‘Buddha’ goes to the hospital: Medical scans reveal rare documents inside 17th century sculpture

Correction: An original version of this story defined “dharani” as a language. They are utterances in Buddhist sutras, similar but not identical to a mantra.

March 23, 2012

The hospital admissions sheet simply read: “Name: Buddha; DOB: 1662.”

The 350-year-old patient’s visit started with a routine x-ray in the summer of 2008. But doctors discovered there were signs of an unknown mass inside his head and yet another inside his stomach – objects that his new caretakers were intent on identifying and extracting if at all possible. The x-ray wasn’t detailed enough to make a proper diagnosis, so doctors at Shands at the University of Florida in Gainesville cleared the schedule and ordered a CAT scan.

After a trip through the scanner, receiving a radiation dose higher than any human could endure, doctors and “Buddha’s” caretakers were a step closer to identifying the mysterious masses.

But why stop there when they could get more detail?

An endoscopy was scheduled roughly two weeks later at North Florida Regional Medical Center in Gainesville. And, after three scans at two medical centers, doctors, with the help of Buddha’s caretakers, were able to identify the mysterious masses: rare religious texts.

It was a surprising discovery, since Buddha is a Korean bodhisattva, or “bodhi” for short, and his caretakers are curators at the University of Florida’s Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art who, until then, had no idea the documents were inside the statue. The two sets of documents — inserted only months after the statue was carved — were written in two separate languages. One set was written in Korean and the other is a dharani written in a combination of Chinese and a Nepalese script called Ranjana. While the documents have not been fully translated, segments of the text were discovered to be the Lotus Sutra — one of the most sacred texts in Buddhism.

On March 31, the bodhi will make his debut as part of the university’s collection in the new Cofrin Asian Art wing at the Harn. The wooden statue, which represents a being that refrains from achieving enlightenment out of compassion and a desire to help others on their own path to Nirvana, was previously part of John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s collection. The bodhi was acquired by the University of Florida in April 2008 for an undisclosed amount.

Harn Museum curator Jason Steuber oversaw the acquisition of the bodhi and its eventual trip through the x-ray, CAT scan and endoscopy procedure.

“We started [the x-ray] very early in the morning,” Steuber said.

In the beginning, the process required only two staff members at Shands: one doctor and a digital x-ray technician. But soon the team started to grow.

“Eventually we had almost the entire [radiology] department,” said Steuber. People were taking pictures with their cell phones and otherwise spreading the word. Eventually the head of radiology ordered Buddha sent for a CAT scan for a more detailed look inside.

“It was so beautiful,” Steuber said.

Thanks to the x-ray and CAT scan, curators discovered “a tremendous amount of information,” he said.

Prior to the tests, curators had no idea the statue was carved from a single piece of wood, except for a few pieces, such as the hair knot, hand, ears and base. The ears, hand and base are attached with hand-made iron nails. Without the scans, said Steuber, it would have been impossible to see the handmade nails inside, or the documents stored in the abdomen and head.

Curators were able to retrieve the documents inside the bodhisattva’s abdomen, but the pages inside the head will likely never be removed, since it would require damaging the face of the sculpture. The accessible documents will be featured alongside the bodhisattva for the first time as part of the Harn’s exhibit. The endoscopy images of the documents inside the head, meanwhile, serve as evidence of their existence and state.

While mummies, among other large artifacts, generally get the CAT scanner treatment, according to Steuber, it’s a special treat to have access to this type of scan for Korean art.

The collaboration, while not a first, serves as an example of the discoveries that result when science, history and the arts converge. The exhibit will be open to special guests of the museum on March 30 with a ribbon cutting and public opening on March 31.

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