6 luohans on the first floor of the ROM, the Asian culture galleries.
I only went to Toronto for the day, and and only had a few hours to spend with the boys. To make the most of the trip, I decided to get into a Buddhist frame of mind so that I might draw these fellows with more understanding.
My friends, Dan and Pam, recommended reading J. Macey’s Active Hope and I started it a few weeks ago. Honestly, it’s a tough read. Over the weekend I listened to Pema Chodron’s Bodhisattva Mind. From this small immersion, I got the message to stay in the present and be open. Easy.
The boys are a group of six monks carved in sandstone from the Song Dynasty (1000-1200 AD). The religious term for them is luohan. The ROM blurb didn’t explain much about them but from my bit of research, they were a kind of spiritual warrior for the Buddhist faith at a time when it was experiencing persecution in China. These luohan continue a communion that started a millennium ago. So cool.
The luohan aren’t boys, I discovered, but strong men in many senses. Calmness is under appreciated in our culture. As I drew them, I felt the power of it. They were centred, unique, compassionate, yet there was muscle under the cloth. These boys could walk, and sitting still, I imagine, wasn’t a passive activity for them either.
Luohan with a dragon at his foot, ROM.
What surprised me as I drew, was that I began to see monks through the sculptor’s eyes. Each man was a model to be cajoled into a pose and flattered into an attitude which would serve both personal vanity and the cause of religious teachings. The sculptor may have been a monk himself (sorry, have to assume “he”); he would have had to answer to an abbot of sorts, to the traditions of his craft and religion, if he could separate these.
From the dates, it’s likely that more than one sculptor would been involved in portraying this group, yet the style and details are incredibly consistent. The stone blocks had their own grain and inclusions. Not perfect or painted over. So the execution was very important. Imagine sanding the heads and faces, the lips and brows, so smoothly–polishing into the stone to bring out the flesh. The tension between body and spirit.
I would date the Buddhist Boys at the ROM again, but will confess my crush may have shifted to the artists who created them.