Dilatato Corde 2:1
January - June, 2012

Jesus Washing the Feet of His Disciples
(Click to access video on YouTube)                                         

Artist: Ven. Uttarananda 

Painter, poet, writer, sculptor, and founder of the Humanist Association of Bhikkhus, Ven. Uttarananda studied at the Brera Academy in Milan. While in Italy, he lived for a short time in a Benedictine monastery, a sojourn he recalls as a profoundly moving experience. 

 Medium: Cement.


Jesus and Mary as Portrayed by Buddhist Artists
Part IV: Jesus Washing the Feet of His Disciples

(The same introduction is included on all five videos in which Father Pieris describes Jesus and Mary as portrayed by Buddhist artists. It lasts one minute and forty-five seconds.)

These artistic works of Buddhists interpreting Christianity are based on a missiological principle which is the contrary of the traditional missiology. In the traditional missiology, the Church tells the Buddhist who Christ is. We do the opposite; we ask the Buddhists who Christ is. They tell us who Christ is, and in that dialogue they tell us not only who Christ is for them, but also who Christ is for us in Asia. This is a kind of dialogue with artists who believe in another religion but find Christ as an excellent object of artistic appreciation and of religious devotion. All these people who have made these depictions of Christ and Mary in murals, in clay, or in paintings have given us a message: if we want to speak of Christ, even among ourselves, there is a language to be used. And these Buddhists have given us the language.

This mural embossment is unique in the history of the world, in the sense that this is the first time a Buddhist monk has ever presented a picture of Christ, in painting, sculpture, or any other art form. This was his first picture of Christ, and with this he began painting a lot of other pictures, some of which were printed in the Misereor Lenten calendar [of 2000].

Here he has depicted (his interpretation, of course) the washing of feet by Jesus Christ. He has taken the common meal that the monks are invited to in a home in a normal Buddhist ethos. It's meritorious to give a meal to monks, and the monks normally come with their begging bowls in their hands. It’s a sign they are mendicants. They don’t have any possessions of their own; they live by begging their food. In Sri Lanka, when they come in procession with their begging bowls for a lunch, a servant of the house normally washes their feet before they enter. And here you see the master of the house [washing their feet as they are] entering.

The monk is presented through various mudras, dramatic gestures of the hand which are used in normal [classical] drama. The mudra he uses [hand raised, palm facing outward] is “Don’t. I won’t allow it. This is not done,” because the master shouldn’t wash the feet of his disciples; the disciple should wash the feet of his master. That’s our culture. It’s normally the disciples who do all services to the master, not the other way around. Here he has gone against the culture of the place. He is washing the feet.

Then he has put another picture here of two women, one a high class and the other one low class. You can see this from their dress. A person who is familiar with Buddhist temple art can immediately recognize the class difference between the two women.

The other gesture [index and middle finger raised in a “V” shape] means something extraordinarily funny, out of the way, is happening.

This is how, through traditional art forms of the past, the Buddhist monk has brought out the uniqueness of the washing of the feet, even within Christianity, and much more in the Asian culture. It’s a revolution.

There is another difference: the rice and water, with the lamp, which means it’s a supper. Now Buddhist monks never take supper; they normally take their lunch. In a way, the artist has shown that something Christian is happening, but in a Buddhist way. Mendicants are coming, washing of the feet is there (with a revolutionary change), it is in the night (so it can’t be Buddhist monks), and he includes two women. What he brings out is that Jesus is the only founder of a religion who had women in his company, who were not his wife or daughter.

This again shows how a Buddhist sees things that we don’t see. This picture presents a new fact: we cannot understand our uniqueness unless the other tells us. It is always by listening to the other that we know who we are. Our identity cannot be presented by us; it has to be detected by the others. This is what is happening here. A Buddhist is telling us, “Your religion has these unique points: the teacher/master washing the feet, women in the company, at the supper, and there is no class difference.

I told the monk, “You have done something without knowing it. You have intuited [what Paul meant when he said], ‘There is neither male nor female in Christ’ (see Galatians 3:28). Therefore neither should there be in Christianity.” There should not be high caste and low caste, free and slave.

And the third—and this comes out here—in Christ there is neither Christian nor non-Christian (neither Jew nor Gentile). This is a human event. There is no religion here. This is a message to humanity.

I think this monk can grasp the human in Jesus because he belongs to—is the founder of—the Humanistic Association of Monks. He wanted humanism to be the basis of their Buddhist practice. He was fighting against class structure and racial distinction between Tamils and Sinhalese. He belonged to a group of monks who were ready to go to the north and bring justice to the minority.

What we see in Jesus is the attempt of God to teach us how to be human, to be human like God. Here is a picture of Jesus’ humanity. Women and men, high caste and low caste, Christians and non-Christians. Everything is erased. His humanity comes out. “Neither in Mount Gerizim nor in Jerusalem,” neither Samaritan nor Jew (see John 4:21). In his humanity we will worship God.

For me, this is the most revolutionary picture here. There [in the mural of Jesus listening to the teachers in the temple] we had the humility of God; here we have the humanity of God, which Jesus revealed to us. As the medieval humanist said, “If God could be so human, why can’t we be?” Why can’t the Church be? Why can’t all be? This is the message of Christ.

I think the Buddhist monk as a humanist has captured this better than any artist I know.

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