influenced the development of Japanese artistic culture. Japanese artists first closely copied the Chinese imports, but soon developed a unique style.
1. This image of Monju is rich with colors, patterns, and figures. Look carefully and describe what you see? What colors do you see? How many figures? What is happening?
2. Monju is riding a ferocious-looking snow lion. Consider popular figures that you know from stories and movies. What animals, if any, appear with these figures to provide protection, transportation, or companionship?
3. Monju is a Buddhist bodhisattva who has benevolent and violent forms. What other figures have you learned about in movies or books who can transform into aggressive or extraordinary manifestations when necessary? For instance, consider Clark Kent and Superman.
This image of Monju, or Manjusri, in this scroll painting is meant to emphasize him as an aggressive warrior who protects Buddhist law. Examine the sculpture Manjusri
which presents Monju as a peaceful and tranquil figure. Compare and contrast the two images of Monju, paying attention to expression, body language, and attributes included.
2. This hanging would have appeared in a Buddhist temple alongside many other Buddhist objects. In groups, research a particular religious or sacred structure from the list provided. Create a presentation with images that shows the types of materials, sculptures, and other artistic elements used throughout the space. Potential structures: The Hanging Church (Cairo), Notre Dame Cathedral (Paris), Hagia Sophia (Istanbul), Temple of Heaven (Beijing), Angkor Wat (Angkor), Dome of the Rock (Jerusalem). Compare and contrast your discoveries to Monju.
3. Monju rides on the back of a snow lion in this image. A snow lion is a protective animal common in Buddhist art. Create an image of your own protective animal and write a brief statement providing a name for it and describing its strengths and protective qualities. (Hint: students can also create combinations of animals or hybrids to include various strengths.)
4. Experiment with line, color, and materials to explore the process of painting on scrolls or cloth. Try drawing and painting with ink, cloth markers, and watercolor on various textiles such as unprimed canvas, thin cotton, or silk. What effects does each combination of materials achieve? What challenges did you encounter? After experimenting, research the history of Japanese scroll painting further in books and on the web. Organize and share all of your findings with the class.
| Listen to curator Anne Bromberg discuss this Monju hanging.|
Bromberg, Anne R. Dallas Museum of Ar: Selected Works. Dallas, TX: The Museum, 1983. Cat. no. 82, pages 87-88.
Chicarelli, Charles F. Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Introduction. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2004.
Kakudo, Yoshiko. The Art of Japan: Masterworks in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. San Francisco, Calif.: Chronicle Books, 1991.
Paine, Robert T. and Alexander Soper. The Art and Architecture of Japan. Baltimore, MD.: Penguin Books, Inc., 1955.
Smith, Lawrence, et al. Japanese Art: Masterpieces in the British Museum. London: British Museum Publications, 1990.
This resource packet discusses both Chinese and Japanese scroll painting.
This resource packet from the Asian Art Museum discusses Hindu and Buddhist art.
This resource from the Asia Society talks about strategies for teaching comparative religions.
On this website, the British Broadcasting System gives a lengthy description of Buddhism.
This is a short essay on Buddhism and Buddhist art.
Learn more about Zen Buddhism from the Metropolitan Museum’s Heilbrunn Timeline.
There are a number of resources on the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ Asia website.
This video discusses Japanese Buddhism.
This resource from PBS has teaching strategies for discussing trade.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”