Painting Enlightenment: Healing Visions of the Heart Sutra

Image of Painting Enlightenment: Healing Visions of the Heart Sutra
Release Date: 
September 10, 2019
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Opening with a Foreword (written by the iconic Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman) that oozes praise from the very get-go, one can’t help but be skeptical. Is it really possible that a simple book could be such that, “The magnificent art . . . draws you into its world of perfect balance, wise knowing, and compassionate feeling, resonating with the beauty of nature in all its dimension. Generous, selfless, patient, creative and transformative—we open this sumptuous book . . .”

Magnificent, perfect, wise, beautiful, sumptuous. Seems a bit over the top. Yet Painting Enlightenment really does deliver all of this, and more. Thurman rattles off a few more paragraphs of Buddhist jargon where we are not exactly sure what he is saying, and then he quickly releases the baton.

A foundational translation of The Sutra on the Heart of Realizing Wisdom Beyond Wisdom is provided, and then we are off and running with Arai and her wise and wonderful reflections. Arai, laden with the most respectable professional credentials there are, is surprisingly thoughtful and refreshingly personable.

Somehow, in a span of less than 200 pages, she is able to teach us about art, science, Buddhism and existential philosophy; she spells out a wicked-smart biography of an incredibly impressive person—Iwasaki Tsuneo; she makes us feel quite intelligent as if we have understood something very profound and complex; and we end up becoming endeared to Arai herself, bowing to her with palms together in gratitude as we close out the final pages.

Arai organizes her content into three parts. Part One: Iwasaki, Scientist and Healing Visionary, in which Arai’s first-person narrative leaps off the page and we begin to realize that there is something deeply personal going on here for Arai herself and she is opening up to us using her diary, her heart and soul.

“It was raining that early spring evening in Nagoya when the phone rang.” One could easily mistake this opening line for one in a novel. She proceeds to admit to having her two-year-old son accompany her and then questions the effectiveness of her Harvard doctoral training in yielding insights into her philosophical thoughts and textual analysis! This, we sense immediately, is not your stereotypical Ivory Tower academic. Thank goodness.

Part One continues to cover Arai’s background in this subject matter and her motives for repeated encounters with Iwasaki, the artist behind the paintings. Their connection, their friendship, evolved into something of a serendipitous meeting of two sympathetic souls and the two obviously have profound respect for each other.

With the basis for their interaction established, Arai enters into an enriching summary of her interpretations of parts of the Heart Sutra as they relate to understanding the meaning and symbolism in many, if not all, of Iwasaki’s images. Suffering. Form. Emptiness. Non-attachment. Interdependence. Buddhism 101.

Iwasaki copied the Heart Sutra in its entirety into each and every design, sometimes copying it thirteen or more times per piece. Scripture copying is considered a meditation practice which was encouraged by the Japanese Empress Kōmyō (701–760 CE) in an effort to make the Buddhist scriptures more available to the public. Taking this very seriously, Iwasaki began formal training in calligraphy at the age of fifty-five and incorporated the devotional practice into his artwork more than 2,000 times.

Part One ends with some insight into Iwasaki’s artistic process and an invitation for readers to walk slowly through the rest of the book. Iwasaki created these pieces meditatively and he offers us the opportunity to, in turn, reflect meditatively on them. Or not. Because, interesting as it may be, one does not need to know anything about this background information to be impressed with the results. They carry that certain “wow” factor all on their own.

In Part Two: Seeing the Wisdom of Compassion, Arai breaks out the Heart Sutra into eight concepts: Inter-being, Flowing, Nurturing, Forgiving, Offering, Awakening, Playing, and Flourishing. She uses Iwasaki’s masterpiece paintings to expand on the attainment of enlightenment in each area.

So impressive is Iwasaki’s ability to include science into his artistic vocabulary, he has selected material from the spectrum between microscopic and macrocosmic. He has written the Heart Sutra into a DNA strand as well as into a depiction of the vast universe in the starry night sky, and into everything in between. From lightning, to water drops, to a line along which a skeleton climbs in an effort to pull itself out of its self-inflicted mental hell, the Heart Sutra is infused into every aspect of life both tangible and imagined.

If pressed to select one stand-out from Part Two it would be Big Bang: E = mc2 , the culmination of years of patient and painstaking detail presented in a massive mural-sized 16 x 6 foot multi-scroll masterpiece. Arai takes her time with this piece and her enthusiasm for it is contagious. But also Mandala of Evolution, and Nachi Waterfall, and Pilgrimage to a Pagoda, and Eclipse, and Radiating Pearl, and Cat’s Eye, and Moon Viewing, and Bubbles, (and, and, and, don’t forget to breathe), with so many powerful options, we easily get carried away.

Rounding out Arai’s presentation is Part Three: Healing Art, Healing Heart, serving as a conclusion. Here Arai wraps up her points that relate to the sub-title: Healing Visions of the Heart Sutra. We are pulled back into the classical purpose of sutra: as wisdom to help weather the storms that life brings, to make sense of the paradoxes we encounter, and to guide us along our walk in this world. Painting Enlightenment relates Iwasaki’s art world to our personal circumstances linking art and science within the wider vision of divine nature. Thurman’s opinion is echoed here and the reader will walk away from this deeply touched.