SOAS University of London

Centre of Buddhist Studies

How to Experience Buddhist Caves as Virtual Reality

Eugene Wang (Harvard University)

Date: 6 October 2017Time: 5:30 PM

Finishes: 6 October 2017Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre

Type of Event: Lecture


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How to Experience Buddhist Caves as Virtual Reality


Plato’s Cave has often been claimed as the progenitor of the film medium. It has also been reclaimed for much of the projection technology such as automated virtual environment. While the claims are conceptually fitting, they come short of historically substantiating what happened in between Plato’s time and ours. The alignment is long on the analogy between the projected shadows on the wall and the projection apparatus, but short, historically, on making much out of the cave setting. Along the same line of thinking, one could profitably claim Buddhist caves as the forerunner of the virtual-reality technology. What makes this new alignment worth pondering is that it makes good on the cave claim in earnest.
Around 400 CE, the lore of a proverbial “Shadow Cave” was spreading in Asia, leading to the creation of such a cave in China around 420. While the historical site no longer exists, cave shrines inspired by the “Shadow Cave” have survived to this day. Moreover, murals inside such caves testify to the endurance and spread of the “Shadow Cave” idea. Not that the fifth-century caves constitute an origin of the visual technology of the virtual reality environment we have today; rather, such an alignment says much about visual technology both in its early aspiration and its present-day practice. Early mural caves aspired toward the condition of a virtual world. It just didn’t quite have the apparatus. Our present-day virtual environment technology fulfills that aspiration, and in doing so, it delivers an experience that is not necessarily modern. In light of this, caves are as not so old as we think, and our virtual reality technology not so new. Professor Wang’s lecture shows why and how so.


Eugene Y. Wang is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art at Harvard University. A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and other awards, he is the art history editor of the Encyclopedia of Buddhism (Macmillian, 2004). His book, Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture in Medieval China (2005), garnered the Academic Achievement Award from Japan in 2006. His extensive publication covers all periods and aspects of Chinese art. His current research interests include the exploration of artful mind and its materialization. He has served on the editorial board of the Art Bulletin, and the advisory board of Center for Advanced Study in Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. He is currently in the process of founding Harvard CAM (Chinese Art Media) Lab that is devoted to the production of multimedia designs of Buddhist and other cultural experiences. The lab’s pilot projects include “Mind in Caves,” a series of multimedia exhibitions and films of Buddhist cave programs in the manner of “virtual theater,” and an essay film about the contentious rise of the “abstract painting” in Asia in the 1960s.

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