Some of the most lively and fascinating examples of Japanese paintings are the illustrated hand scrolls that became popular about 1,000 years ago. The most lavish examples illustrate the lives of the nobility, like the Tale of Genji scrolls, which depict the romantic exploits of Japan’s most amorous Imperial courtier, Prince Genji. Others illustrate the bloody, destructive battles that elevated the samurai to power for many centuries to come. Most intriguing to me are those which illustrate Buddhist teachings and tales, including the gruesome Hell Scrolls, that graphically detail the horrors of rebirth in Hell in order to convert more people to Buddhism, and the Scrolls of the Frolicking Birds and Animals, in which comical creatures parody and satirize human behavior. Since my first trips to Japan, I have put together a small collection of replicas of these scrolls, and have occasionally unrolled them when teaching about Japanese painting. Mostly they sit in my chest of Japanese art treasures. Today I decided to give one to my good friend and colleague, Hollis, who is a curator of Japanese art at the Los Angeles County Museum. We met shortly after I moved out here, and when I didn’t really know any other Asian art historians. Since then, she has been a supportive colleague and a kind friend, giving me valuable professional advice, inviting me to my first ever Thanksgiving dinner at her home and modeling to me how to be an excellent curator. Her hard work, deep knowledge and desire to educate and excite visitors to the hundreds of exhibitions she has curated at LACMA has been an inspiration, and I can only hope she has enjoyed my exhibitions half as much as I always enjoy hers.
Today, I drove over to LACMA to see Hollis and together we walked through the museum’s current exhibition of exquisite Japanese raku tea bowls on loan from the Raku Museum in Kyoto – some of Japan’s most important art treasures and a treat for lovers of Japanese ceramics like Hollis and myself. Over lunch, I gave her the scroll, one that she had said she would like – the The Legend of Mount Shigi scroll, which details miracles attributed to the monk Myoren who lived on Mount Shigi near Nara. He had a magic golden begging bowl, and used it to teach a lesson to a greedy farmer who wouldn’t share his bounty with the monks of the temple. The bowl lifted up the farmer’s grain-filled granary and carried it through the sky to the monks. It’s a great story of the power of faith and of karma, or actions leading to consequences. We have had many conversations over the years about both the ups and downs of our work in Japanese art. Though we may not have our own gold bowls, like Myoren, with which we can perform magical deeds, we should remind ourselves often that we have put in many years of good karma, and that counts for a lot.