The first section of the exhibition is devoted to early sacred texts and images. One of the strengths of the Barnet and Burto Collection is an important concentration of sutras—transcriptions of the Buddha's discourses and other holy texts. Writing out these sacred texts was regarded as a devotional act that could be performed to atone for misdeeds or earn merit that would enable the writer to achieve a higher level of existence in future reincarnations. Often these holy scriptures were written on decorative papers that were embellished with gold or silver foil, powdered mica, or printed designs. Cherished by later collectors for their decorative beauty as well as their religious significance, sutras were often cut up and remounted as exquisite, small hanging scrolls that functioned as objects of aesthetic contemplation. The more than one dozen examples on display are complemented by a choice group of early Buddhist gilt-bronze sculptures, including a seventh-century depiction of the birth of the Buddha.
Two masterpieces from the Barnet and Burto Collection are featured in a gallery that presents religious icons in a temple setting. An imposing Buddhist mandala, or cosmic diagram, perhaps the finest example of its kind in the West, depicts the Womb World Mandala. Dated to the thirteenth century, it shows a spiritual journey in the world of the Great Sun Sutra. The facing wall displays a rare fourteenth-century Shinto mandala. In contrast to the Buddhist mandala, which presents a geometrically ordered conceptual realm of the Buddha's universe, the Shinto image presents a highly naturalistic topographic view of the Kasuga Shrine, which is located in the ancient capital city of Nara.
The second section of the exhibition introduces an important group of early writings by Zen monks. Such calligraphies, written in Chinese characters and known as bokuseki or "ink traces," were venerated as embodiments of the spiritual qualities of the writers, who were often Zen abbots or teachers in the Zen hierarchy. Typically, a master would present a disciple with a piece of his writing as a kind of diploma or testimonial of their affiliation. Among the most valued calligraphies were those written by Chinese masters that Japanese pilgrims brought back from their visits to China. One such text is Excerpt from "Song of Leyou Park" by Zhang Jizhi (1186–1266), one of the foremost calligraphers of thirteenth-century China. Even during his lifetime Zhang's works were avidly collected by Japanese admirers. So valued was Zhang's writing that the original handscroll from which this example was taken was cut into short sections and remounted as hanging scrolls suitable for display in a tokonoma or viewing alcove. Consequently, the original poetic sense of this text has been sacrificed. It has been transformed into a purely aesthetic object valued for its bravura brushwork. This rare masterpiece is complemented by an equally rare group of writings by Japanese monks active in the Nanbokucho (1336–1392) and Muromachi era (1392–1573). The content of such writings could be quite mundane. In Sugar by Kokan Shiren (1278–1346), for example, the text treats the topic of sugar in a wittily paradoxical way. Snow, a poem written by Muso Soseki (1275–1351), radiates simplicity and purity.
The third segment of the exhibition treats poems and letters written in kana, the phonetic script first developed in Japan in the late ninth and tenth centuries as an alternative to Chinese characters. This section, which includes works by such renowned practitioners as Sen no Rikyu (1522–1591), and Hon'ami Koetsu (1558–1637), features engaging letters and poems that illuminate courtly life. Often, these works were composed on decorative papers that rival the earlier sutras in their sumptuous materials and visual appeal.
The final section of the exhibition is devoted to the bold calligraphy and painting of Edo-period Zen monks. This art, known as Zenga, features boldly brushed, cursive-script writings as well as monochrome paintings executed in a spontaneous, calligraphic manner. A highlight of this display is a dynamic group of works by Jiun (1718–1804), a monk active in both the esoteric and in Zen sects. One of his works, depicting the Buddhist sage Bodhidharma seated in meditation below the paradoxical aphorism "No Knowledge," embodies not only the essence of Zen but also East Asia's ancient credo that painting and calligraphy are one and the same.