Cosmic Buddha

Chinese history and language students got up close and personal with the Cosmic Buddha.

More than 40 students met the Cosmic Buddha face-to-face at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery recently. The famous sixth-century statue, which depicts Buddhist teachings in a series of intricate carvings, proved to be a rich source for students on an interdisciplinary field trip that combined Chinese history and culture with language study.

The headless and handless Vairochana, or Cosmic Buddha, has been around for more than 1,000 years, but computer mapping of its complex pictographs now makes it possible for researchers, and students everywhere, to investigate the statue with a 3D model and even see the probable colors of its original form. Student groups from the Upper School’s Chinese 3 and East Asia history and culture classes analyzed sections of the statue on worksheets before seeing it in person. They discussed their findings with docents and then moved into the computer lab to focus more closely and challenge each other with their discoveries. Did they see the heavenly beings at the top of the Six Realms of Existence? What does the statue’s cosmic nature have to do with these decorations?

Students took in various styles of Buddha statues, from diverse regions and eras, and discussed Xu Bing’s Monkeys Grasp for the Moon sculpture. What is the Chinese word for monkey? What does the monkey’s quest for the moon have to do with Buddhism?

As Chinese 3 teacher Xuan Wang explained, “The language students had been reading the folktale, so they could tell the story, but the history students could help them discover the Buddhist moral, the doctrines.” She added, “We have six students taking both classes, and they naturally derived the most benefit. But both sides gained renewed perspectives.”

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