Anek Yen

I immediately rushed over to the new galleries for art of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Byzantine Empire when I found out they were finally open. I had just recently completed a semester studying art history, mainly focused on this kind of art.

I felt a sense of anticipation when I made my way to the top of the grand staircase near the Huntington Avenue Entrance. I found it intriguing that the ancient Greek and Roman galleries were facing the Art of Asia galleries, fulfilling the East vs. West cliché. I was not surprised that the ancient world galleries were full of visitors, bustling with life surrounding the great statue of Juno, who seemed to be staring down at visitors as they entered.

However, the stillness to my left attracted me the most: the Art of Asia galleries felt almost like a blanket providing comfort. The way my feet made contact with the stone floor felt like a greeting. No other visitors were nearby; away from the presence of others, I could only attend to my thoughts. As I made eye contact with the statues for a fleeting second, I held my breath, because at that moment my senses welcomed a most purified form of curiosity.

But suddenly embarrassment and shame devoured me at the realization that I had not been thoroughly exposed to cultures outside the West. How many years studying Western history had I encountered the Greeks? Been engrossed in exchanges with Socrates? Broken metaphorical bread with the disciples over their teachings of Christ? I had only scraped the surface of Islamic art, so I could only admire Mecca from afar, and I still struggled to memorize all the pharaohs and gods of ancient Egypt. Yet, oddly enough, I had not studied Buddhism—perhaps because it is different from other religions as I understood them, without a similar structure or a divine entity to worship. Buddhism challenged my concept of what religion is. There is a dark side to many religions that makes me cautious; wars and conquest in the name of religion drenched the origins of many nations. Religion does not like to be challenged. It is almost as if history is a battleground and human pride acting on faith is the conqueror.

Buddhists believe that all living things exist in a rotation of reincarnation of suffering, and the only way to escape this is to attain nirvana, or enlightenment. The path to achieving nirvana includes meditation, spiritual and physical labor, and good behavior. This statue depicts a person who is on the path to enlightenment—a bodhisattva—but has put off attaining the complete state of Buddha in order to help others end their suffering and achieve nirvana.

This statue is of a man called Jizō, but what exactly does he represent, and why is he significant? What I know now is that he is Japanese, and is seen as a guardian deity of children and travelers. And he is an earth bearer; statues of him are usually made of stone. However, this statue is made of wood and metal, which intrigues me. I will continue to learn more about Buddhism so that I can start to answer these questions. One day I hope to greet Jizō—and the other bodhisattva in the Art of Asia galleries that piqued my potent curiosity—with the respect they deserve.

Author

Anek Yen was a 2021–22 work-study student in the MFA Ambassador program. Anek studies public relations, marketing communications, business, and arts administration at Simmons University.