Robert Gimello: “Visions of Otherworldly Splendor: The Aesthetic of zhuāngyán 莊嚴 and Buddhist Views of the Anagogical Value of Sumptuous Art”
Buddhist aesthetics is an underdeveloped field. Modern interpreters of Buddhism, both those working within the tradition and those viewing it from without, have given little sustained attention to the question of how, if at all, things deemed beautiful to the senses can have been understood by Buddhists to assist rather than impede the pursuit of liberation. Insofar as a Buddhist aesthetic is conceived at all it is often assumed to be minimalist — an aesthetic of restraint, simplicity, austerity, understatement, ellipsis, etc. And yet Buddhist literature, Buddhist visual culture, and especially Buddhist liturgical practice abound in veritable hyperboles of color, shape, texture, sound, and scent. The term commonly employed to characterize, or intimate, this religious aesthetic is the word 莊嚴 (Chinese: zhuāngyán, Japanese: shōgon, Korean: chang’ŏm), which was often used to translate the Sanskrit words like vyūha and alaṃkāra and which can be variously translated, depending on context, as “glory,” “splendor,” “grandeur,” “magnificence,” “stateliness,” “solemnity,” “majesty,” “sublimity,” “Herrlichkeit,” adornment,” “ornamentation,” etc.). This presentation — drawing on the literature but also the art, architecture, and ritual usages of East Asian Mahāyāna Buddhism, especially its esoteric register — will explore explicit and implicit Buddhist views of the salvific value of the zhuāngyán aesthetic.
A graduate of Columbia University, Professor Gimello is research professor at Notre Dame and has taught at Dartmouth, UC Santa Barbara, the University of Arizona, and Harvard. He is a specialist in Chinese Buddhism, with particular interest in Buddhist thought in the Tang and Song dynasties. He has co-edited Studies in Ch'an and Huayen (1983) and Paths to Liberation: The Marga and Its Transformations in Buddhist Thought (1993), and is the author of numerous studies on Buddhist subjects. Among his many current projects, he is working on a Catholic theology of Buddhism.