Buddhist Art and Iconography

Buddhist Art and Iconography As Asian culture became popular, Buddhist art became very familiar to Americans. We can find statues of Buddha not only at Asian restaurants but also at bars, night clubs and even at furniture stores. Buddhist art is becoming less associated with religion; however statues of Buddha and other Buddhist motifs such as lotus flowers have significant religious meanings behind them. Although some of people who are interested in Buddhist art are non-Buddhist, there are millions of followers in the United States today.

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The followers include non-Asian converts as well as Asian Americans. Buddhism was brought to America mainly by immigrants, Western scholars, writers and artists. The number of Buddhists in the United States has been growing since then. Buddhism in the Western world has a very short history compared to its more than 2500 years of history in Asia (Buddhist studies, 1995). Buddhism began in India in 6th century BCE with the birth of Siddhartha Gautama. He sought the path to Enlightenment and became known as the Buddha, the awakened one” or “the enlightened one”. By the third century B.

C, the teaching of Buddha spread to the whole India. Then, it continued to spread to the rest of Asia, and became the dominant religious force in most of Asia. In early years, the Buddha was represented by symbols but not in a human form. According to Coomaraswamy (1972), in early Buddhist art, “the Buddha is constantly represented by a simple seat or throne situated at the foot of a Mahabodhi-tree” (Elements of Buddhist iconography, p. 39), and after the second century A. D, the Buddha himself started to be represented in a human form seating on a lotus-throne.

In early Buddhist art, other deities were also represented by various symbols such as bull, tree, mountain, circle surmounted by stemless trident, lotus, bow and arrow (Coomaraswamy, The origin of the Buddha image, 1972). When the Buddha became to be depicted in a human form, a set of rule regarding how the Buddha should be depicted was developed. The Buddha is believed to have 32 main features and 80 sub-features. These features, called lakshanas, express his state as the Enlightened One and distinguish the Buddha from regular human beings. The bulge at the top of his head—the ushnisha—signifies his transcendent knowledge. The urna, a whorl of hair between the eyebrows that can also be depicted as a dot, is another symbol of his transcendent nature; its placement corresponds to that of the pineal gland”(Kossak & Watts, 2001). Other main characteristics of the Buddha include flatfoot, projecting heels, long fingers and toes, golden-colored complexion, fine skin, bluish body hair curls clockwise, lion-like chest, evenly-spaced teeth, and so on (“Signs of a great man”, 2002).

Also, the halo, or nimbus of light is frequently represented behind the Buddha’s head or sometimes surrounding his entire body. The Buddha wears monastic robe draped over both shoulders or with the right shoulder bare. His ears are elongated by the weight of earrings he had worn in his youth as a prince (Coomaraswamy, The origin of the Buddha image, 1972). Except the walking Buddha that are seen in Thailand and Laos, the Buddha is always seated, standing, or reclining. In each case, there are certain general patterns of postures.

When seated, there are five positions. 1) both hands held at the breast, 2) both hands rest with the palms facing upwards on the lap, 3) left hand rest on the lap and the right hand either hanging over the right knee, resting on the knee with the palms facing outwards, or raised. When standing, the right hand is usually raised, and the other hand holds the robe (Coomaraswamy, The origin of the Buddha image, 1972). In reclining images, the right hand is either supporting the head or lying down next to the body.

If the hand is supporting the head, it means that the Buddha is resting, but when the hand is next to his body, it means that the Buddha has entered into Nirvana. The soles of the feet of reclining Buddha statues are often marked by symbols (McArthur, 2004). The positions of the Buddha’s hands have special meanings attached to them, and they are called Mudra. There are large numbers of Mudra, but here are five most commonly used Mudras: Dhyana Mudra, Bhumisparsa Mudra, Varada Mudra, Abhaya Mudra, and Dharmachakra Mudra.

When the Buddha rests both hands with the palms facing upwards on his lap, it is called Dhyana Mudra, meaning gesture of meditation. The right hand is on top of the left hand and both thumbs are joined. Joining the two thumbs is of special significance since the nerve channel associated with the mind of enlightenment is said to pass through the thumbs (Buddhist studies, 1995). The gesture of the right hand hanging over the right knee while the left hand facing upwards on the lap is called Bhumisparsa Mudra, Calling the Earth to Witness. During meditation, Siddhartha had many temptations.

The position of the left hand symbolizes meditation, and the right hand is point the earth and calling the earth Goddess to bear witness. This gesture represents the Buddha’s overcoming of hindrances during meditation, and symbolizes enlightenment as well as steadfastness. When the left hand rests in the same way on the lap and the right hand is resting on the knee with the palm facing outwards, the gesture is called Varada Mudra, the gesture of bestowal of supreme accomplishment or charity. The right hand symbolizes bestowal of supreme accomplishment, and the left hand symbolizes meditation (Buddhist studies, 1995).

The gesture of the hand raised with the palm facing outwards is called Abhaya Mudra, the gesture of fearlessness. It shows that the hand is empty of weapons symbolizing friendship and peace. It is said to be the gesture of the Buddha immediately after attaining enlightenment (MacArthur, 2004). Finally, there is Dharmachakra Mudra, a wheel-turning gesture. In this Mudra, the right hand is facing outwards with the thumb and the index finger joined to make a circle and. There are some variations, but usually the other hand is in the same form and often facing inwards.

The three remaining fingers of both hands remain extended and the hands are held close to each other in front of the chest. The thumb and the index finger of the right hand represent wisdom and method combined, and the three extended fingers represent teachings of Buddhist doctrine (Buddhist studies, 1995). The three fingers of the left hand each stand for the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. This Mudra symbolizes the Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment, and the position of the hands in front of the chest means that the teachings are straight from the Buddha’s heart.

The circle formed by the thumb and the index finger represents the Wheel of Dharma, one of the most popular Buddhist symbols. As mentioned before, in early Buddhist art, the image of the Buddha in human form was not used. Instead, elaborate symbols were developed. Eventually, the Buddha in human form became the most popular image. However, many symbols remained important in Buddhism art, and have been used frequently. According to Buddhist Studies website, there are eight auspicious symbols which are commonly used. The first symbol is a right-coiled white conch.

It represents “the deep, far-reaching and melodious sound of the Dharma teachings, which being appropriate to different natures, predispositions and aspirations of disciples, awakens them from the deep slumber of ignorance and urges them to accomplish their own and others’ welfare”(Buddhist studies, 1995). The second symbol is the umbrella or parasol called the chhatra. It is a symbol of protection against all evil. The next is the victory banner, the dhvaja, which represents victory over obstacles and negativities. The vase of treasure symbolizes the spiritual and material abundance.

The figure of a pair of golden fish standing vertically with heads turned inward toward each other is also one of the auspicious symbols. It symbolizes the state of fearlessness and freedom as fish swim freely and without fear of drowning, and thus it implies happiness (Buddhist studies, 1995). Also, it is said that the symbol represent fertility and abundance as fish reproduce quickly. The next is the auspicious drawing, also called the endless knot. It is “a closed, graphic ornament composed of right-angled, intertwined lines.

It overlaps without a beginning or an end, symbolizing the Buddha’s endless wisdom and compassion” (Religion facts, 2008). The Dharma wheel, which is applied to the Buddha’s gesture Dharmachakra Mudra, represents the Buddha’s doctrine. Lastly, the symbol of the lotus flower, the pedma, is the symbol of purity. In these eight auspicious symbols, the last two, the Dharma wheel and the lotus flower are of special importance. The Buddha’s teachings are represented in the Dharma wheel, which is also known as the wheel of law, and it is believed that the Buddha turned the wheel.

The circle of the wheel symbolizes the endless rebirth, and the eight spokes represent the eightfold path. The eightfold path describes the way to the cessation of suffering. It is “a practical guideline to ethical and mental development with the goal of freeing the individual from attachments and delusions; and it finally leads to understanding the truth about all things” (“The noble eightfold path”, 2008). The path consists of 1) Right View, 2) Right Intention, 3) Right Speech, 4) Right Action, 5) Right Livelihood, 6) Right Effort, 7) Right Mindfulness, and 8) Right Concentration.

The first two relate to the wisdom, 3, 4, and 5 relate to the ethical conduct, and the last three relate to the mental development (The noble eightfold path, 2008). The wheel’s motion implies the rapid religious change brought by the teachings of the Buddha (Religion fact, 2008). The significance of the lotus flower in Buddhist art is derived from the fact that it root in the mud, grow up through the water, and blooms above the water in response to the rising of the sun. The growth of the lotus signifies “the progress of the soul from the primeval mud of materialism, through the waters of xperience, and into the bright sunshine of enlightenment” (Religion fact, 2008). Also, according to Coomaraswamy, “flower, arising from or resting on the waters, represents the ground or substance of existence, both that whereon and that wherein existence is established firmly amidst the sea of possibility” (Elements of Buddhist Iconography, 1972, p. 20). In Buddhist art, the Buddha is often seated on a lotus flower because it is said that the heart of human is like an unopened lotus and when the virtues of the Buddha develop, the lotus blossoms (Buddhist studies, 1995).

The lotus is pictured in various colors and each has different meanings. The pink lotus is the supreme lotus and associated with the historical Buddha, the white lotus symbolizes total mental purity and spiritual perfection, the red lotus represents the heart and symbolizes love, and the blue lotus symbolizes knowledge, wisdom and the victory of the spirit (McArthur, 2004). Many symbols other than the eight auspicious symbols are also commonly used. Some of the most popular symbols include the Buddha’s footprint, the Buddha eyes, the wheel of life, a deer, a snake, and the swastika, a cross with four arms with their ends bent at right angles.

In Buddhism, it is considered to be the symbol of the Buddha’s heart and is believed to contain the whole mind of the Buddha within it (McArthur, 2004). The swastika is used widely in other religions such as Hinduism and Jainism. Many of the Buddhist symbols are derived from Hindu symbols. For example, the swastika is often found on Hindu God Vishnu’s chest, and the conch shell is also one of the main emblems of Vishnu. The lotus flower is an important symbol in Hinduism, too. It represents beauty and non-attachment, and associated with several Hindu deities (Religion fact, 2008). The symbol of the wheel is used in Hindu art quite often.

It is drawn from a Hindu symbol. In fact, there is considerable influence of Hinduism on Buddhism mainly because both religions originated in India, and Siddhartha himself was a Hindu. Finally, in Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, specific meanings are assigned to certain colors. The color blue represents coolness, infinity, ascension, purity and healing, black represents, darkness and hate, white represents learning, knowledge, purity and longevity, red represents life force, preservation, the sacred, blood and fire, green represents balance, harmony, vigor, youth and action, and yellow represents rootedness, renunciation and earth.

Each of these colors except black is associated with different Buddhist deities. There are so many meanings behind one statue of Buddha. Buddhist art attracts a lot of people even if they do not know anything about Buddhist iconography, but exploring the meanings of the Buddha’s appearance, gestures, symbols and colors is very interesting way to enjoy Buddhist art. References Buddhist Studies: symbols/iconography. (1995). Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc. Retrieved December 9, 2008 from http://www. uddhanet. net/e-learning/history/symbols. htm/. Coomaraswamy, A. K. (1972). Elements of Buddhist Iconography. New Delhi, India: Munshiram Manoharal. Coomaraswamy, A. K. (1972). The origin of the Buddha Image. New Delhi, India: Munshiram Manoharal. Kossak, S. M. & Watts, E. W. (2001). The art of south and southeast Asia: a resource for educators. Available at the metropolitan museum of art website: http://www. metmuseum. org/explore/publications/asia. htm. McArthur, M. (2004).

Reading Buddhist art: an illustrated guide to Buddhist signs and symbols. New York: Thames& Hudson. Religion facts: just the facts on the world’s religions. Retrieved December 9, 2008 from http://www. religionfacts. com/. Signs of a great man. (2002). Dhammakaya International Society of Belgium. Retrieved December 9, 2008 from http://www. onmarkproductions. com/Signs-of-Buddha-32-80. htm/. “The noble eightfold path” Retrieved December 9, 2008 from http://www. thebigview. com/buddhism/eightfoldpath. html/.


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