Norton Simon and the Buddha Torso

Inspired by the always delightful DharmaRealm podcast which discussed the oddity of seeing Buddha statues in museums in a recent episode

A year or so ago, when I went to the Norton Simon museum for a completely non-Buddhist reason and found a basement full of Buddhist art, I had three main questions:

  • Should I be bowing or not bowing? Is it disrespectful to bow to a Buddha image that is not in a place of honor?
  • Does it get any cooler than seeing that Buddha from Wikipedia?
  • What should I make of the Buddha Torso?

This image is copyright 2008 Norton Simon Foundation

I had to research this image for the blog so I could remember exactly what the placard beneath the torso read – I had recalled it to read “Maitreya Buddha,” but as it turns out it actually called a Shakyamuni torso.

But that is the heart of the question, really: what is the difference?

Amongst all the other noble images I saw this one – without a head, without a face, without arms or legs. Academically, I’m sure that it was identified as a Buddha statue by the location from which it was recovered, but I looked at the statue as it was before me and wondered what part of this was worshipped.

There was a time when it was complete, I am sure. Standing in that way that standing Buddhas stand, lightly but with dignity. There would have been homage, offerings, it would have been cared for.

And it is this content – the worship, the spiritual reverence which found its way into the stone, that places this nondescript torso in a museum. It contains what all of the other statues have, but what can be missed when obscured by iconography: this was bowed to and valued as a precious jewel, the Buddha, the awakened one.

Though I was puzzled for a good long while when I stood before it, looking at a religious icon deconstructed, impermanent and empty like so many things, in the end, before I left and rejoined my friends on the floors above, I bowed.

3 Replies to “Norton Simon and the Buddha Torso”

  1. I say, bow if you need to remind yourself of humility. As in, if you didn’t bow, would it be because you are too proud to bow in public? The Buddha doesn’t need anyone to bow to him or respect him.

  2. I’m beginning to suspect more and more that museums collect these things, not so much because of their religious or cultural weight, but because of how they act as markers, markers of time.

    The other day I visited the Tate Modern and saw the once-scandalous urinal by Duchamp that supposedly changed the course of art forever. The only thought I had was: hmmm, it’s bigger than I thought it’d be.

    I prefer the wikipedia reproduction.

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