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Jackie Menzies’ interpretation of Chinese Buddhism

Invited by the China Cultural Centre in Sydney, guest speaker Jackie Menzies delivered an introductory lecture on Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, providing a unique perspective for the Australian public to understand Chinese culture through the lens of religion.

As the former Head of Asian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales for over thirty years, Menzies possesses a unique point of view with regards to popular Buddhism semiotics, through which the deities of Buddhism are reflected.

During the lecture, Menzies expounded her views on the transmission of Buddhism to China, citing the monk Xuanzang as a prominent example, and also gave her views on Buddhism in general, as well as the Four Noble Truths, and the Wheel of Re-incarnation.

The lecture then further moved on to figures of enlightenment, explaining the Buddha, the future Buddha Maitreya, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Chinese Pinyin: Guanyin) and arhats, the selection being slanted to comparable figures appearing in the current exhibition at the Centre.

Apart from presenting the iconography of select Buddhist deities, the talk also touched upon how Zen has been captured by artists throughout the centuries, and the portrayals of Buddhist doctrines by distinct schools of painting.

Various styles of painting of Buddhist figures, from the professional, colourful styles of court artists, to the “untrammeled” style of Chan artists, were also illustrated.

According to Menzies, the Chan school of Buddhism is said to have been introduced to China “by the Indian monk Bodhidharma and soon became popular, with an enduring legacy”.

“The artist esteemed as the first great Chan artist was Guanxiu, famous for his style of arhats which depicted them, in bold brushwork, as slightly eccentric. The colourful, carefully delineated portraits of arhats and other deities often appeared in parallel with the energetic, ink-only style of Chan monks, artists and devotees”, Menzies continued to explain.

The talk ended with interactive discussion between Menzies and the present participants discussing distinct topics raised by the lecture. Following this, the audience was led to the ongoing Buddhist painting exhibition in the Centre, and were able to experience a vivid illustration of the lecturer’s perspectives.

Jackie Menzies was the Head of Asian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales for over thirty years. In this role she arranged exhibitions of Buddhist art (such as the major Buddha and Radiant Awakening), and has frequently lectured on Buddhism and Buddhist art. She is associated with the Australasian Association of Buddhist Studies (AABS), is an Honorary Associate of the University of Sydney, and was also the former President of the Asian Arts Society of Australia (TAASA). 

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