Edward Munch’s The Scream has just become the most expensive painting ever sold at auction. Meanwhile, Buddhists around the world are celebrating the Buddha’s Enlightenment by contemplating images of the Buddha. What is the mysterious power that images have over us? What do the express? And which should we choose dwell on?
A wraith-like figure stands before a fireball sky. Everything is reeling and distorted. The figure’s hands clasp its head, blackened lips gape open and pinhead eyes fix the viewer. He’s screaming.
On Thursday an anonymous buyer bought Munch’s The Scream for £74 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at auction. Personally, I would pay good money not to have it gazing down at me, but there’s no denying its impact and popularity. We instantly grasp the feelings the painting expresses, and around that our culture has weaved further meanings that make The Scream an emblem of modern angst, torment and alienation.
The power of images lies in their capacity to express experiences and perceptions that words can’t capture. That’s why they’re so important for Buddhism. Today, Buddhists in many countries celebrate the festival of Wesak, or Buddha Day, which marks the Buddha’s Enlightenment. It’s the central event of Buddhist history, yet it’s hard to say clearly what happened. Buddhist teachings include many definitions of Enlightenment, but these stress that it transcends our normal ways of thinking.
However, images offer another way of approaching the Buddha’s state. A man sits upright in meditation posture. His eyes are half-open, suggesting the inward focus of his attention. He is poised, alert and one hand reaches down to touch the earth: the legends tell us he’s calling on the earth goddess to witness the authenticity of his state. His face is tranquil and the suggestion of a smile touches his lips.
When I first started to look at images of the Buddha, I sensed a connection between that inward gaze and the peace he exudes. By understanding himself, the image suggests, the Buddha has grasped a truth that’s greater than any individual and made peace with the world. The image doesn’t define Enlightenment, but in the hands of the greatest Buddhist artists, it vividly evokes it.
Contemplating images of the Buddha opened up for me the whole realm of visual imagination. In turn, that made western art more accessible. I learned that, if you let them affect you deeply enough, images can evoke fresh states of mind and convey meanings that elude your thinking brain. That’s true of The Scream, which evokes anguish, and also true of the utterly different images of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. They intimate a way of being I find deeply attractive and I want to realise in my own experience. That’s what I’ll be celebrating this Wesak.
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