April – May 1995

Buddhism, one of the great religions of the world, has been for many centuries one of the most important and influential aspects of Asian culture. With over 335,000,000 adherents worldwide, Buddhism stands, with Christianity and Islam, as one of the most widespread faiths in the world today.

Because of the importance of the subject, the University of Iowa Libraries present this exhibition on Buddhism. Although it has roots in India, Buddhism spread to China, Japan and Korea over one thousand years ago, and it has since become a major cultural force in those three countries. This exhibition focuses on the presence, development and influence of Buddhism in those three countries, with representative examples selected from the extensive East Asian collection, as well as other collections of The University of Iowa Libraries.

The University of Iowa Libraries’ East Asian Collection was established in 1960. Today, it contains over 80,000 volumes of vernacular materials in Chinese, Japanese and Korean. It is an important resource for teaching and research in East Asian culture and in global studies at the University. In recent years, the growth of this collection has been facilitated by private donations such as the David Middleton Reed fund, and by two U.S. Department of Education grants. It is particularly strong in East Asian classics, religion, history, language, literature, and art. It includes nationally known collections such as the Reed Collection, the late 20th century Chinese writers’ manuscripts collection, Japanese film studies collection, and the Chinese medical journals collection.

Buddhism originated in ancient India. The name “Buddhism” is drawn from the honorific title “Buddha” (the enlightened one), a title which was first bestowed on Gautama, an Indian of noble birth who is traditionally credited as the founder of Buddhism. Gautama, who was born probably in 566 B.C., was a member of the kshatriya (warrior) class in northeastern India. Although he held a privileged position in his society, he rejected those privileges and took up a wandering life, seeking religious enlightenment. After studying all the religious ideas and practices of his time, he found them all inadequate. Finally, through an extended period of meditation, he became “enlightened” and hence became a Buddha.

From northeast India, Buddhism spread first throughout India, then to central Asia, China, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, and Korea. Wherever Buddhism took root, it profoundly affected the culture there. In turn, it was also significantly shaped by the different milieu in which it found itself. Buddhism in China, Japan and Korea in particular has emerged as a distinctive entity. Although Buddhism in each of these countries has its own unique shape, there are many similarities which distinguish this East Asian expression of Buddhism from its siblings in other places of the world, as shown in this exhibition.

This exhibition consists of the following four parts:

I. Buddhist Images

The exhibition begins with a display of images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (future Buddhas), from East Asian cultures in China, Japan, and Korea. The long scroll of Buddhist images created by the Chinese painter Ding Guang-peng in the eighteenth century is presented throughout the whole length of the east exhibition case. It contains more than 2,000 images of Buddhas and Buddhist scenes. Other images in this portion of the exhibition reveal the diverse ways in which Buddha and Buddhist themes were depicted in sculpture, painting, and stone carving. Many local deities were created, based on Buddhist belief and practice, which through art and sculpture have become prominent cultural marks of East Asia.

II. Sacred Mountains and Buddhist Temples

Sacred mountains and temples play an important role in the development of Buddhism in this part of the world, as they are the places where prominent Buddhist masters resided and taught their disciples, and where important Buddhist ideas were developed. These holy places draw large crowds of Buddhist pilgrims and worshippers every year. They are also famous tourist attractions.

III. Monastic Life

The secluded life of Buddhist monks often remains a mystery to people outside Buddhism. Shown in this part of the exhibition are aspects of monastic life and some of the social rituals of Buddhism found in China, Japan and Tibet.

IV. Sacred Writings in Buddhism

In this part of the exhibition, selected sacred Buddhist writings in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Tibetan, commonly known as Sutras, are presented. Those sacred Buddhist writings fall into three classes called Tripitaka, literally the “Three Collections”: (1) Sutras (the Buddha’s teachings): (2) Vinaya (works on spiritual disciplines): (3) Abhiddharma (explanations of Buddhist doctrines).

This exhibition was prepared by Peter Zhou and David Hudson, with the assistance of Joel Spector, Margaret Richardson, and Sue Munsinger.