Among the many striking claims in Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, there is this: “Nothing proves the man-made character of religion as obviously as the sick mind that designed hell, unless it is the sorely limited mind that has failed to describe heaven—except as a place of either worldly comfort, eternal tedium, or (as Tertullian thought) continual relish in the torture of others.” In other words, man is at his creative best when describing torment (see, for instance, the Inferno), and at his laziest when daydreaming about the great lawn chair in the sky. In today’s New York Sun, Lance Esplund begs to differ:
Most of us prefer a massage to a hair shirt; hope to fear; picturing walking into the light, rather than into the fire. That is probably why, although most cultures have visions of heaven, fewer have visions of hell. It is blissful paradise—the protective, walled garden, or womb, of Eden, the beautiful pleasure grounds of heaven—that stirs most fantasies of an afterlife.
Depictions of hell in art and literature tend to be more memorable than depictions of heaven. (Which panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights really stands out in your mind?) But Esplund’s piece, a review of the Rubin Museum’s show “Buddha in Paradise,” is a fascinating rejoinder to Hitchens’s dim view of man and his supposedly stunted imagination.
Amid the variegated diffusion of impossibly infinitesimal forms in these pictures, Buddha is always the calm at the center of the beautiful storm. When the picture spreads like a wild garden, Buddha is a central fountain, temple, or source of light. When the world surrounding the Pure Land is three-dimensional and volumetric (obviously an unenlightened delusion), Buddha is flat, firm, weightless, and formless. When the world surrounding the Pure Land is flat, Buddha, suddenly pregnant with form, reaches forward, becoming volume. In the sculptures, as in the 18th-century gilt copper “Buddha Shakyamuni,” the standing Buddha, a solid, gleaming, golden form, evokes nearly every element (save that of human): His body, seemingly weightless and levitating, shines like the sun. Ripples of air or water flutter across his body, and his limbs and robes appear to rise and to flicker like fire.
The show runs until August 18. Patrons are advised to bring their own incense and finger cymbals.