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Ticket to Nirvana- Buddhist Replica Caves at the Getty Center

By Leticia Marie Sanchez

Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road

Exhibit Closes on September 4, 2016

Stepping into one of the Buddhist Replica Caves at the Getty Center- away from the never-ending traffic, unrelenting tragedy in the news, and ceaseless summer political diatribes- feels like a welcome taste of Nirvana.

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Standing inside one of these exquisitely crafted jewel boxes, one can almost levitate- at least mentally- with the flights of fancy inspired by visions of colorful mountains, praying bodhisattvas, and winged spiritual beings that grace the ceiling.

The Getty’s Julia Grimes provided enlightening details about the replica caves, modeled after caves on China’s Silk Road, some dating back to the 4th century. Grimes explained that at the time the caves were first designed, Buddhism was a new religion, present for only 200 years. Therefore, in order to make the religion palatable to new devotees, the artists co-opted other figures into the Buddhist narrative, including Hindu deities and traditional aristocratic Chinese architecture. (Similarly early Christian art co-opted familiar ancient Greek and Roman iconography, such as the image of the wine, Bacchus, and the lamb, a pastoral image of Arcadia, in order to convert new followers). The multicultural images inside the replica caves parallel the vast diversity of China’s Silk Road, a truly global trading route.

Centuries ago, pilgrims entered these “Magao” (peerless) caves on the Western edge of the Gobi desert for a plethora of reasons. Practically minded travelers on the Silk Road perhaps stepped inside as a refuge from the sun. But spiritually minded pilgrims prayed to the Buddha to usher in a new “Kalpa,” or era. The faithful believed that after a period of darkness, Buddha could introduce a new era of light for humanity. Wandering through the replica caves at the Getty Center, I confessed that I also harbored the hope that a bright new Kalpa looms just around the corner.

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Posted by on July 19th, 2016

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