What is Buddhist Art?

What is Buddhist Art?

Buddhist art includes media which depict Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other entities; notable practitioners and historical figures; narrative scenes from the lives of all of these; mandalas and other graphic aids to practice; as well as physical objects associated with Buddhist practice (dorjes, bells, clothing, etc.).

Music, chanting, dramatic forms, and poetry can also be considered Buddhist art.

The earliest known instances of material objects of worship for Buddhists are relics of the Buddha and other holy figures, as well objects symbolic of relics (e.g., stupas).

An early text describes three categories of relics:

(1) Saririka: physical relics of the Buddha;
(2) Uddesika: religious symbols including the Buddha image, stupas, dharmacakra (wheel of the law), “implying the places of actions and objects of use as relics of a Buddha”;
(3) Paribhogika: personal articles used by the Buddha.

Relics are always closely associated with the life story of the historical Buddha (c.f., John S. Strong, Relics of the Buddha), and their preservation/worship is intended to encourage religious practice.

The earliest recovered examples of art associated with Buddhism are aniconic, referring to their symbolic rather than representational quality, and indicate a didactic intention. Scholars differ on whether such symbols represent the Buddha himself, or merely allude to his life. The actual bodhi tree, the site of enlightenment, is presented in as substitute for the Buddha himself. “The Kalingabodhi jataka recounts the frustration of the people of Sravasti who, one day, find they have nobody to venerate when they go to the Jetavana and find the Buddha “out,” gone off on a trip. To remedy this situation, upon his return the Buddha allows Ananda to plant a bodhi tree in front of the Jetavana […] and serves as a substitute focus for people’s devotions, whenever the Buddha is not in residence.” (Relics of the Buddha, p. 153).

Rather than depict the historical Buddha (Shakyamuni), images symbolic of his life (particularly of the points in his biography which point to his eventual enlightenment), were employed, often in narrative scenes. Other common aniconic images include: footprints, an empty throne. The images carved into the gates at Sanchi and Barihut are intended to offer stories uplifting to contemporary readers, and evidence the incorporation of existing traditions and iconography from India and the surrounding regions. The well-known images of the footsteps of the Buddha underscore his physical presence in the world (and thus the capacity for any living being to pursue and attain enlightenment), as well as illustrating the marks of the dharmacakra, describing of the identity of the Buddha. (c.f., Susan L. Huntington: “Early Buddhist art and the theory of aniconism”, Art Journal, Winter 1990.)

Buddhist art has grown organically within cultures in which the religion flourished, incorporating iconography and styles. Thus, the earliest Buddhist art partakes of symbols and styles from pre-existing Hindu (e.g., yogic postures) and East Roman art (figures set in architraves), with constant reference to the life story of the Buddha. Scholars have sought a cause for the introduction of human figures in Buddhist art around the 1st century BCE from the cultures of the era. Some posit this emergence of anthropomorphic imagery to the lingering influence of Graeco-Roman culture in Gandhara (present-day Pakistan), while others give the credit to the north-central Indian empire of Mathura. These arguments are well-summarized in The Buddha image: its origin and development, Yuvraj Krishan, and see also Karel Werner, p. 68ff. in Venerated Objects and Symbols of Early Buddhism, edited by Peter Harvey.

Buddhist texts (apocryphal) describe the creation of representational images during the Buddha’s lifetime. All rest on the premise that practitioners seek a visual focus, in the absence of the Buddha himself. (The same justification applies to relics requested from the Buddha during his lifetime, e.g., hair.) The Anguttara Nikaya gives the story (later recounted by the Chinese traveler-monks Xuanzang and Faxian) of King Udayana of Kausambi who had a sandalwood statue made of the Buddha, who at the time was visiting the Trayatrimsa heaven and the King finding his absence difficult to bear. Hearing of this, King Prasenajit of Kosala commissioned a statue of the Buddha cast in pure gold. In both of these instances, the Buddha himself sanctions the creation, a change of opinion from that found in older Pali sources.

Developments of Buddhism which led to the growth of the Mahayana fostered an increase in figural images especially, and to the creation of artwork generally. Formats prevalent include: paintings on silk, wall paintings, illustrated books and prints, embroidery and other fabric arts, sculpture (wood, metal, ivory, stone, jade), and architecture. Buddhist art is primarily centered on temple or monastery, but personal devotional objects are extremely common.

Buddhist art and Material Culture

From its beginnings, Buddhism was a belief system that thrived in the merchant class, perhaps owing to the means it provided to individuals denied by birth entry into religious systems in India and the Himalayas. Buddhist thought and art developed through the trade routes between India, the Himalayas, Central Asia, China, Persia, Southeast Asia, and the West. Travelers sought the protection of Buddhist images and offered donations to shrines along the way, picking up objects and portable shrines for personal use.

For all of these reasons, Buddhism has generated a vast range and amount of objects.

…it is not correct to characterize Buddhist doctrine as entirely opposed to the use of material things. Far from expressing disinterest in objects, the monastic regulations dwell on monastic possessions at great length, carefully detailing the cut and hem of the monk’s robes, the material from which his alms bowl was to be made, and the length of his walking staff. This was done in order to maintain a clear distinction between the objects associated with the austere Buddhist monk and those associated with other types of people devoted to the pursuit of money, goods, and material display. That is, objects were used to express the monk’s disdain for the decadent world of those obsessed with personal wealth. Certain objects could be harnessed for the greater cause of the rejection of the material world, but to do so required  meticulous attention to detail and adherence to codes of behavior in their manufacture and use.  (John Kieschnick, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, p.5-6)

In the present, one encounters images of Buddhism in both religious and highly secular places, offered for sale to practitioners and as a means of selling products. (c.f., the “dharma burgers” at the Worst Horse blog.)

One finds two opinions concerning the use of Buddhist imagery in instances clearly far from Buddhist practice: 1)  That any instance of Buddhist art is beneficial; 2) that the spread of Buddhist art beyond the clear focus of religious practice is actively harmful to Buddhist practice. The present blog, if merely for academic purposes, strives toward the first view, while remaining critical per the second.

Buddhist art history

Buddhist art history was created by European scholars and travelers in the 19th century, with the exploration of India and Sri Lanka and the discovery of the early sites related to the life of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, who lived in Nepal in the 4th century BCE. The parameters of Buddhist art were thus determined both by the material remains — buildings, sculpture, paintings, etc. — and the intellectual framework of these early scholars.

Many of the initial Buddhist art historians were also in the business of gathering  Buddhist art for institutions. (cf., Curators of the Buddha: the study of Buddhism under colonialism, By Donald S. Lopez and http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/bernard-faure-buddhist-icon-mo.html)

What is Contemporary Buddhist Art?

Objects designed for devotional use are still created, and needless to say, over the centuries, cultural trends and changes in technology have led to the creation of new and different forms of such objects, e.g., cellphone apps designed for prayer.

While Buddhist art in the pre-modern period has received extensive and intense scholarly attention, more recent instances are largely unexplored.  The excellent survey, Faith and power in Japanese Buddhist art, 1600-2005, By Patricia Jane Graham, provides an overview of contemporary Japanese Buddhist art.

What is Buddhist Contemporary Art?

Buddhist imagery enters into contemporary art in a number of ways, from the use of Buddhist imagery, to the approach/mindset of the artist. In the twentieth century, Buddhism (particularly Zen Buddhism as introduced by D.T. Suzuki) had a significant influence on a number of artists: Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Bill Viola, Laurie Anderson, Phillip Glass.  “In talking about Dharma Art here, we do not mean art, which necessarily depicts Buddhist symbols or ideas, but rather art which springs from a certain state of mind on the part of the artists. We can call this the meditative state: an attitude of directness and unselfconsciousness in one’s creative work” (Chogyum Trungpa Rinpoche).

What is less clear, however, is whether aspects of this mindset are present in artists with no knowledge of Buddhism, perhaps thus including a great many more works under this description of Buddhist art. (c.f., Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, Edited by Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob.)

The Tibetan diaspora has pushed many Tibetan artists into the international artworld. For a review of contemporary Tibetan Buddhist art, click here.

~ Jonathan Ciliberto

4 responses to “What is Buddhist Art?

  1. Thank you for your wonderful blog!

  2. Does anyone know what kind of paints Buddhist artists traditionally used? East Asian artists usually used pigments mixed with animal glue and I was wondering if there were strict vegetarian artists who would use another binder for their pigments.

  3. Excellent info on this blog, I am currently working to publish and reveal as much as i can about Thai Buddhist Fine and Ancient/Sacred Arts, because it is so little researched in the English language, and in need of help to promote its rich and valuable Artistic Heritage on the International Art and Culture scene. I shall definitely link up to this blog from my site, for it is a quality source of information and news on Buddhist Arts.

  4. I love this blog. This blog is playing an important role to develop buddhism & buddhist philosophy world wide. I hope this blog will continue its work on Buddhism, Buddhism history, Philosophy & as well as for the world peace through the true path way of world humanities great teacher lord Buddhas noble invention & final destination NIRVANA.

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