In Japan, 300,000
people went to see the exhibition during its 54-day run, but
outside his home country, Mr. Ito, who died at 83 in 1989,
is little known except to his followers, an estimated 900,000
worldwide. The show, which celebrates the centennial of Mr.
Ito's birth in 1906, is the first time his works have
been presented to the general public outside of a religious
context, in an artistic setting.
"People's faces looked very calm and peaceful
while viewing the sculptures in Tokyo,' said Hiroko
Sakomura, 59, the show's executive producer. "It
will be interesting to see what happens in New York, the most
powerful, intense metropolis with an emphasis on art."
Mr. Ito, whose first name, Shinjo, means "True Vehicle,"
and his wife, Tomoji, founded the Shinnyo-en ("Borderless
Garden of Truth") school, based on the Nirvana Sutra,
the final teaching of the Buddha delivered on his deathbed,
2,500 years ago. A passage in the sutra was the inspiration
for Mr. Ito's first major sculpture, the "Great
Parinirvana," depicting the reclining Buddha, who had
raised himself on one arm to address his followers in the
moment before his death and entry into final nirvana. Completed
in 1957 in only three months, the 16-foot-long resin Buddha
is Mr. Ito's largest work and Shinnyo-en's central
The sculpture is traditionally displayed with a halo in a
temple, but the show's producers decided to forgo the
halo for the exhibition. They wanted to allow viewers to circumnavigate
a full-scale cast of the massive golden, smiling Buddha, eyes
half-closed and lighted so that he appears to be emanating
a warm glow from within.
Buddhists believe that the experience of being in the presence
of an image of the Buddha can be a reminder of one's
Buddhahood, the potential for compassion, inherent in all
Taken out of crates on Sunday and put together in three pieces
in the stark white gallery, the "Great Parinirvana,"
positioned as if lying on the beach, seems ready to receive
visitors in New York.
"The Buddha was a man, not a god, who found enlightenment,";
said Margaret Miles, a professor emeritus at the Graduate
Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., who is a part of the
committee that brought the exhibition to the United States.
"People relate to the sculpture. The effect is immediate."
In addition to Mr. Ito's spiritual images, he produced
sculptures of family members, notably his two sons, who both
died in childhood, at 2 and 15 years old. In his earlier years,
Mr. Ito built radios from scratch, studied aircraft engineering
and took up aerial photography. While he excelled at science
and mechanics, he felt drawn toward spirituality. At 30, he
resigned from his job as a technician at the Tachikawa Aircraft
Company to become a Buddhist monk.
One of Mr. Ito's daughters, Shinso Ito, 65, the spiritual
head of Shinnyo-en, will hold a ceremony at St. Peter's
Church on Thursday and will be the guest of honor at a private
opening reception and dinner, with Robert Thurman, a professor
of Buddhism at Columbia, as host.
The guest list features a cast of boldface "very spiritual,
meditative" New Yorkers, as the show's publicist
put it, including Donna Karan, Padma Lakshmi, Russell Simmons
and the Victoria's Secret model Miranda Kerr.
The Shinjo Ito Center in SoHo, an educational site teaching
about the life of the Buddhist master and artist, will open
Thursday and will operate until the show ends March 30.
On Friday night, the anniversary of Buddha's death,
known as the"Feast of Nirvana," was commemorated
with a service at Manhattan's Shinnyo-en temple annex
on West 36th Street.
After the ceremony, the lobby, outfitted with orange Ikea
furniture, was abuzz with Shinnyo-en members eagerly anticipating
the art show. "I never looked at the founder's
work as art before," said Eitaro Hayashi, 36, a priest
who runs a Shinnyo-en temple in White Plains that serves 500
people throughout the East Coast. Mr. Hayashi was introduced
to Shinnyo-en in 1996 by a friend while working behind the
fish counter at a Whole Foods store in San Francisco.
Another follower, Leo Abea, 33, who paints fashion images,
met his "guiding parent," as mentors in Shinnyo-en
are called, in the handbag department at Barneys, where he
"As an artist myself, I think about how, with each
piece he created, the spiritual emotion he channeled,"
Mr. Abea said. "It actually made me a better artist."