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Fri, Aug. 20th, 2004 12:01 am
Scratch Japan, find Ancient Greece

Well, colour me gobsmacked. Apparently there's a connection between Greece and Japan, and it's not the 13 medals Japanese athletes have so far won at the Olympics. No, it's Greco-Buddhism. Now, I must admit that until yesterday I had never heard of Greco-Buddhism. If I'd noticed any links between Greece and Japan, they'd been fairly random and nebulous observations; a weird sense that Tokyo and Athens resembled each other when I arrived here for the first of my long stays in 2001, or watching clips of torture from a Japanese TV show called Endurance on Clive James's show back in the 80s and learning to think of the Japanese as Stoical, or noticing Mishima's attraction to Greek images of male virility.

But apparently, thanks to Alexander the Great and the traders of the Silk Road, Mahayana Buddhism was influenced by Greek culture in its early days. And so it is that the realistic depictions of the Buddha we see in Japan today were first made by the Greeks; before Greeks made sculptures of the Buddha wearing Grecian robes, with a Grecian topknot hairstyle, he was shown in Asia only as a set of abstract symbols; an empty throne, the Bodhi tree, a set of footprints, a prayer wheel.

'Many of the stylislic elements in the representations of the Buddha point to Greek influence,' says Encyclozine: 'the Greco-Roman toga-like wavy robe covering both shoulders, the contrapposto stance of the upright figures and the measured quality of the faces, all rendered with strong artistic realism.' What's more, the fierce guardians and attendants often seen flanking the Buddha in Japanese temples are said to be based on Hercules.



These rather mind-boggling visions of a cultural syncretism pre-dating Shibuya-kei by twenty five centuries were rattling around in my head today as I looked at an exhibition called 'Treasures of Buddhism' at the Osaka City Art Museum. But the stuff that struck me as gorgeous in this show -- and a lot did -- was stuff that departed furthest from Western art, prompting the question 'Why didn't we draw that way?' ('That way' being, for instance, an impossible landscape containing the same man in different stages of his life, or an Emperor floating in a magnificent robe resembling a piece of squashed origami.) And the answer is, we did draw like this in the West, but only before we invented the rules of perspective. In the same way, we had music that sounded as fresh and strange (to my ears) as Japanese music does, but only before we standardised on the 'well-tempered' scale. These things seem transparent to us now, we call them 'Realism', we think of ourselves as having 'got things right' when we settled on them. But in fact they're just conventions and rules, no better or worse than any other. And they become worse when, like Christianity or Microsoft, they squeeze out other scales, other systems and become unchallenged orthodoxies.

Looking at an image of the Emperor Godaigo spread in his robes like a big flat origami duck, or a scroll that packs a lifetime of narrative detail into a single frame, I find a hidden reproach to the 'realism' of western art, which still dominates today in the form, for instance, of Hollywood films (have you ever heard a Hollywood film with a microtonal score?). Only the western avant garde, or lunatic maverick outsiders like Harry Partch and Henry Darger, have challenged the dominance of western norms like the well-tempered scale or the rules of perspective. It's ironic that what Buddhist scrolls and hangings achieve through formula and a perceived absence of individualism we've achieved in the west by pushing individualism to zany extremes.

Here's Preston Wright's description of the moment Harry Partch got interested in non-tempered, non-Western scales:

'The public library became his best friend. One day he finds a big German book full of numbers and diagrams. Herman Helmholtz had written all about the history of tuning systems, harmony, and consonance/dissonance. The 12 equal steps of the piano were but a momentary aberration in the scale of things: intervals are better described by numbers (string lengths or frequency ratios) rather than letter names; the Greeks, Arabs, Chinese, Indians, and Europeans had all proposed different kinds of tunings and temperaments, and music had evolved along with them. Then one day it stopped. No one had mentioned Pythagoras or Rameau during music classes; indeed no one had mentioned there was ever a problem. The keyboard was simply a God-given fact.

'Now Harry had a mission: set the world right for the speech-music connection, even if it meant making instruments differently. Even if it meant going back to the time when music history went off the rails. Even if it meant taking a closer look at music from non-European backgrounds. Even if it meant seeing what else the Euro-centric, religion-obsessed establishment was hiding from him: the wondrous human body, his sexuality, the artificial separation of music, dance, and drama.'

(From Harry Partch's World)

That's an exciting passage, because it shows how questioning something as arcane as a musical scale can lead to questions about the body, sex, everything. If there's no end to the things we take for granted, so there's no end to the dizzying alternatives that open up when we ask 'Why the hell does it have to be done this way? Who says they got it right? Why stop here just because everybody else did?'

And if you say that I came away from that Buddhism show with little more than my post-Protestant radicalism sharpened, I can tell you that you're quite wrong. I also strengthened my view that patterned robes are the clothes of the future as well as the past. And I've decided at some point to recruit two cutely fierce red-faced attendants who will flank me at all times, evoking distant memories of Hercules.

31CommentReplyFlag

klig
Mojo Filter
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 04:03 am (UTC)

The Alexandrine splinter kingdom of Bactria, in what is now Afghanistan, had a highly developed Greco-Buddhist culture. It's not so well known now because it got repeatedly beaten up by various Persian kingdoms and was ignored as the centre of Indian culture moved from the Indus to the Ganges.


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tomalotocamelot
The Diabolical Dr. Z
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 04:28 am (UTC)

Harry Partch is my boyfriend.


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sparkligbeatnic
sparkligbeatnic
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 04:41 am (UTC)





The information pamphlet at Shin-Yakushiji (built 757) temple in Nara (close to the photography museum) claims architectural similarities to the Parthenon. Not to be confused with the older, Yakushiji temple, which is also worth a visit.

Gandharan Buddhist sculpture is the point of connection between Greek and later Buddhist sculpture. There are several significant private Japanese collections and I've seen a couple of exhibitions in Japan in the last couple of years. I prefer the Indian, Chinese, and Japanese stuff, or straight classical Greek sculpture. I haven't quite figured out why yet, but very few Gandharan pieces do it for me. I've read somewhere that Buddhism got as far west as Hungary.

More importantly there are clearly links between Buddhist and Greek thought, most clearly the idea of balance.

Another interesting link: some writers have stated that Noh drama, with its masks and chorus, gives us the closest approximation of what it may have been like to attend classical Greek theatre. But it seems unlikely that there can be much more than a very indirect influence in this case, Noh is relatively new compared with the examples given above.

Chinese and Japanese music both use Just Intonation scales. The circle of fifths was known in China millenia before the time of Pythagoras.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 07:31 pm (UTC)

Suddenly everything Japanese is looking suspiciously Greek to me. For instance, this gatehouse just outside the museum where I saw the Buddhism show:




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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 04:53 am (UTC)

Did you say Godaigo? Is this converging on some kind of celestine prophecy? One of zany outsider Kubiak's favourite conspiracy theories on Godaigo and the "real" emperor of Japan (http://www.nancho.net/nancho/otheremp.html).


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jellything
jellything
?
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 04:59 am (UTC)

>before Greeks made sculptures of the Buddha wearing Grecian robes, with a Grecian topknot hairstyle, he was shown in Asia only as a set of abstract symbols; an empty throne, the Bodhi tree, a set of footprints, a prayer wheel.

That's a gorgeous idea, the Buddha represented only by the signs of his absence...I expect now I'll be wistfully entertaining thoughts of alternate histories where the Greek influence never happened, and such a wonderfully evocative approach to sculptural depiction was allowed to play out its own history. (Rather like imagining possible alternative developments to Western arts if the musical scale or the rules or perspective hadn't become the standard, I suppose...)


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sarmoung
sarmoung
The Empire Never Ended
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 06:09 am (UTC)

When I first visited Nara, my guide kept on going on about the use of entasis in column construction, which is another supposed example of Greek influence to be found in Japan. This seems fairly plausible. Certainly much more so than the many bizarre theories to be found about early Japan. I always though that the refusal to open imperial burial sites to archaeological investigation was because they would so strongly indicate the imperial system's Korean origins. But, who knows, there could be Greeks within...

It's also with the Greeks, and the Byzantine and Eastern churches, that you can find traditions of music and representation that disregard these Western rules of perspective and temperance. I played a piano in Tbilisi last year that had been built by a Georgian musicologist to work in their traditional tunings. He'd never heard of Harry Partch.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 06:18 am (UTC)

I must say I'm constantly impressed by the erudition of people reading this journal. I stumble on something like this and everybody's already there, deep into the subject.


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bethanyrose
bethanyrose
bethanyrose
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 08:12 am (UTC)

This Greco-Buddhist link is a new idea to me, anyway! What an intriguing concept, though, that the legendary 'golden thread' of mystical/philosophical thought can be traced in this particular way. Thank you for sharing this information.


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bifteck
bifteck
Meredith
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 08:51 am (UTC)

Oh, fascinating! I'm taken aback at this connection between worlds. I love stumbling across a whole new way of looking at something one thinks one knows a lot about.


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mariocanario
marioesimbecil
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 08:59 am (UTC)



man if you start wearing greek robes i'll follow your example (i'm not going to start it i have enough of a clownish reputation everywhere already, i don't want to provoke just set me private parts free)


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andrewducker
andrewducker
Andrew Ducker
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 09:35 am (UTC)

I've always wondered about this one.

Greek letter Psi:

Weapon Sai:


Coincidence? Or something more sinister?


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queersolitude
queersolitude
Little Ms. Sexy Photon
Fri, Aug. 20th, 2004 01:04 pm (UTC)

interesting coincidence or connection.


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auto_appendix
Jason Weaver
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 11:15 am (UTC)

I saw a documentary over Easter about the idea circulating in sections of contemporary Christian theology that when Jesus disappeared for 30 years, he was in India studying Buddhism - which is where the radical break with Judaism came from - and that after the crucifixion was 'fixed', he went back there. Again, the Silk Route was a mere motorway to these folks. There's a tomb and everything... Globalism? Pah, that's as old as the world itself.


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auto_appendix
Jason Weaver
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 11:18 am (UTC)

And it was on BBC4 rather than the History Channel, which gave it some credibility.


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4minutes33_2nds
4minutes33_2nds
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 04:11 pm (UTC)

before we invented the rules of perspective

Thank you for this thought. I often forget what man is capable of.

Also, is a return to form regression or finding value in the past? Is it important to know a good thing when we see it, even if we are not its founders? Innovation leads to the future's consideration of the past's value.


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psychicmongoose
Emily
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 08:01 pm (UTC)

In a museum I saw some Native American maps that depicted the shape of the journey instead of the shape of the land. A long stretch of river indicated a long travel period, not a long distance. Lewis and Clark couldn't read them at all.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 08:30 pm (UTC)
Greek heritage of Japanese culture?

I'd like to caution against reading too much into tenuous parallels between Greece and Japan. The tendency to do so by the Japanese and Japonphiles probably dates to the Meiji era when the Japanese tried to re-invent themselves as the "Europeans of East Asia". Greek roots are just the thing for justifying that claim. Perhaps it's an idea some of the Meiji architects got from the Germans of the late 19th and early 20th century, who considered themselves the rightful inheritors of the cultural tradition started in classical Greece.

Off topic but I read in the newspaper the other day that much of the pageantry and iconography, including the five circles logo and the torch race, of the present day Olympics was initiated at the 1936 Olympics, hosted by Adolf Hitler.


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xchimx
xchimx
john fisch
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 09:29 pm (UTC)

I would think that a great deal of the appeal of artistic realism has a lot to do also with its usage to the layman as an easy disclosure of the artists skill. Still, even this I suppose is largely class-centered around the use of art as commodity. But then whose fault is it, the purchasers or the creators?

I secretly love the theremin - the first electrical instrument based on radio waves. It has the ability to create the strangest music, completely void of Italy's Pythagoranesque scales. However, if you have only used one a few times such as myself, it is far easier to create non-sensical tones that sound rather unpleasant, whether your ear is western or not. I think I'm trying to say in a round-a-bout way that artistic orthodoxy isn't entirely bad as long as there is a willingness to explore outside of it if necessary. but that's just me.

hello by the way. my friend kevin introduced me to your journal and I added you a week or so ago unbeknownst to yourself - or so I thought until i discovered that you added me back. now i feel guilty for never having introduced myself, so i shall do it now: my name is matt, i live in montana. i enjoy reading your journal and i hope you don't mind if i leave incoherent comments for you occasionally.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Aug. 19th, 2004 11:59 pm (UTC)

Delighted, I'm sure! Welcome. I tend to add people who add me automatically, so I can read their journals on my Friends page.


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