Art and Architecture of the World’s Religions. Leslie Ross. Volume 2. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009.
Origins and Development
Buddhism, one of the world’s major religions today, has a lengthy history and exists in many different variations. The origins of Buddhism can be attributed to a historical figure, Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in what is now southern Nepal ca. 566 BCE and who, after a long life of teaching and travels, died at age 80 in 486 BCE. The details of his life have long formed the subject matter for many Buddhist tales and elaborations, notably the jataka or “birth” narratives, frequently featured in art, which tell of the Buddha’s previous lives before his incarnation as Siddhartha Gautama. He was a royal prince of the Shakya family, who were Indian rulers over a territory at the base of the Himalayan foothills spanning part of present-day northern India and Nepal. He is thus sometimes also known as Shakyamuni—the Sage of the Shakya clan.
The fundamental narrative of his life might be summarized as a journey from worldly wealth to spiritual richness. Traditions recount that, as a young man, Siddhartha enjoyed a very privileged and opulent lifestyle. He was deliberately sheltered from the world outside the royal household by his father, who wished to protect him and prepare him for life as a royal leader. Siddhartha followed these familial expectations; he married a beautiful wife who bore him a son. But he became increasingly curious about the world outside the palace, and in his late twenties (shortly after the birth of his son), he took a series of trips to the local village and there encountered a number of sights that influenced him profoundly. For the first time in his previously sheltered existence, Siddhartha witnessed aspects of human suffering in the form of disease, old age, and death. He also encountered a wandering ascetic (a Hindu sadhu or holy man) and was inspired by this example to renounce his previously opulent lifestyle and search for answers about the meaning and purpose of human life and suffering.
Ultimately, and after many subsequent years of extreme self-denial, discipline, travels, and encounters with others who offered him various forms of guidance and inspiration, Siddhartha sat down to make a final effort in his quest by meditating beneath a tree (later known as the Bodhi Tree, or Tree of Awakening) at Bodh Gaya in northern India. After prolonged meditation, he received profound insights about the nature of human life and existence, and he became the Buddha—a Sanskrit term that means the “Awakened One.”
It is very important to realize that the cultural and religious milieu in India that ultimately gave birth to Buddhism represents a period of time when aspects of Hinduism were continuing to develop as well. Hinduism had long been dominated by the Brahmin priestly class and focused especially on rituals performed by these priests. But Buddha’s lifetime, the sixth century BCE, was a period “of great intellectual speculation, when many religious leaders questioned and even rejected the authoritarian structures of traditional Indian religion.” Both Buddhism and Jainism (also founded in India in the sixth century BCE by Mahavira the Jina—or “Victorious One”) represented significant critical challenges to traditional Hinduism while retaining and reinterpreting many of the concepts and vocabulary of Hindu beliefs.
After Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, he ultimately determined to share the fruits of his awakening to the “truth” or “law” of human existence (the dharma) with others. He first offered his teachings to a small group of his previous companions of ascetics who gathered at a deer park in Sarnath. These followers became the first members of the Buddhist community (the sangha), which expanded greatly through the next several decades of the Buddha’s travels and teaching in northern India.
After the Buddha’s peaceful death, his teachings continued to be orally disseminated as well as interpreted by a growing number of schools and increasingly settled monastic communities. However, doctrinal controversies arose about the specifics and nature of his teachings and about the nature of the Buddha himself. Traditions tell of several early Buddhist meetings or councils that were held to resolve these differences in interpretation; nevertheless, regional sects and schools continued to develop as Buddhism spread widely through India and beyond. Within these early centuries, 18 different schools of Buddhism eventually emerged, including the Theravadan (“Wisdom of the Elders”) branch that today continues to be followed in southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. A critical stage in the historical development of Buddhism took place around the first century CE with the reform movement known as Mahayana (or “Great Vehicle”). The term “Great Vehicle” contrasts Mahayana Buddhism with the several Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”) schools. Theravada and Mahayana are considered to be the two major branches of Buddhism, although many widely different variations of Mahayana Buddhism, in particular, also developed in subsequent centuries.
Both Theravada and Mahayana schools trace their history back to the teachings of the Buddha himself, although it should be noted that no Buddhist texts were written down, in any language, during the lifetime of the Buddha or even shortly thereafter. The Buddha’s teachings were memorized and transmitted orally and translated into a variety of languages and dialects through many centuries before the earliest scriptures were committed to writing. This took place in the first century BCE and first century CE in the Theravadan context of Sri Lanka. This vast body of writings is known as the Pali Canon, after the ancient language (Pali) in which it is written. It is divided into three major sections (or “baskets”) of teachings concerning monastic life, discourses of the Buddha, and commentary. The Pali Canon (also known as the Tripitaka—or Three Baskets) is the oldest and most conservative collection of Buddhist scriptures.
With the development of Mahayana Buddhism in the first and second centuries CE, many additional texts (sutras) were created that also traced their origins to the foundational teachings of the Buddha—teachings that had been hidden but later mystically revealed to enlightened beings, or bodhisattvas. Major authors such as Nagarjuna (ca. 150-250 CE) were instrumental in promoting the authority of these later texts, which were seen as adding to, if not fulfilling and superseding, the previous teachings, which were regarded as foundational, but preparatory. “The enormous range and variety of Buddhist scripture has led to many controversies about scriptural authority and interpretation,” as different schools understand a variety of texts to be authoritative. Nevertheless, these all indicate ways of understanding the Buddha’s message and represent the flourishing growth, spread, and remarkable ability of Buddhism to adapt to different cultures and settings.
The Mahayana branch of Buddhism is, in itself, extremely diverse and represents a wide range of practices. Buddhism spread to China in the first and second centuries CE and thence to Korea in the fourth century and to Japan in the sixth century. Two waves of Buddhism entered Tibet in the 7th and in the 10th centuries. All of these different styles or branches of Buddhism were also transformed by the already-existing and continuously developing religious systems in these world regions. In China, Buddhism encountered, influenced, and was transformed by preexistent Chinese popular religious traditions, plus Taoism and Confucianism. In Japan, Buddhism merged, to a large extent, with Japanese Shinto practices and resulted in a uniquely Japanese Shinto-Buddhist synthesis. In Tibet, Buddhist practices developed differently as well, assimilating some of the indigenous traditions of Bon shamanistic practices and influencing the continued development of the Bon religion itself. New branches of Buddhism continued to develop in India and in Asia through the medieval period and were transmitted across cultures.
Among the most influential of these later Mahayana developments are Pure Land, Zen, and Tantric Buddhism. The former two are associated particularly with China and Japan, respectively, and the latter primarily with Tibet. The specifics of these (also multivaried) systems are especially well demonstrated in the diversity of texts and art works that enliven and characterize these movements.
Although Buddhism began in India, and during several periods of history was supported and encouraged by major political leaders (notably the early Emperor Asoka in the third century BCE and the Pala dynasty in southern India in the 8th through 12th centuries CE), by the 13th century Buddhism had significantly declined in India. Several cultural and political factors were doubtless influential in this process of decline, such as the growth and popularity of devotional and revival movements within Hinduism, the reabsorption of many Buddhist concepts and deities into the ever-expanding Hindu pantheon, and the Islamic invasions of India that began in the 12th century. Buddhist monasteries were attacked and looted in the Islamic conquests, and by the 13th century, Buddhism was virtually extinct in its Indian birthplace. Islam and Hinduism are today the dominant religions in India, and Buddhism is widely practiced in world regions outside the Indian subcontinent.
Principal Beliefs and Key Practices
The lengthy history of Buddhism—combined with the complexities of its historical development and transformations in different world regions—may, at first, seem to make a discussion of principal beliefs and key practices a very daunting task. Although Buddhism has taken on many diverse guises, there are certainly some core concepts that all facets of Buddhism share. The historical Buddha (in whatever ways he is variously perceived, honored, or worshiped by various Buddhist sects) is understood to have been a person of remarkable abilities who transmitted highly important knowledge about the ultimate meaning of life.
These teachings can be, and often are, summarized as the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. In the Buddha’s personal encounters with and sorrowful concern for human suffering on earth, his enlightenment resulted not only in awareness of human suffering but also in ways in which to alleviate this suffering. This wisdom is contained in the Four Noble Truths.
The first noble truth is the truth of suffering. The Buddha saw and understood that human life will inevitably involve some degree of hardship and suffering (duhkha)—whether emotional or physical. His own experience with life, and his witnessing of disease, old age, and death, led him to the painful realization that human life, although often pleasant and happy, is also filled with challenges, difficulties, and disappointments. The second noble truth that he conveyed to his followers regards the origins and causes of suffering. Sufferings and difficulties in life are caused by qualities often seen as simply characteristic of human nature, such as desire, greed, selfishness, ignorance, and attachment to and grasping for material goods, status, power, and relationships. This is all reflective of human misperceptions of the inherent nature of reality. Humans delude themselves by their ego-based thinking in which they set themselves—as individual beings—apart from the dynamic unity of the universe, which they mistakenly feel they can control and manipulate to some extent by their own positions, actions, and achievements. According to the third noble truth, suffering can be avoided if one frees oneself from inappropriate cravings and attachments that reflect an ego-driven perception of the self. Avoiding attachment can be achieved, according to the fourth noble truth, by following the Eightfold Path of right understanding, right purpose, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right alertness, and right concentration.
The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path represent the core of Buddhist teaching, regardless of sectarian divisions. In his lengthy career as a teacher, the Buddha offered many additional insights about the nature of reality and the universe. He established and provided guidance for numerous monastic communities of both men and women, and he promoted a balanced, disciplined, and measured lifestyle to achieve liberation from suffering. This state of liberation is known as nirvana .Indeed, many Buddhist concepts (such as nirvana) derive from and significantly reinterpret Hindu beliefs in reincarnation (samsara), actions and their consequences (karma), and liberation (moksha)from samsara, to achieve a cessation of all ego-based cravings and attachments.
As Buddhism continued to develop in the centuries following the Buddha’s death, differing interpretations arose about these teachings and how to follow the ideals in actual practice. Especially after the advent of Mahayana Buddhism in the first and second centuries CE, many new teachers—through the subsequent centuries to the present day—have promoted and emphasized different manners in which to achieve true awareness of the Four Noble Truths and how to correctly enact the guidance offered by the Eightfold Path. The great diversity of schools and branches of Buddhism is actually rather akin to the situation of Protestant Christianity, where vast numbers of adherents consider themselves to be Christians first and foremost, while also maintaining firm allegiances to specific denominations that are themselves characterized by significantly different interpretations of the core Christian teachings and that enact their beliefs through vastly different liturgical practices.
For example, Theravadan Buddhists (often considered to be the most strictly conservative of Buddhist sects) believe that the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) was the final incarnation of an enlightened being, who appeared on earth, lived, and died and transmitted great wisdom. Mahayana Buddhists, in contrast, regard the historical Buddha as only one manifestation among many related exemplars or incarnations of enlightenment. Arhats (saints, ascetics, or worthy ones) feature prominently in Theravada Buddhism because of their achievement of great spiritual discipline, awareness, and ability to provide inspiring examples to others. In Mahayana Buddhism, focus is directed instead on the many manifestations of the Buddha and on the numerous bodhisattvas (buddhas-to-be) who compassionately postpone their own achievement of nirvana to assist other beings in their own process to achieve this liberation. The celestial bodhisattvas
can intervene miraculously in the world, and can even create heavenly realms where people may be reborn into bliss for reasons that depend as much on the compassion of the bodhisattvas as on the merit of the individual worshipper. At the end of their careers as bodhisattvas they become “celestial buddhas” and attain even more remarkable powers.
Among the most important of these bodhisattvas are Avalokiteshvara (who embodies the compassion of the Buddha and is worshiped in Japan and China as the female deity Kannon or Guan Yin), Maitreya (the future-age Buddha), Manjushri (the bodhisattva of wisdom), and Kshitigarbha (who consoles and protects.)
Among the most revered of celestial buddhas is Amitabha (the buddha of Infinite Light), who is believed to have established a Pure Land paradise in the western heavens where his faithful followers will be reborn. Pure Land Buddhism is one of the most influential branches of later Mahayanist developments; it has roots in India but was developed especially in China from the fifth century CE and also became enormously popular in Japan during the 12th century and later. Pure Land Buddhism is often seen as a more accessible and popular form for both lay and monastic practitioners. Adherents to this form of Buddhism rely extensively on chanting and repeated invocations of the name of Amitabha Buddha. Pure Land Buddhists believe that prayers faithfully directed to Amitabha will be accepted compassionately by the deity, who is often visualized and depicted as residing in a magnificent universe.
Meditation practices are especially emphasized in the Ch’an (Chinese) and Zen (Japanese) branches of Buddhism. According to traditions, Ch’an practices were brought to China from India in the late fifth century CE by the legendary figure known as Bodhidharma (whose name means “Enlightened Tradition”). Ch’an Buddhism was later conveyed to Korea and Japan. There are numerous branches (for example, Soto and Rinzai) of this style of Buddhism, many of which rely extensively on practices of rigorous disciplined and formal sitting meditation (zazen) to still the mind and allow insights and enlightenment to arise directly. Order and simplicity designed to provide quiet harmony and minimal distractions are especially characteristic of Zen aesthetics, well demonstrated, for example, in the style of “dry gardening” seen at the Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan.
Colorful imagery and complex iconography are, in contrast, especially characteristic of Tantric (or Vajrayana, Thunderbolt or Diamond Vehicle) Buddhism, which emphasizes elaborate ritual practices and visually aided meditation on esoteric symbols and diagrams designed to assist adherents in attaining immediate experiences and stages of awakening and enlightenment. Tantric practices have roots in ancient India also and were especially developed later in Tibet and Nepal as well as in Japan—as Shingon Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhists also have their own sets of sacred scriptures and have developed into several distinct schools.
Buddhism spread very widely and was avidly transmitted by missionary activity in Asian regions outside of India during the many centuries following the lifetime of the Buddha. It should certainly be noted that Buddhism today has also developed a significant body of adherents in the West—in Europe and America. Buddhist practices, of diverse types, have been transmitted to and transformed via their adoption by, and adaptation to, a great many cultures. The many forms of Buddhism, nevertheless, all represent approaches to the principal teachings of the Buddha about the possibility of achieving enlightenment via ethical behavior and via the development of wise attitudes reflective of an awareness of the realities of human life in the cosmos.
Traditional Art and Architectural Forms
Buddhist art and architecture is as multivariant as the many different world venues into which the religion has spread. From the birthplace of Buddhism in India, the religion spread rapidly to many other Asian regions, adapting to and adopting local building and iconographic traditions and, in turn, adding to the development of indigenous styles of art and architecture. “One of the keys to the success of the religion was the ability of Buddhism to adapt to and evolve within different cultures and their existing beliefs…. Buddhist art serves to remind, to support and to reinforce the eternal truths of the religion, and its development and style remain integral to the history of the religion, the two not being easily separated.”
It is possible to approach the study of Buddhist art and architecture through a variety of lenses. A traditional chronological survey focusing on the development of specific styles in architecture, sculpture, and painting reveals a consistently evolving diversity as the religion spread from India through Asia and beyond. Similarly, studies that focus on the development of specifically Buddhist symbols and narrative imagery will reveal a diversity not only in the use of aniconic symbols but also in the ways of representing the Buddha himself. Some symbols, forms, materials, and styles of art are particularly characteristic of specific world regions and different branches of Buddhism. These art forms and styles reflect different doctrinal emphases and differing liturgical practices. For example, Theravadan Buddhist art generally tends to focus attention on the life and deeds of the historical Buddha (and the jataka narratives—stories of his previous lives), whereas Mahayana Buddhist art developed an expansive visual vocabulary of celestial Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and realms of heavenly paradises. The arts associated with the Vajrayana schools are especially rich in complex symbols and images reflective of the esoteric Tantric teachings and use of art in ritual practices. “Thus, the Buddhist religion, despite having a founder who had…. preached a doctrine against material possessions, acquired the world’s richest and most varied system of visual support.”
Although, as wisely stated, “to many students of Buddhism and its arts, the task of deciphering Buddhist iconography and symbolism can seem as challenging as the search for enlightenment itself,” there is nevertheless some degree of consistency in this diversity. Sacred sites of Buddhist pilgrimage in India were identified soon after the Buddha’s death, and tradition recounts that the Buddha himself gave directions about the dispersal of his bodily relics during his final sermon to his disciples before his death (or final transcendence, parinirvana). He directed his followers to place his cremated remains into funeral mounds (or stupas), which would serve as memorials of his life and teaching and provide focal sites for meditation and pilgrimage. Although no visible evidence remains of these purportedly eight original Buddhist memorials (presently existing structures on the sites all date to later centuries), it is extremely significant to note that the concepts of marking sacred sites with physical structures, and the activity of making pilgrimages to visit these sites, have played a critical role in Buddhist practices through the centuries. “For the Buddha, pilgrimage was a spiritual practice capable of easing the heart, bringing happiness and taking the practitioner to a heaven-realm. Relics and pilgrimage monuments, such as stupas, were important as the material focus of such spiritual activity.”
In certain senses, it could be said that all Buddhist art has similar commemorative and symbolic purposes. Stupas mark and create sacred sites; they serve as symbols of the Buddha and his teachings, and the entire cosmos is also symbolized in a stupa. Symbols have always played a critical role in Buddhist art, and it appears that for the first several centuries after the Buddha’s lifetime, symbols were primarily used to refer to the Buddha and his teachings and to represent the objects venerated at the sacred sites of Buddhist pilgrimage.
This was not due to an explicit prohibition of images during these centuries…. It is due to the nature of early Buddhism and its Indian background. The Buddha was essentially a reforming sage who taught truths about existence…. Like a prophet, he was embodied in his message and to “see” his word was to see him.
Among the earliest and still most widespread and prevalent symbols in Buddhism are wheels, lions, lotus flowers, trees, and footprints. The lion was a traditional Indian symbol of royalty and power and thus referred to the noble lineage of the Buddha as well as the immense power of his teachings (dharma). The dharma (law) itself is most often symbolized by a wheel—indicating that the teaching “is in constant motion and provides a path toward spiritual enlightenment and eventual release.” The Wheel of the Law may have differing numbers of spokes depending on the context and other symbolism intended; for example, an eight-spoked wheel references the Eightfold Path.
Trees in Buddhist art refer to various events in the life of the Buddha, primarily his attainment of enlightenment under the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya. The lotus flower is also an extremely important Buddhist symbol of spiritual purity and enlightenment, for “just as the lotus flower rises up from the depths of muddy ponds and lakes to blossom immaculately above the water’s surface, the human heart or mind can develop the virtues of the Buddha and transcend desires and attachments.”
Reminders of the path to enlightenment, for those who aspire to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha, are frequently found in the form of carved stone footprints of the Buddha. Legends tell that the Buddha, shortly before his death, left his footprints impressed into stone as a deliberate memorial of his life and teachings. Like stupas, footprints of the Buddha are ubiquitous visual symbols found wherever Buddhism itself has traveled. The footprints, of course, also serve as reminders of the physical journeys of the Buddha during his decades of teaching and traveling in northern India.
Representations of the Buddha in human form do not appear to have developed until about the first century BCE. Much discussion has been devoted to the questions of “when, where, and why” the first images of the physical Buddha were created. The explanations are doubtless multifaceted. The rich iconography associated with Hinduism in India and the related bhakti or devotional practices involving veneration of images, the influence from figural styles associated with Greco-Roman art in the Gandhara region of northern India, spread of Buddhism generally with larger and more settled monastic communities plus its growing widespread appeal to the laity, and perhaps most significantly, the development of Mahayana Buddhist schools are all factors that have been cited as contributory in the further elaboration of figural and narrative Buddhist art.
The veneration and worship of the Buddha as a sacred being, characteristic of the popular piety associated with the Mahayana schools, may be the most significant factor in the growth and proliferation of Buddha images, as well as the expanding Buddhist pantheon in general. In painting and sculpture, the image of the Buddha rapidly takes on specific standard forms and develops an iconographic vocabulary of attributes and hand gestures (mudras) that symbolize particular qualities of the Buddha or that refer to events in his life. The mudras ultimately derive from Hindu traditions but were adapted to suit Buddhist needs. They include gestures indicating teaching, protection, and reassurance, as well as the distinctive “turning the wheel of the law,” or Dharmachakra-mudra, and the Bhumisparsha-mudra, or “touching the earth,” a gesture that Buddha performed at the moment of his enlightenment.
Paintings and sculptures of the Buddha have been abundantly produced through the centuries. Although these images may be primarily understood as reminders and symbols of the Buddha and his teachings, images also often serve as objects of devotion in and of themselves. This is akin to some Hindu practices involving anointing, bathing, and offering food and gifts to statues of deities housed in shrines and temples.
The practice, characteristic of early Buddhism, of enclosing a stupa in a worship or assembly (chaitya) hall in a monastery eventually burgeoned into the creation of very elaborate temples filled with numerous Buddha images. The forms and styles of Buddhist temple architecture (both associated with monastic complexes or independent of monasteries) reflect the regional building practices of the Asian regions to which the religion spread. In Japan and China, traditional wooden construction techniques are used, and large Buddhist monastery complexes often have many different structures, assembly halls, pagodas (derived from the stupa form plus regional styles of secular gate and watch towers as well as religious ritual towers), dwelling quarters for monks, facilities for visitors, and so on. The layout and enclosures of these complexes often mirror imperial or palace styles as well, with, for example, large halls filled with Buddha images in a form resembling the style of imperial audience halls.
Two Great Stupas: The Great Stupa at Sanchi, India, Third to First Centuries BCE and Borobudur, Java, ca. 800 CE
The site of Sanchi, in central India, provides some of the earliest and most important evidence of the development and forms of early Buddhist art. The site is traditionally associated with the Mauryan Emperor Asoka (c. 279-32 BCE), who is of extreme significance in Buddhist history for his conversion to and support of Buddhism. Asoka, after his highly successful military campaigns (which preceded his conversion to Buddhism and adoption of nonviolent policies), came to rule over a large territory in central and southern India. His political and cultural influence extended widely. Not only did Asoka support Buddhism as the official state religion, but he also actively promoted Buddhist missionary work. Tradition tells that his own son and daughter were among the Buddhist missionaries sent to Sri Lanka.
Asoka is also credited with having been an art patron of overwhelming magnitude. Legends tell that he directed the creation of over 84,000 Buddhist memorials throughout his kingdom. Admittedly, this number is improbable—and only a few examples from his period survive to the present day, including the Great Stupa at Sanchi. Stupa is a Sanskrit term for mound or artificial mountain. The form can partially be traced to the practice of erecting funerary memorials over the grave sites of important rulers and Hindu holy men. Of course, the architectural marking of the burial sites of significant figures has a long history in the religious and political practices of many world regions, and marking important sites with physical memorials is a cross-cultural phenomenon. The stupa is, however, one of the most distinctive and common forms of Buddhist architecture and is the foundation for many later Buddhist architectural forms, such as pagodas (characteristic of Buddhist architecture in China and Japan) and the distinctive Tibetan chorten form, plus variations in Thailand, Indonesia, and elsewhere.
It is somewhat problematic to describe a stupa as a form of architecture, however, because stupas (of whatever size) are not buildings into which people can enter. In contrast, stupas are fully solid structures, generally formed of mounded rubble covered with stones, brick, or plaster, and their function is to mark sacred places, serve as relic-containing memorials of holy figures, and symbolize religious concepts. The Great Stupa at Sanchi is a large, excellent exemplar of the form. It is close to 120 feet in diameter and 54 feet tall. One walks around (circumambulates) the exterior of the stupa on a specified (clockwise) devotional path, but one does not enter into any architecturally enclosed or roofed interior space. Access to the sacred precincts of a stupa is often signaled by gates (torana) set in a surrounding fence-enclosure. After visitors pass through the gates and enter the precincts, they make their way around the stupa on a ground-level path or slightly elevated platform. Stupas are generally topped with distinctive elements—a cubical form (harmika) and a shaft (yasti) that supports one or more umbrella-like disks (chatra). These are placed at the apex of the stupa and symbolize the axis of the world or cosmic world mountain (Mount Meru), which is at the center of the universe. The relics are placed deep inside the stupa in line with the yasti.
The sculptured gates that give access to the Great Stupa at Sanchi are also remarkable survivals from the early eras of Buddhism in India. The 35-foot-tall gates were set at the four cardinal points, symbolizing the cosmos, and are enriched with narrative and symbolic sculptures that demonstrate the development of Buddhist imagery as well as the adaptation of traditional Hindu forms. The creation and sculptural elaboration of these gates is traced to the post-Asokan era, in the first century BCE, giving evidence of the continued importance of this site.
A number of other stupas were also erected at Sanchi, several of which survive today in somewhat fragmentary condition. The site appears to have functioned as a very significant center of Buddhist pilgrimage and monastic retreat under the initial patronage of the Emperor Asoka. Later additions and re-buildings on the site appear to have taken place up until the 11th and 12th centuries CE, after which the site was abandoned during the decline of Buddhism in India and its spread to other Asian regions.
The continued importance of the stupa form in Buddhism and its later development and elaboration are extremely well demonstrated by the great monument of Borobudur on the island of Java, Indonesia. This impressive monument was constructed in the early ninth century and is still today considered to be the largest Buddhist structure in the world. Created under the direction of the Shailendra rulers, this unique and well-studied monument is unlike any other in size and complexity of symbolism. It serves not only as a memorial to the Shailendra rulers and their devotion to Buddhism but also as a visual representation of core Buddhist teachings.
The floor plan of Borobudur shows its complex mandala-like layout. The square structure is placed on top of a low hill and rises upward in a shape resembling a stepped pyramid. There are nine levels that the visitor ascends via staircases and walled galleries. The top three levels are circular, and the apex of the monument is topped with a large stupa. Borobudur is, itself, a stupa, but it contains a number of smaller stupas (72 on the three upper levels) filled with seated Buddha sculptures. Altogether there are over 500 free-standing Buddha figures plus several miles of elaborate relief carving on the base and middle terraces.
Borobudur dramatically symbolizes the Buddhist path from ignorance and attachment to enlightenment and release via the physical ascent of pilgrims to the apex of the monument and via the subjects found in the carvings on the different levels. The base represents the sphere of earthly desire, with relief carvings of various human actions and their causes and consequences. The middle four levels (where the majority of relief carvings are found) depict scenes from the life of the Buddha and other stories of spiritual quests. These levels represent the sphere of forms. The three upper levels symbolize the world of formlessness—the highest sphere. Thus, in journeying to and ascending Borobudur, “the visitor is transported by powerful, mystical forces that combine to make this enormous creation a remarkable evocation of earthly and divine worlds.”
Three Buddhas and Two Bodhisattvas
Three different free-standing sculptures of the Buddha from different world regions demonstrate some consistencies as well as divergences in form, style, and symbolism. Both the Great Bronze Buddha, from the middle of the 13th century, originally created for an important temple near Kamakura in Japan, and the much smaller bronze Buddha from 13th-century Thailand show specific types of seated Buddhas in meditation poses. The hand gestures (mudras) of the two seated Buddhas, as well as the sixth- or seventh-century Chinese standing Vairochana Buddha, represent standardized and oft-repeated forms.
The Japanese example shows Buddha in the dhyana-mudra pose, seated in intense meditation with closed eyes. His large hands rest on his legs, palms upward with thumbs touching. This gesture refers to Buddha’s long period of meditation preceding his enlightenment, and it is one of the most frequent forms of images of the Buddha. The pose was used for representations of the historical Buddha as well as the many important celestial Buddhas of the Mahayana schools, such as, as in this case, Amida (or Amitabha) Buddha (the Buddha of Infinite Light, especially venerated in the Pure Land traditions). This colossal, hollow bronze sculpture is close to 40 feet tall.
Although similar in basic format, the 13th-century seated Buddha from Thailand exhibits the bhumisparsha (touching the earth) mudra, indicating the moment of Buddha’s enlightenment when “he called the earth to witness his good achievement.”. Although still wrapped in stoic meditation, this Buddha reaches one hand downward to touch the earth with his fingertips. The slimmer and elongated body proportions of this Buddha are typical of the images produced in Thailand during the period of the Sukhothai kingdom. The flame-like protuberance on the top of Buddha’s head is also characteristic of this style. The protuberance (ushnisha) is a distinctive aspect of Buddha images generally, probably derived from the Indian royal hairstyle of topknot and/or turban. Other distinctive physical marks of the Buddha include a small dot or whorl of hair in the middle of his forehead (the urna, which symbolizes great wisdom) and his elongated earlobes. These represent another mark of nobility, resultant from the wearing of heavy jewelry (which of course the Buddha had discarded), and serve as a reminder that we also must leave behind attachment to worldly riches in order to attain enlightenment.
These features can also be seen in the sixth- or seventh-century Chinese bronze example of a standing Buddha. A variety of types and poses were developed for standing Buddha figures also. This example shows Vairochana, the cosmic Buddha or Illuminator. He is shown with one palm raised and the other hand reaching towards the viewer, demonstrating the vitarkamudra of teaching, welcome, and reassurance.
A range of forms and styles is also well demonstrated in depictions of the numerous bodhisattvas. Among the most popular and widely worshiped, in various guises, throughout the Buddhist world is Avalokiteshvara (the Protector of the World, Bodhisattva of Compassion). This figure can appear in dozens of different forms, of which the two illustrated here represent only two major types. This deity has an especially interesting history and evolution. Venerated as a male deity in Indian Buddhism,
Avalokiteshvara became associated with a female bodhisattva called Tara, who embodied the feminine side of his compassion. In China, where Avalokiteshvara is worshiped under the name Guanyin, the bodhisattva’s male and female identities became compounded and Guanyin came to be worshiped mainly in female form. Tibetans feel a special kinship for Avalokiteshvara…. They claim that he has taken a vow to protect the nation of Tibet and is manifested in the person of every Dalai Lama.
The beautifully painted 11th- to 12th-century wooden example from China shows the goddess in elaborate and elegantly flowing robes, seated casually with one knee drawn up and arm resting lightly atop the knee (see Plate 25). This pose is often called “royal ease,” and—versus more formal and sometimes frightening depictions of deities—it conveys balance, relaxation, calmness, warmth, and welcome to all who call upon her merciful nature.
A much more startling depiction of this deity is the 17th-century Tibetan example illustrated in Figure 13.12. The figure is seated in a lotus pose of meditation, with two hands placed together across the chest in the anjali mudra of prayer. Numerous additional arms radiate out from the figure, and the multiple hands demonstrate a variety of other mudras or hold various ritual objects. This symbolizes the bodhisattva with 1,000 arms (other examples will show 11 heads, 6 arms, and so on), indicating the deity’s limitless powers and endless different ways to assist and lead all to enlightenment. The exquisitely detailed and precious nature of this gem-encrusted bronze statuette is typical of the arts associated with the esoteric Vajrayana schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
A Tibetan Mandala, 15th Century
“No subject in Tibetan art has drawn more attention than the mandala. These works have an appeal beyond their original liturgical role; to psychologists they are universal images that reflect fundamental human instincts, while, for many, they attract through their blend of order and harmony and their multiple levels of mystery.” For many centuries, the arts of Tibet were relatively inaccessible to and unstudied by Western scholars. But especially following the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the mid-20th century and the resultant diaspora of Tibetans and their art objects, a vast amount of Tibetan art materials have been collected, studied, and displayed in the West. Many studies—both popular and scholarly—have been devoted to all aspects of Tibetan art, with mandalas being among the most prominent sources of fascination and wide-ranging interpretation (see Plate 26).
Mandalas are not unique to Tibet or to Buddhism; they are used in Hindu and Jain religious practices and have been widely produced in India and throughout Asia generally. Many would argue that the symmetrical diagram format of the mandala has an archetypal kinship with many other cross-cultural forms, such as labyrinths and the rose windows of medieval European cathedrals. The term mandala is said to derive from Sanskrit words meaning a “sacred center,” “container,” “essence,” and something “set apart.” Mandalas, thus, are sacred diagrams that represent the cosmos, universe, paradises, and abodes of deities. They exist in both two- and three-dimensional forms and are used by practitioners as aids in visualizing and in communicating with deities who are able to assist with the search for enlightenment.
Typically, mandalas are highly complex symmetrical diagrams with circles, squares, and other geometric forms filled with images of deities and esoteric symbols. The 17th-century Tibetan example illustrated shows a mandala painted in watercolor on cloth, mounted on a cloth background. This hanging scroll (or thangka) format is very typical of portable mandalas, which could be displayed and used as aids in meditation and visualization practices.
This particular example shows the “palace architecture” format, a style of mandala that became especially popular in Tibet in the 12th and 13th centuries and that grew in complexity of style through the 14th and 15th centuries, when this example was created. This work was produced in a monastery of the Sakya order, one of the major orders of Tibetan Buddhism. The Sakya order was especially active in the production of sacred art and in maintaining and classifying the formats and styles of mandalas. The “palace architecture” type is meant to be understood and experienced as the two-dimensional floor plan for a multifaceted, three-dimensional structure. Set within the inner circle and visually entered through elaborate gateways at the four cardinal points, the square palace itself, in this case, contains six smaller palaces or mansions that are inhabited by deities. These deities are identified as six chakravartins (world rulers or kings) accompanied by female consorts in “father-mother” or yab-yum pose. This particular iconography of deities in sexual union, so frequent in Tibetan art, is “not meant to be regarded sensually. Rather, they are symbolic of the union of wisdom (female) and compassion (male), the two qualities necessary to achieve enlightenment.”
The gates and corners of the large palace are guarded by eight fearsome female deities, and these and other deities are repeated again in rows on the top and bottom of the mandala. Twenty additional deities are found in circles in the corners of the composition, plus various symbols and ritual objects. Elaborately detailed foliage scrolls in traditional and symbolic color schemes are repeated throughout the background, the palace, and the mansions. The specific proportions and layouts for mandalas adhere to standard conventions and maintain these fixed traditions due to their spiritual potency.
Each figure in a mandala has several purposes, functioning as a specific deity, as a manifestation of the central deity’s power, as a focus of visualization and meditation, and as a signpost for a spiritual process. Each plays many roles during rites and visualizations which presumes a constant dialogue between the deity at the heart of the mandala (and in its various components) and the practitioner who moves, at least metaphorically, from outside the mandala to its core. On this journey he encounters the various forces radiating from the inside out, identifies with the central deity, apprehends all manifestations as parts of a single whole, and moves closer to the goal of perfect understanding or enlightenment.