Category Archives: Iconography

San Francisco: Buddhist Cosmology: A Visual History of Enlightenment

January 10, 2017 at Against The Stream: San Francisco in San Francisco.


Buddhist Cosmology: A Visual History of Enlightenment
A four-week class series with Michael Owens
Tuesdays, beginning January 10th
San Francisco

Cosmology is perhaps the oldest and broadest of the sciences because it explores the very extent and limits of reality – from the macrocosm of the size and age of the Universe to the microcosm of the smallest known particles. This class is a general introduction to Buddhist Cosmology based on a survey of Buddhist art and iconography from India, Central Asia, China and Japan. Each nights’ class includes a dynamic slide-show presentation of works of art that exemplify different aspects of Buddhist cosmological thinking.

Open to all.

Cost: $80 ($20 per class) or $70 if paid in advance. There will be an opportunity to offer dana to the teacher at each class (teachers receive a portion of the reg fee and are supported by dana). Some scholarships and work-study are available. No one will be turned away for lack of funds.

Michael Owens is a writer and teacher working at the convergence of art, education and philosophy. After exploring an academic career in Buddhist Studies at Princeton University, he began teaching meditation and giving lectures at Buddhist temples and monasteries domestically and abroad. In 2006 he founded the Red Lotus Society, an educational non-profit organization to promote meditation as an inter-faith practice. Michael has translated several Chinese Buddhist texts into English and teaches regularly on Buddhist history and philosophy.


BOLOGNA – Evening Lecture ‘Introduction to Tibetan Art & Thangka Painting’

lecture-tibet-carmen-mensinkItaly / 14 Nov / Lecture ‘Tibetan Art & Thangka Painting’

> The lecture is given in English and will be translated in Italian

In this Lecture Carmen Mensink will talk about Tibetan Buddhist Art and thangka painting.

At the end there will be time for questions and answers and Carmen will show one of her traditional thangka paintings that she has brought with her.

This evening will be a perfect introduction to the workshops ‘Drawing the Buddha Face’ the next evening 15 nov. in Bologna, or ‘Drawing a complete Buddha Shakyamuni’ the next weekend 18-10 nov. in Tuscany.

Info & Registration

Date: Monday nov. 14, 2016: 20.00 – 21.30
Price: €? including coffee & tea

Where: Centro Studi Cenresig, Via della Beverara 94/3, Bologna

Registration: Please register with Elisa Macci a.s.a.p.:
Send an email to Elisa: (in Italian or English)


Book Review – Image Problems: The Origin and Development of the Buddha’s Image in Early South Asia


Review by Jon Ciliberto

Image Problems: The Origin and Development of the Buddha’s Image in Early South Asia
Robert DeCaroli
March 2015
280 pp., 44 b and w illus., 1 map, 1 chart, 7 x 10 in.

One of the earliest questions Western scholars of Buddhist art asked was: why were there no images of Shakyamuni Buddha for hundreds of years following his death? This question brings up another: what caused such images to begin to appear, and become so pervasive throughout Buddhist culture?

Robert DeCaroli‘s Image Problems revisits these questions and offers that the sudden emergence of images in the 1st century A.D. in South Asia was due to a general, cultural shift in attitudes toward anthropomorphic visual representation rather than to the development of specifically Buddhist approaches to images.

At least since Coomaraswamy’s “Elements of Buddhist Iconography” (1935), the transition from symbolic, or stand-in images of the Buddha to anthropomorphic ones has been placed in the much deeper historical context of Indian art. That is, it is an error to see the shift from an aniconic to a representational image use as one that occurred strictly in the Buddhist traditions, and thus that one ought to look in Buddhist texts or practices exclusively for explanations for the change. Similar changes occurred in Brahmanical and Jainism at the time.

More to the point, early Buddhists’ responses to images in religious settings were framed and developed as a result of cultural positions with respect to images that had developed over many centuries in India, and through its interaction with neighboring (often invading) cultures.

The nature of the Buddha to those living after his exit from the world is a theme threaded through the book, often revealing itself as an explanation for the variety of responses Buddhist in South Asia reacted to Buddhist images. The myriad manifestations and existentially complex nature of the Buddha serves both to justify, and undercut, the devotional use of images.

A frequently-cited and quite specific theoretical basis for excluding images of the enlightened Buddha is that once enlightened, the Buddha was entirely absent. If absent, what is there to represent visually? This underpinning raises a question addressed initially by DeCaroli: did images of the Buddha follow doctrinal changes, or did the appearance of images lead to shifts in doctrine? No clear answer exists, for the historical is irregular, inconstant, or nonexistent. Instead, the author looks to changes in cultural understanding of images that developed independently of Buddhism.

The author devotes significant space to the use of images in South Asian art generally, both upon the inherent “power, agency, and authority” of images (8), and upon the use of such images by foreign powers who entered the region to bolster their political authority over a native population. Images in ancient South Asia were considered powerful, even magical, in ways that it is difficult for our image-saturated culture to grasp. They were often utilized in rites aimed toward specific worldly goals: for gaining wealth or health, for causing illness in another, for inflaming romantic desire, to influence the weather, and so on. Meanwhile, rites whose goals were non-secular (as practiced, for instance, by Brahmans and Sramana) were generally less image-oriented. DeCaroli therefore speculates that early the lack of early Buddhist figural images was based on the understanding that Buddhist practice was meant to pursue transcendental rather than worldly goals.

In parsing the views of other scholars on the philosophical justification for image-prohibition, the author takes the position that the motive is based on the inherent potency of anthropomorphic images, rather than either the idea that symbols in aniconic are substitutions for the Buddha (Foucher/Cunningham), or that the symbol represents, or is a reminder, of the Buddha (Rhys David/Anderson). DeCaroli’s view is thus connected with his thesis that early Buddhist thought on images was highly influenced by pre-Buddhist ideas regarding the magical power of images.

Image Problems recognizes that the Buddhism of any era is not a monolithic belief-system, and that sects made differing responses to the proliferation of images in the 1st century. The volume offers an selection of Buddhist texts speaking against image use, although none are explicitly prohibitory. (One exception is the prohibition found in all vinayas (and in Brahmanic literature) against images of living things.)

It is refreshing to read a scholar who presents the authors of ancient texts not simply as authority figures, or even as persons locked into a specific school or tradition, but rather as individuals grappling with the startling fact of images suddenly coming into vogue, and seeking philosophical justification or proscriptive.

Beyond philosophical prohibitions of image use, one finds a “you couldn’t do it even if you tried” approach, in texts that posit the impossibility of creating an image of the Buddha’s body due to its “elusive and inexpressible nature.” In a similarly deflective rather than prohibitory way, some texts claim that images are simply less effective than other means.

A fascinating section of the book describes non-Buddhist prohibitions against image-making, including one based on the premise that image-makers are thereby taking money away from the gods depicted. (This seems almost an ancient version of modern celebrities’ legal recourse against unlicensed use of their images.) The reaction illustrates the sense of potency and life early Buddhist ascribed to images, as do many examples of the active agency of images: driving off apsaras by painting a picture of a prettier apsara, learning archery from the clay image of a teacher of archery, resurrecting a dead person by means an image of the person. All of these ideas around the power and agency of images made it imperative that the Buddha, whose parinirvana brought up utter cessation, be absent in images.

Image Problems includes a survey of the history of figural representation in Southeast Asia, to place the appearance of figural images in Buddhist art in context. Gradually, figural images became more specific, such that individuals rather than generalized figures were portrayed. Portraiture is of course closely connection with royal images. The author contends that royal portraiture was not an innovation of the foreign Kusana kings, but that they “introduced the new social customs that allowed for this type of artwork to be used in a wider range of contexts.” (93) The Kusanas, from Central Asia, had a relationship to figural imagery different from South Asians. In general, the Kusanas used specific physiological styles, “representing gods and other religious figures anthropomorphically, even if those deities had little or no prior history of being represented in such a fashion.” (97) Further, Kusanas, by placing images of themselves in close proximity to images of religious figures, further enhanced political figures’ prestige and legitimization.

While DeCaroli notes that this usage must have shocked locals, he does not explore significantly reverse legitimization resulting from the sudden appearance of images of the Buddha and other figures, including their usurping the place of other deities. That is, once anthropomorphic images of political figures began to appear on statues, reliefs, and coins, Buddhist artists by crafting anthropomorphic images of the Buddha and other figures co-opted the “image power” of such secular images.

The overlap between images of foreign kings and religious figures is summarized: “the centuries in which reigning kings began to display their own images are the same periods in which new modes of representing religious figures was also pioneered.” (112) Thus, the innovation of figural images appearing in Buddhist art is posited to a general trend in figural imagery at the time. Rather than a causal connection between royal portraiture and Buddha images, the author points to the emergence of “a specific attitude toward the use of figural art as a means of establishing authority.” (112)

Later chapters in Image Problems examine the reactions of Buddhists to “validate or justify” Buddha images, which generally speaking are tied to the power or efficacy of such images, and thus to their ability to help practitioners. Such justifications are also undercut by stories in which devotion to images is chastised as inferior to or a distraction from the dharma. This back-and-forth is a pattern that is repeated with respect to various stories concerning Buddha images: “In each instance, when a renowned member of the saṃgha […] demonstrates the value to be found in devotion to the embodied Buddha, a response is drawn from those who feel the need to amend, alter, or undermine their successes.” (126) Thus, the varied expressions of understanding regarding image use persists, even as image use proliferated. Too, these responses indicate the underlying tension that South Asians felt toward figural images’ power.

Image Problems thoroughly surveys image use, devotion, the merit of making and donating to images, miracle images, and the problem of copies of images. The book extends consideration of image use to meditative practices, linguistics, and parallel reactions in Jain and Brahmanical traditions.

The Tibetan Book of Proportions

13086233095_32e18f1e88_bThe Public Domain Review offers a series of images from “an eighteenth-century pattern book consisting of 36 ink drawings showing precise iconometric guidelines for depicting the Buddha and Bodhisattva figures.”

Original text at the Getty.


Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism PODCAST

At New Books Network

Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism
Kukai and Dogen on the Art of Enlightenment

March 29, 2016 Daniel Friedrich

What role do images play in the enlightenment experience? Can Buddha images, calligraphy, mandalas, and portraits function as nodes of access for a practitioner’s experience of enlightenment? Or are these visual representations a distraction from what ultimately matters? Pamela D. Winfield‘s recent award-winning monograph, Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism: Kukai and Dogen on the Art of Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2013), explores these major Japanese Buddhist figures artistic and textual productions in order to answer these questions. Bringing together her expertise in the fields of art history and Buddhist studies, Winfield guides the reader to more nuanced understandings of Kukai as a promoter of icons and Dogen’s seemingly iconoclastic stance. In addition, she offers a model for bridging textual studies and studies of material cultures that opens paths for further explorations of the relationship of practice, text, and image.


Buddhist aesthetics

buddha-1.jpg.image.975.568The Week

By Geeti Sen | January 07, 2016

The growing appeal of Buddhism in the west and across the world today lies in its ethical code of human conduct. It has been almost forgotten that its early popularity grew because of its inclusive approach of earlier religious cults. And can we overlook the beautiful images made in wood, stone, bronze, stucco, terracotta and ivory, palm leaf, pigments with fresco paintings on walls? Wherever Buddhism spread its wings in Asia, it took its art, a sensibility fashioned from a deep-rooted humanism.

From India, the foundations of this particular sensibility travelled to Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Afghanistan, Central Asia, Cambodia, China and Japan. In retrospect in the 21st century, could we think of a more peaceful way by which to influence our neighbouring countries.

The exhibition at the National Museum, Delhi, brought this into focus, with 91 objects loaned from the Indian Museum in Kolkatta which had already travelled to major venues in Asia. Since this was perhaps the first major museum in the country (indeed in Asia) the exhibits included earliest low relief carvings from the Buddhist stupa at Bharhut of the 2nd century BC. The railing posts enclosing the sacred stupa are carved with reliefs of devotees worshipping the Buddha. As the Master had expressly forbidden such worship, he is represented not in human form but through popular symbols.

These symbols indicate his moment of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, and his first teachings in the deer park at Sarnath where he spoke about turning the “wheel of the law”. In this way, earlier cults of tree worship and the royal Mauryan emblem of the chakra (which becomes the dharma chakra) were incorporated into Buddhist worship. The most emblematic image is the worship of the Buddha’s feet, seen also in a separate gigantic stone carving. Size plays a major part when it comes to representing power. Continue reading

Nepal, early Malla – Akshobhya


14th-15th century, Nepal, Akshobhya, gilt copper alloy, private collection.

From, JUNE 24, 2015

Akshobhya is depicted here in his buddha appearance, without jewellery or crown, sitting in the lotus position, his right hand calling Earth to witness, the left hand cupped to hold a begging bowl. One end of his transparent robe is neatly arranged into a small scallop-shape over his left shoulder.The round shape of the urna on his forehead and the use of turquoise inlay suggests this work was made to be used in Tibet. He has a broad forehead and an oval chin, square shoulders and sturdy limbs which contrast with his thin waist.

15th century, Nepal, Akshobhya (or crowned Shakyamuni), gilt copper and stone inlay, private collection.

15th century, Nepal, Akshobhya (or crowned Shakyamuni), gilt copper and stone inlay, private collection.

Akshobhya is wearing a very low five-leaf crown inlaid with stones (now missing) and decorated with coral-inlaid rosettes and ribbons that fall behind his ears in a typical Nepalese fashion. He has a wide forehead with a white a tear-drop urna at the centre. His shoulders are exaggeratedly broad. One end of his transparent garment is pleated in a fan shape over his left shoulder. The seams are decorated with beading that matches the top and bottom of the double-lotus base. The latter has narrow elongated fat petals often seen on 15th century Nepalese and Tibetan sculptures. We will note the beading across his left arm that goes parallel with the beading of the hem across his chest.


The Origin and Development of the Buddha’s Image in Early South Asia by Robert DeCaroli


Image Problems
The Origin and Development of the Buddha’s Image in Early South Asia

PUBLISHED: March 2015
BIBLIOGRAPHIC INFORMATION: 280 pp., 44 b and w illus., 1 map, 1 chart, 7 x 10 in.

From Publisher’s website:

This deft and lively study by Robert DeCaroli explores the questions of how and why the earliest verifiable images of the historical Buddha were created. In so doing, DeCaroli steps away from old questions of where and when to present the history of Buddhism’s relationship with figural art as an ongoing set of negotiations within the Buddhist community and in society at large. By comparing innovations in Brahmanical, Jain, and royal artistic practice, DeCaroli examines why no image of the Buddha was made until approximately five hundred years after his death and what changed in the centuries surrounding the start of the Common Era to suddenly make those images desirable and acceptable.

The textual and archaeological sources reveal that figural likenesses held special importance in South Asia and were seen as having a significant amount of agency and power. Anxiety over image use extended well beyond the Buddhists, helping to explain why images of Vedic gods, Jain teachers, and political elites also are absent from the material record of the centuries BCE. DeCaroli shows how the emergence of powerful dynasties and rulers, who benefited from novel modes of visual authority, was at the root of the changes in attitude toward figural images. However, as DeCaroli demonstrates, a strain of unease with figural art persisted, even after a tradition of images of the Buddha had become established.

ROBERT DECAROLI is associate professor of art history at George Mason University.

“A fascinating account of the complex and, at times, contradictory ideas around the utility and appropriateness of figural representations in early Buddhist communities. DeCaroli’s study marshals an enormous amount of textual, inscriptional, numismatic, and visual evidence to examine how Buddhist communities were not only participating in broader social and cultural transformations but also seeking to differentiate uniquely Buddhist approaches to the relationship, or lack thereof, between subject and image.”
-Catherine Becker, author of Shifting Stones, Shaping the Past: Sculpture from the Buddhist Stupas of Andhra Pradesh

The Art of Salvation: The “Descent of Amitabha” Motif in Pure Land Art

"Buddha Amitabha Descending from His Pure Land." China, Southern Song period (1127–1279), hanging scroll, ink and color on silk. From

“Buddha Amitabha Descending from His Pure Land.” China, Southern Song period (1127–1279), hanging scroll, ink and color on silk. From

Buddhistdoor International
Raymond Lam

“Return to Amida, Return to Amida, So even dewdrops fall,” wrote the Soto Zen hermit Ryokan (1756–1831) famously, and throughout his life he exhorted those experiencing suffering, tribulation, and misery to do just that: to find refuge in the home of Amitabha Buddha. As a believer in Pure Land Buddhism, he knew that Amitabha would be waiting for him at the time of death. Amitabha awaits all beings’ return to him like wayward children to a parent, and when they do, he receives them lovingly, his hand outstretched in welcome.

Of course, such poetic love is not clearly expressed in the Pure Land sutras, which, despite their doctrinal eloquence and clarity, do not possess the kind of literary beauty offered by Japan’s poet-monks. Rather, Pure Land devotional imagery was nurtured in the artistic and aesthetic sensibilities of Chinese and Japanese painters. The motifs these artists imagined were original in concept, but earned their legitimacy through reference to images found in the Pure Land canon. My favorite example of this creativity is the device known as the “Descent of Amitabha” (Ch. Amituofo laiying tu 阿彌陀佛來迎圖; J. Amida raigo zu), which depicts Amitabha reaching out to the devotee to welcome her into his paradise at the moment of death.

The Descent of Amitabha is a distinct genre of Pure Land painting that arose after the appearance of “transformation” paintings (jingbian tu 經變圖) at Dunhuang, which give pictorial form to the Contemplation Sutra (Amitayurdhyana Sutra). A narrative-manual on visualizing Amitabha Buddha, the Contemplation Sutra tells the story of Queen Vaidehi’s imprisonment in her own son’s dungeon and the Buddha Shakyamuni’s instruction to help her visualize the Pure Land so that she may escape her world of despair. The mysterious artists of Dunhuang’s jingbian tu, as well as those working at Yulin and other cave sites, laid the foundation for “transforming” textual doctrines into visual reality. Dunhuang jingbian art functioned as an aid for meditation, articulating Queen Vaidehi’s story in the Contemplation Sutra while assisting the meditator in visualizing the Pure Land’s wonders—from the pavilions and saintly residents to the splendid sambhogakaya forms of Amitabha and his attendant bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta. Continue reading

Byzantine cultural glory owes a lot to Buddhist art: Indian researcher

Daily India Mail, November 13, 2014

New Delhi : The famed Byzantine Empire that celebrated classical European culture for more than a millennium from the 4th Century CE has “actually shared close relations” with Buddhism, recent research has revealed.

Rock arts, floral scrolls, architecture, iconography, hand gestures and themes have a lot in common between the Istanbul-headquartered Christianised Roman Empire and those found in the Occident where Gautama Buddha left a legacy that metamorphosed into a religion after the sage’s death in 5th Century BCE, according to a presentation made at the Indian Art History Congress (IAHC) here.

Movements of artists between Byzantine Empire and India facilitated this spread of Buddhist art to places as far as the Mediterranean Coast in the West, said Prof Rajaram Sharma in his talk at the three-day event organised by National Museum (NM) in association with the National Museum Institute.

“India always remained in touch with the West over centuries through land and sea — through commerce and various classes of travellers besides diplomatic and religious envoys,” the Bhopal-based scholar said in his paper ‘The Presence of Buddhist Concepts of Art in the Christianized Roman Empire & Vice Versa’ at one of the 32 sessions of the November 11-13 IAHC which attended by nearly 200 delegates.

The Greeks still have so much adoration for India even as its academics are in a dilemma over conceding the degree of Occidental influence in their culture which is widely believed to be structured on Orthodox Christianity, said 71-year-old Prof Sharma, who has been researching on the subject since 1977.

For instance, Byzantinologist Lady Tamara Talbot Rice refers to a room completely decorated with Indian Style in the Great Palace of Constantinople (which fell to Ottoman Turks in 1453), the speaker told delegates at the 23rd IAHC which concluded today.

Continue reading