The information board outside the “Enlightening Images” exhibit at the Mansfield-Freeman Center opens with two quotes on the nature of images. One is an inscription on a statue of the Buddha from 746 CE: “The highest truth is without image. Yet if there were no image there would be no possibility of the truth to manifest itself. The highest principle is without words. Yet if there were no words how could the principle be known?” The question is one that the exhibit explores through the photographs of William Johnston and three mandala suites in woodblock prints.  Although scanty, the exhibition epitomizes Buddhist artwork as an expression of ideals ancient and modern, natural and surreal. 

The most recognizably Buddhist pieces of artwork in the exhibit are three large mandala sets, each made of at least two separate pieces of paper with woodblock prints. These nesting patterns are a staple of Buddhist artwork and display the elegant simplicity that is the keynote of the entire exhibit. All three mandalas were formed by rings of figures surrounding one central representation of the Buddha (or such my Western mind assumed him to be). These mandalas are remarkable for several reasons, not least because of their venerability.  Although all the prints are modern, the woodblocks themselves are quite old: two were listed simply as “seventeenth century,” while the third is from 1828.  But their artwork and craftsmanship are also beautiful, drawing the eye inward from one wheel to the next.  The more one focuses on these images (which are sometimes used as aids to meditation) the more one notices; I was stunned to discover that, of the many, many figures surrounding the center in each piece, I could not find one identical pair.  Often the figures display a sort of asymmetrical symmetry, two opposite figures holding the same object, for example, but they are never quite the same in their pose or expression. 

The other pieces in the exhibit are all photographs by a Zen practitioner-cum-photographer, William Johnston.  The introductory board praised the link between Zen and photography, saying that they “seem to share something about the importance of the instant combined with the pleasure of calm.” This was a clear theme of Johnston’s work: viewing the photographs, one feels both a great immediacy in the photos and a sense of removal. They show a world that is familiar to us through the eyes of an objective observer, who sees both incredible busyness and great, serene beauty, often mingled together. One photograph shows a beautiful temple, a rock surrounded by the (literally) blurred, hectic atmosphere of the city.  Another is a close-up shot of strings of paper cranes, one thousand paper cranes, blowing in the wind; the cranes are most definitely still, but one feels that a strong wind could pick them up and push them even higher at any second. 

Attention is also paid to the natural world, with both vistas and still shots of often entirely mundane beauty. (One remarkable shot is a still of some beautifully simple, closed lotuses in a pond—the plaque next to it mentions that when the photo was taken, “there were several violet lotus flowers in full bloom to the left [out of frame]…a phalanx of photographers had surrounded them. Upon seeing my camera, one asked what I saw in that place.”) This simple, unpretentious attention to the everyday characterizes Johnston’s work and underlines the principles of Zen Buddhism.

In all, the only complaint I had of the exhibition was that it was so small; I left wanting a lot more. Of course, the philosophy espoused by the artists is hardly one of grandiose showmanship, so perhaps we should count ourselves lucky to have even that much beauty on display. If you have time, go visit the Mansfield Freeman Center; “Enlightening Images” is a small exhibit that is definitely worth your walk.  It doesn’t take long just to look, but try to stay and observe, think a while—that, it seems to me, can make the experience much more rich.

  • William Johnston

    Greetings from Zen Mountain Monastery, where I am in residence for a year, and unfortunately not able to enjoy the exhibition myself. But I am very grateful for your generous, understanding, and well-written review. My only point of difference is that from a Buddhist perspective, the Buddha has no East or West, but is everywhere. May peace be with you.