Japanese biologist and artist Iwasaki Tsuneo was not well known during his lifetime (1917-2002) although his Buddhist art was masterly and original. He painted themes such as classical Buddhist iconography to majestic views of the universe as revealed by science, using rendered miniature calligraphies of the ‘Heart Sutra.’ Heart Sutra is one of the most important scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism. Iwasaki Tsuneo received posthumous recognition from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In Painting Enlightenment, Paula Arai explores the deeper meaning of more than fifty of his paintings and explains their Buddhist contexts and meaning.
Explaining the concept of the ‘Heart Sutra,’ Paula Arai says that the historical origins of the ‘Heart Sutra’ trace from 150 C.E. India to seventh-century China, depending on whose story you follow. Prominent in East Asian liturgical and devotional settings over the centuries and prized for its brevity (276 characters in the Japanese version), it distills the core Mahayana principles of wisdom and compassion. In other words, it is not easy to understand. Perhaps this is why it has garnered more commentaries than any other sutra. Paula Arai writes, “It has inspired creative ways to access its emancipating power, including being carried in a pouch close to the heart, chanted under the breath in moments of fear, followed in times demanding great powers, intricately brushed on grains of rice, copied on reams of paper on the death of a loved one.” Ingested one syllable at a time for wisdom insights, embedded in buildings, and clutched during childbirth. Some have shaped the Chinese characters of the sutra to form pagodas and Buddha images as a creative expression of deep reverence. In these manifold ways, this text has been woven into people’s lives for well over a millennium, generating a rich and sacred material culture. Paula Arai says that few people who engage in these practices, however, would claim to understand the philosophical meaning of the text. Iwasaki Tsuneo’s novel inspiration was to shape the characters of the Heart Sutra to form lightning bolts, atom, black holes, and DNA to illuminate the meaning of the sutra.
Born in July 1917 into a Kyoto family, he became a teacher. Paula Arai says that Iwasaki Tsuneo was a visionary thinker who cared deeply about the fate of the world. As a seer at the vanguard of civilization, he merges the three streams of Buddhist spirituality, science, and art, generating a powerful current that carries that imagination into new and vibrant waters. His innovative artistry harmonizes resonances he discovered between scientific and Buddhist views of reality; he shaped the Chinese characters of the Heart Sutra into artistic imagery drawn from ephemeral beauties of nature, Buddhist cultural life, and microscopic and telescopic wonders. Paula Arai says that his choice of the Heart Sutra as the structuring element of his oeuvre indicates the philosophical underpinnings of his art. Cognizant of our increasing visual-media saturated world, his aim is to teach transformative wisdom to a broad cross-cultural audience, unimpeded by linguistic barriers.
Paula Arai says that an explicit characteristic of Iwasaki Tsuneo is that it accentuates the role the senses play in perceiving different dimensions of reality. Imagery and science are fundamentally reliant on sensory experience, but Buddhist teachings caution that our senses, if untrained in wisdom, can misinform us, leading to delusions that result in suffering. The untrained senses enable one to see what is conventionally real, but to see what is ultimately real requires a profound transformation of perception. Employing sacred words to form a vast range of images. Iwasaki Tsuneo’s paintings guide the viewer to see wisdom encoded in the objects he portrays and, by an expression, in all things.
Painting Enlightenment brings a collection of some of the greatest paintings inspired by Buddhism. Iwasaki Tsuneo’s enlightening calligraphies are a priceless gift not only to believing Buddhists but also to meditators, artists, and scientists. In less than two decades of his death, Iwasaki Tsuneo has found a great expositor of his art in Paula Arai who has total mastery of Japanese language and culture and Buddhism. Paula Arai’s exposition of Iwasaki Tsuneo further confirms the links between scientific findings and the timeless Buddhist teachings. Paula Arai’s devotion to Buddhism and Iwasaki Tsuneo is unmatched. Painting Enlightenment is a beautifully manufactured, full-color collection of paintings by twentieth-century Japanese painter, Iwasaki Tsuneo.