Western Buddhism is a form of Modern Buddhism that has emerged recently as an answer to the West’s doubts regarding traditional Buddhism due to secular concerns. It thus does away with many of the superstitions behind traditional Buddhism such as karma, rebirth, nirvana, realms of existence and the like. This form of Buddhism largely focuses on mindfulness, self-awareness and reflection instead.
Consequently, the museum eschews associations with old-fashioned temples and architecture, opting instead for a more modern view and facelift on the religion. This is reflected through every aspect of the building.
With the highest percentage of Buddhists among countries located in the West, with approximately 2.4% of their population identifying as Buddhist , Australia’s state of Victoria has the highest percentage of Buddhists and is also the most densely populated state, and it thus naturally follows that the museum should be situated in the state. It is found within urban confines, reflecting tranquillity in the chaos of today.
The exterior of the museum is white, sleek, and minimalistic. This reflects the state of Western Buddhism as more of a philosophy and tool rather than a religion per se. Little of ostentatious religious icons and structures are seen here. In terms of architecture, it is comparable to the Wat Ananda Metyarama Thai Buddhist Temple, found in Singapore. The use of modernistic geometry and unusual protrusions make the temple appear more futuristic, appealing towards the more secular and youthful believers of today. The clean, minimal look engenders a feeling of peace and calm upon viewers and visitors, reflecting the goals of Western Buddhism.
When entering the museum, one is immediately greeted by live deer grazing in a contained pasture. Deer are used to symbolise students and disciples within the Buddhist faith, reflecting and reminding the visitor of their status as a student and disciple of Buddha. The deer in the pasture are also reflective of the visitors within the confines of their own reality, faced with the choices of either being content to graze away idly or to ruminate upon their existence and break free from those chains.
Incense smell lingers throughout the building as well. This is created with the use of Chinese smokeless sandalwood to minimise contaminants – largely a reflection of the influence of eco-Buddhism in the 21st century. The burning of incense sticks to produce sweet aroma reflects the process of burning or ridding oneself of negative qualities within in order to reveal one’s pureness and truth.
As one of the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism, the Dharmachakra represents many of the core tenets behind Buddhism, namely the 4 Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. These 4 truths guide the teachings and practices found behind all strains of Buddhism, Western Buddhism included and the Eightfold Path represent a way out of the Dhukka, or suffering, that is universal as indicated in the 4 truths.
The next exhibit presents flashing LED counters on a concrete block. This behaves as a metaphor for a human being with all its infinite complexity in its composure of billions of cells . In that sense, there exists the same sense of scale between a singular person and the universe. Western Buddhism imitates this focus inward upon the individual in zooming into his or her innate existence and attempting to gain a sort of understanding and peace with oneself. The idea of time being limitless and connected, and ultimately dependent on one’s own rhythm is also reflected here. Furthermore, the numbers 1-9 are displayed randomly, but 0 is never shown, reflecting the lack of finality in oneself and the universe. The usage of technology also coincides with the rise of Western Buddhism and its coexistence with the increasingly advanced state of technology in the world today, showing how humanism has to be reconciled with technology.
Following after, this piece expresses the tenets and healing aspects of Buddhism. When Montien Boonma first created this piece, he had been undergoing a difficult period whereby he was fatally ill, and his wife had passed. He hence turned to Buddhism for both physical as well as spiritual healing, and his art mirrored his wish to alleviate suffering and strive towards enlightenment. His utilisation of forms, textures, shapes and aromatic herbs also evoke the process of healing and meditation, enveloping the viewer in an architecture that simultaneously simulates the senses while allowing them a ritualistic space to be at peace with themselves and their thoughts.
The TV Buddha is especially relevant in today’s age of social media and technology. This installation depicts a traditional sculpture of Buddha staring into a futuristic TV screen projecting a CCTV feed of himself. While the piece is left intentionally vague and up to the viewers’ interpretation , some themes are brought to the foreground through this, the first of which being the blurring of the subject-object distinction – similar to the multi-faceted roles we play today. The Buddha is also caught in his own reflection and unable to transcend his physicality, much like the vanity of our times. The contrast between ancient religion and new technology is also apparent through this juxtaposition, and how they coexist in peace here reflect the aspirations of those practicing Western Buddhism.
In this next piece, the juxtaposition of the Terracotta sculptures against their small, pop-culture inspired heads spells out many conflicts present in modern day society – science versus religion, nature versus human intervention, fact versus fiction and individual versus cultural identity. The piece also highlights the banality of mass culture in how uniform the sculptures are and with the transformation of the sculptures into kitsch. In this realisation, there is freedom from the illusions of culture and drive toward introspection.
Last but not least, Dissected Buddha addresses how technology and mass-produced pop culture impair our ability to apprehend the Buddha’s enlightened form. In this case, that form consists of a fractured collage of stickers and visually appealing cartoon characters, consumer goods, and sinister political figures. The bright, textually dense mass reflects many aspects of modern living such as mass marketing and consumerism. The mass defies comprehension, but one is seductively drawn in all the same and rewarded with a rich tapestry of familiar forms—a collage of whimsical texts and captions questioning the political status quo. These minute details monopolises the viewer’s attention and in the process, distracts from the entirety of the work, making viewers lose sight of the Buddha, and metaphorically speaking, enlightenment.
Ultimately, the aim of this museum is to showcase the evolution and current status of Western Buddhism in an accessible, decontextualized manner. The philosophy and thought driving Western Buddhism will continue to expand alongside modern society’s development, but the core tenets of Buddhism will always remain relevant, with the museum’s presence expressing that.