Magazine Feature

Why Does the Buddha Have Long Ears?

A North Carolina museum educator invites students to explore religious diversity through art.

Ray Williams pauses at the entrance to the Hindu temple in Morrisville, N.C., and removes his size 13 oxfords, placing them awkwardly in a cubicle made for shoes smaller than his. It's a custom that demonstrates respect for this sacred space. But it also reminds Williams, curator of education at the Ackland Art Museum on the University of North Carolina (UNC) campus in Chapel Hill, that he is an outsider here.

At the temple, he will get ideas for his Web page on the Hindu god Krishna and discuss the possibilities for an upcoming storytelling event. Then he will drive to a synagogue in Durham where he will talk with young photographers about their images of Shabbat (the Sabbath). Williams grew up in a small, solidly Protestant North Carolina mountain community where there was not a Catholic church in sight, much less a Jewish synagogue or a Hindu temple. Today, he is at the center of an innovative collaboration to design teaching resources on world religions.

Under Williams' leadership, area artists, scholars, clergy, teachers, parents and children have joined in a great wheel of activity called the Five Faiths Project -- made up of storytelling groups, photography workshops, museum exhibits, classroom projects and community performances -- all with the museum at its hub. The result is a community-wide exploration of the major world religions from the perspectives of both ancient art and contemporary practice. For his work on this and other programming, the National Art Education Association named Williams its 1997 National Art Museum Educator of the Year.

Activities have focused initially on Hinduism and Judaism and will encompass Buddhism, Christianity and Islam as the project unfolds. Along the way, Williams is preparing a multimedia resource package and Web site that will help educators nationwide teach about religions through art. The resources, slated for release this fall, will include art reproductions, scholarly commentary and sacred texts, as well as the stories, reflections and photographs of children and adults from each of the five faiths.


An Objective Framework

Since 1989, state mandates have required North Carolina schools to teach about the various influences of world religions, Williams says, but that has proven a daunting task. In teaching about familiar faiths, teachers are wary of appearing to proselytize. But they are even less comfortable teaching about unfamiliar belief systems. And all too often, in the effort to make topics of religion and values "safe," Williams observes, "the curriculum becomes watered down with overly generalized and simplistic material."

Art, he believes, offers a solution. "With art objects at the core of the curriculum, it becomes clear that the teacher doesn't have a conversion agenda. You can hold discussions about values in all their complexities, through the specific content of the art and the context of the culture, and the topic doesn't feel arbitrary or threatening."

By using the museum's resources, Williams hopes to provide a format for teaching about the world's religions that is both comfortable and interesting. "Art allows us to have safe conversations about issues that might otherwise trigger defensive reactions," he says.

Williams saw firsthand the need to address religious diversity shortly after he became the Ackland's curator of education in 1987. The relatively small museum houses a significant body of sacred sculptures from India and East Asia, along with European paintings, a number of Islamic artifacts and a borrowed collection of Judaica. As Williams was discussing a Renaissance painting with a visiting 8th grade class, one of the students asked him, "Who is that lady in blue with the baby?" Half of the class, it turned out, didn't recognize the images of Mary and Jesus.

"I'm not in the business of providing religious training," Williams emphasizes. "But I do think that 'the lady with the baby' is basic cultural information for an educated person to have. And I don't just want them to know the names of Jesus and Ganesha and Siddhartha. I want them to know their stories and how belief systems that grew from their teachings have affected the world and continue to affect the world." So he began telling stories of faith as he introduced students to fine art.

As his interest in teaching about world religions grew, Williams began to clip newspaper articles about the changing demographics of the Research Triangle area of central North Carolina and the tension that can result. One article reports that 41 percent of North Carolinians believed the increasing population of Hispanics was bad for the state. Another story describes the neighborhood controversy over a Buddhist statue at a local temple. Others cite statistical data, such as the fact that the region's Asian Indian population grew 300 percent between 1980 and 1990, and that the area boasts the sixth-fastest-growing Jewish population in the country. The art Williams worked with every day, he realized, already reflected the real-life diversity unfolding around him.


Essential Stories

When he brings a group of students to the 15th-century Thai gilt-bronze head of Buddha, Williams says, "I can pretty much count on the invitation to say something about the origins of Buddhism. It usually begins with the question, 'Why does that guy have such long ears?'

"And I answer it not in the simplest way, but in the way that has meaning for that culture: 'His earlobes are long because Siddhartha was born into a princely household with great wealth. In that culture, wealth would be displayed with heavy earrings, and yet at a critical moment in his young adulthood, Siddhartha forsook his wealth, shaved his head, gave away his jewels and went out into the world on a spiritual quest. The long ears are a reminder that he was once dragged down by wealth, but his earlobes are empty, because he renounced that wealth.'"

Once the conversation about religion has begun, it can be extended beyond the museum walls, Williams believes. "There's something about museums that makes it real easy to leave people with the impression that Hinduism, for example, stopped in the 12th century and that it only existed in India. I am intent on making it clear that these are living religions -- that objects like this bronze statue of Krishna are still used today and that millions of people believe in Krishna as a god."

This is where Williams relies on the help of others. Using grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, he was able to hire two artists-in-residence at the museum to work with local faith communities to produce work for a multimedia teaching package that he is developing.

One artist, Louise Omoto Kessel, is a local professional storyteller whose own religious heritage is Buddhist and Jewish. She has conducted separate weekly workshops for Hindus and Jews who want to share their stories and is planning workshops for the three other communities in the Five Faiths Project.

In the storytelling groups led by Kessel, some participants are encountering the narrative traditions of their faith for the first time, some are recalling events long forgotten, and others already have specific audiences in mind for their stories. Deborah Goldstein, a preschool teacher at the Jewish Community School of Wake County, sought Kessel's guidance in refining her storytelling skills because "children love stories. They narrate their lives. And Jews teach through our stories. You ask a rabbi a question, you get a story."

Lisa Rahangdale, a 24-year-old medical student at UNC, joined the group in hopes of affirming and sharing her heritage. "Growing up in this country, you don't really learn about much outside of Western culture, so I thought this was a great opportunity to teach some of my own Hindu culture to kids who are younger, because it's something that I missed out on."


Images of Faith

The project's other artist-in-residence, New York-based photographer Wendy Ewald, spent eight weeks training Jewish and Hindu children to create photo representations of their faith, and she will do the same with children from the other faith groups.

By the time the collaboration is finished, hundreds of children and adults from Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist communities will have contributed their stories and artwork to the Five Faiths Project. And their efforts will be supplemented by the ongoing creative exchange that the museum encourages -- like the work of 2nd graders at Chapel Hill's Ephesus Elementary School who retold the Hindu story of Rama through their own words and art.

While the Five Faiths Project is still evolving, the process has already produced surprising rewards, both for individuals and the community at large. Among the Jewish and Hindu children whose photographs will become part of the teaching package, each group thought the other group's photos were more interesting than their own.

Danielle Strauss, a 6th grader at Culbreth Middle School in Chapel Hill, said the young Hindu photographers "really did a good job of portraying all the different customs. I guess from some people's perspectives, Jewish people are different, too. But our pictures look so normal to me."

It's the strangeness of things that first draws the curiosity of art viewers, Williams knows. He hopes that in striving toward a multicultural society, people don't lose that sense of wonder about the differences between them.

"When you talk about different faiths, it's important not to smooth it all over by suggesting 'We all really believe the same thing.' We want to believe we all believe the same thing because sometimes we think the world would be a happier, safer place if we did. But the fact is, we don't. And once you start learning about this material, you just have to notice that there are some big differences in how people worship. It's a beautiful thing that people all over the world and in all times have tried to be in touch with the divine. But those attempts take a radically different course, and I think the world is a more exciting place if we can enjoy that."

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