Meeting the virtual Buddha
With a history of more than 2,500 years, Buddhism is practiced around the world by some 350 million adherents - and like other major religions, it has inspired the creative talents of its faithful throughout that history. The Pacific Asia Museum's Visions of Enlightenment: Understanding the Art of Buddhism offers an introduction to both the religion and its art, and does so with a site that encourages relaxed exploration mitigating the desire to scan the content as quickly as possible.
The online legacy of an exhibition that closed in 2003, Visions is a collection of 27 artifacts including paintings, sculptures, and ritual objects from Tibet, China, India, Japan, and Thailand. Opening with a "pre-splash" page that offers visitors links to both Flash and HTML versions of the exhibition, Visions loads its Flash rendition into a new window and then offers - while the first Flash component loads - that "Patience is the sprouting of Buddha's word."
(This brief aside is the first of a series on the site which aim to change the surfer's download downtime from an interruption to be endured into a pause to be embraced. Such an approach is fairly successful and does seem to encourage a more leisurely examination of exhibits.)
A Buddha figure featured in the splash page remains in situ onscreen as the site's index page appears, and then anchors one of the Visions' four avenues for further exploration. (The Perfected One: The Buddha, Compassionate Beings: Bodhisattvas, Deities, Guardians, Holy Men, Buddhist Places; and Signs, Symbols, Ritual Objects.) Using a format repeated in all four of Visions' main sections, the Buddha opens with another quote (again encouraging a moment of contemplation while the section loads), and progresses to a multi-page text and photo essay.
Each page's text is divided into two parts - the first relating to the life, teachings and legacy of Siddhartha; and the second exploring a related artwork. Selected words in the text are connected to a pop-up glossary, while images are enhanced with hotspots which provide additional details about specific components of the artifacts. (Clicking on a non-interactive area of an image opens a full screen rendition of the photograph in a new window.)
Encouraging surfers to "follow the path" to its conclusion (explore all four sections), each page also features a Fact or Fiction? box - which poses questions about the site's material. ("Buddha was born a prince. Fact or Fiction?") Each correct (or incorrect) answer (you're given credit for trying) generates its own "spiritual" reward, and a full slate of attempts will reveal what was hitherto hidden - and if not actually provide some virtual enlightenment, at least a measure of satisfaction.
All four sections are accessible through animated tabs along the top of the content frame, while below, additional links lead to an interactive Map and Timeline (PDF versions also available), Teacher Resources (including additional recommended links), Forums, and four interactive sound and Photo Essays. (Click on the doorway to launch the second essay.) Each of these four brief productions takes a unique approach in presenting its subject matter, and of course, each begins with its own pearl of wisdom. One, "Hollywood Buddha: Pop Culture Appropriation," opens with the line, "There is no difference whatever between Nirvana and the everyday world." But we are compelled to ask, "Does Hollywood qualify as part of the everyday world?"
(For slow connections and those who like printouts, the HTML version of the site contains almost all the content of the Flash version. Examples of missing elements include the photo essays and the Fact or Fiction game.)
But lest you think that the path through Visions is a simple one, prepare to experience moments of doubt. Links to subsequent pages, which appear both in the middle and at the end of each page's text (as well as at the bottom of the content frame), contribute to a certain lack of certainty as to whether any material is being missed. And for some reason shrouded in mystery, the cursor would not change into the commonly accepted Arrow icon when placed over embedded scrollbars. (The features still operated normally, but the idiosyncrasy did cause a moment of delay as I waited for whatever it was the browser seemed to be waiting for before redrawing a pointer on my screen.)
Multi-option navigation and reluctant cursors notwithstanding, Visions is an attractive, informative site. You probably won't find Nirvana here, but you may manage a few small steps towards virtual enlightenment.
Visions of Enlightenment: Understanding the Art of Buddhism can be found at http://www.pacificasiamuseum.org/buddhism/index.htm.