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Reading Buddhist Art Hardcover – October, 2002

4 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

McArthur, curator of East Asian Art at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, has set for herself no small task: to create a concise, accessible primer to the intricate world of Buddhist art. She succeeds, although she eschews most chronological and geographical developments in Buddhist painting, sculpture, architecture and other arts in favor of a simplified, broad overview. After an excellent distillation of Buddhism's 2,500-year history, she focuses on the key figures in the bewilderingly complex Buddhist pantheon, succinctly discussing each one's identity, principal areas of worship, and specific attributes. Next, she identifies the symbolism and function of Buddhism's major ritual objects, symbols and signs, such as the meaning of the various mudras (hand gestures) of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Finally, she briefly discusses 14 major Buddhist sites in Asia, including the unfortunate destruction of the two colossal standing Buddhas in Afghanistan at the hands of the Taliban in 2001. She observes the statues' impressive international appeal, even in antiquity: "In the seventh century [CE], the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang" took note of the two large Buddhas "with their golden hues and dazzling ornamentation." The book itself is generously embellished with 304 black-and-white illustrations, including dozens of original line drawings washed with olive-colored highlights. McArthur avoids issues of Buddhist doctrine to a fault; integrating into her discussion the distinguishing characteristics of the various schools of Buddhism (mainly Mahayana, Vajrayana and Theravada) would clarify elements of each tradition's unique art forms and would add texture to her otherwise superb introduction.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.


A concise, accessible primer to the intricate world of Buddhist art. -- Publishers Weekly

Graceful explanation of Buddhist imagery across millennia and continents...every medium from Tibetan sand mandalas to a shrine in LA. -- The Guardian --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 216 pages
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson (October 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 050051089X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0500510896
  • Product Dimensions: 9.9 x 7 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,443,730 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
"Reading Buddhist Art" has been so helpful to me as a student studying Asian art because it breaks down complex symbols and iconography and makes it easy to understand. The pictures are great and the text is clear and concise. I highly recommend this book to any students or anyone who has an interest in learning and understanding the fundamental artistic components of Buddhist art. It is a key reference for me as I continue my studies.
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Format: Hardcover
Imagine yourself in an Asian museum, or some Asian art shop, on whose wall hangs a scroll that depicted some sort of a Buddhist figure. Assuming that you're someone who is interested in art, wouldn't it only be natural that you turn curious in the identity of the figure? This book, in my view contrary to the negative reviews, does a great job in meeting such need.

The main part of book assumes a very convenient two-page format. The left hand side page consists entirely of photographs and illustrations. This side serves as the index -- as described above, you are to scan through these pictures to find which figure (Shakyamuni, Vairochana, Maitreya, etc), posture (standing Buddha, sitting Buddha, etc), artifact, mudra (hand gesture that is believed in the Vajrayana sect to facilitate reaching enlightenment faster) you seek to identify. To the right are explanations of related symbolism, function, different representations, convenient cross references, and even transliterations of the name of the identity in question into various languages (mostly Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese; less Korean, Vietnamese, Mongolian).

The book evidently isn't meant to be exhaustive. As repeatedly said, I think it is to serve as an introduction to the field. Criticizing the book for being short is equivalent to saying that no introductory book deserves to be written. No doubt there could be more detailed and thoroughly researched references in the field. Yet for beginners like myself brevity has its own merits (though in the long run I might have to purchase one of those more detailed references).
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Format: Hardcover
I don't like to write reviews for books that are not good but I feel that people should think twice before spending their money on this one.
Imagine a book called 'Dictionary of European Words.' It would contain some German verbs, some French nouns, some Italian adjectives, etc. How useful is it going to be?
This book would be a cousin to such an imaginary but nontheless absurd book.
My main gripe is that, as someone already pointed out, it is badly organized. It is nearly useless as a reference book. The faults are too many to mention, so I shall not, except for just one example: all the pictures are B&W, and not even numbered, so that one has to sort through just to figure out which description applies to which one of the many illustration found on the same page.
The real source of the problem with this book is that it tries to cover way too many cultures -- from Thailand to Korea to Japan to Bhutan -- and it tries this in a mere 216 pages (!), including the frontispiece, blanks, and index: as if a Guide to Buddhist Art could be done like a store catalogue. Just the symbolism of the mudras alone would easily take 200 pages, I should think.
Every Buddhist culture has its own peculiar relationship and input to Buddhism. Although there are large areas of doctrinal overlap that all Buddhist cultures have in common, each culture still has its own line-up and order in the pantheon of deities, rituals, implements and practices. This book blithely glosses right over them -- like Doria looking for Nemo in the deep blue sea.
On that note, it bears mentioning that the author has a MA in Asian Art from London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, with a major in Japanese Art.
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Format: Paperback
With its excellent organization, concise explanations in clear language, and straightforward iconographic drawings, my entry level students found Reading Buddhist Art a welcome clarifying light upon a subject that is often impenetrably intricate and arcane. They were enthusiastic about this book. McArthur's achievement is first her neutrality; she does not emphasize one branch of Buddhism over another but rather by revealing the uniting threads in a religion that expresses itself in wide variation among disparate cultures and eras, she offers an overview that allows students to attain a secure foundation of concepts as revealed through art. Second is her exceptionally well designed, easy to follow, structured organization, in which the important particulars of Buddhism are revealed according to this cosmic yet also international and historical scope, and the intricacies of symbolism are shown to have a logic that unites iconography from seeming details to major architectural forms. Short, well-written opening essays focused on history and fundamental concepts precede a pictorial survey of the essential pantheon, presented individually in hierarchical order according to the original Indian name. Each deity is accompanied by a subordinate list of major variant names as they appear in different countries, and a brief yet thorough introductory description supported by comparative iconographic illustrations. This is followed by explanations of minor symbolism, major architectural monuments, a glossary of important terms, and other essential information. The beauty of this text is that it encourages students to learn actively, from what they can see, rather than bog themselves down in abstract descriptions of doctrine.Read more ›
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