Milk Gallery's opening party for "The Vision and Art of Shinjo Ito" kicked off last night with a crowd as glittering as the 16-foot-long reclining Buddha at the center of the party. Television host Padma Lakshmi, actress Jennifer Missoni, and Victoria's Secret model Miranda Kerr were on hand to fete an exhibtion that marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Shinjo Ito, the Buddhist acharya (great religious master) and artist.
"When we heard Shinjo Ito's work was coming to New York, we fought hard to get it," Milk Gallery owner, Mazdack Rassi, said. "This is not just the art community, selling art. This show brings the lifework of a man who was both one of Japan's greatest modern artists and one of its most open, important Buddhist leaders."
Experts including Columbia University Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman (father of actress Uma Thurman) and Graduate Theological Union professor Margaret Miles were present at the opening that included a wild percussion performance by Shinnyo-Taiko, a group of Ito's followers from White Plains.
This touring show first opened in 2006 in Japan, where it attracted more than 300,000 visitors in its 54-day run. After about a month in New York, the 100 pieces of sculpture, calligraphy, and photography will visit Chicago and Los Angeles.
The life story of Shinjo Ito charms, as does his art. In "The Vision and Art of Shinjo Ito," a book published on the occasion of the exhibit's world tour, Satoshi Yabuuchi, who restores national treasures of Buddhist sculpture at the Graduate School of Conservation for Cultural Property at Tokyo National University, discusses the artist's work. "Shinjo's sculptural work expresses much more than the typical process of an artist," he writes. "Rather, I feel this work should be interpreted as the manifestation of his religious philosophy as well as one aspect of his vocation as a religious leader." To get a glimpse into the worldview that informed his art, it's illuminating to look briefly at Shinjo Ito's life.
Born in 1906 into a devoted Buddhist family living in Yamashi, Japan, a mountainous region west of Tokyo, Ito showed an aptitude for art and attraction to spirituality from a young age. In his 20s, he studied photography and won awards for his work. He married Tomoji Uchida (1912–1967) and worked as a flight engineer. He left the profession in 1936 to be ordained as a monk at the Daigoji monastery, in Kyoto, Japan.
During his training, he read a portion of the final teaching of the historical Buddha that would change his life. He once described the epiphany in his own words: "One day I encountered the line in the Great Parinirvana Sutra that reads, 'One who gives priority to making Buddha images and stupas, and takes great joy in doing so, will be born in the Land Immovable (the realm of resolute determination.)'"
Those words proved to be the catalyst that changed his life: He began striving to attain enlightenment by creating images dedicated to Buddha. From that point on, he was driven to meld the practices of creative and meditative arts into one joy-filled way of life.
On November 11, 1956, he began his first major sculpture, the Great Parinirvana Image, a 16-foot-long reclining Buddha, which shows the moment the Buddha entered complete enlightenment or nirvana. The prominent gilded sculpture, which was completed in three months, forms the centerpiece of the exhibit at Milk Gallery. Ito received Japanese Buddhism's highest priestly rank, Shingon, in 1966.
Although he had no formal artistic training, Ito became one of Japan's most significant modern religious artists. According to the executive producer of the exhibit, Hiroko Sakamura: "Shinjo never considered himself as an artist. He was very modest about it."
"I am no professional," Ito once said. "So when I think about it, I feel uneasy as to how much of the loving kindness, compassion, and virtue of the Buddha the images I create with my amateur skills can express. But I do pour my soul into the job, with sincere heart, as if offering three bows for every cut of the chisel. The only thing clearly showing in my work may be that." Ito was also one of Japan's most influential postwar religious leaders. In 1936, he and his wife founded a stream of Shingon Buddhism, renamed the Shinnyo-en school in 1951. His daughter, Shinso, became an acharya herself, in 1971, at the age of 29, and was recognized as her father's best student. She succeeded him as head of Shinnyo-en following his death in 1989. In 1997 she became the first woman to officiate a service in Daigoji temple in its 1,100-year history.
"My father went through traditional, monastic training and attained enlightenment," she said. "He made it available to women. He made enlightenment accessible to everyone."
Ms. Ito will lead a religious service for world peace today at 10 a.m. at the Church of St. Peter, 16 Barclay Street. Later in the day, she will attend the opening of the Shinjo Ito Center, at 489 Broome St., for a panel discussion on religion and art led by Ms. Miles and Mr. Thurman. She will also host a calligraphy demonstration and a Buddhist meditation session.
"The aims of Shinnyo-en Buddhism are to instill in its adherents the values of happiness for all, world peace, and religious rapture," Ms. Miles said. "The beauty of the artworks is the carrier of these intentions."
"Appreciating artwork and the whole process happening inside of yourself could be called meditation," Ms. Sakamura added. "But it doesn't matter whether you are a Buddhist or not."
The exhibit's design melds the feeling of an art gallery with that of a temple. Viewers can approach Ito's work as objects of meditation or simple works of art. When asked why she felt the exhibit was so popular in Japan, Ms. Sakamura had a simple answer. "Viewers can find a serene, calm, relaxing moment in the midst of their busy life."
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