Buddha image

Constructed according to the laws of sacred proportion, each Buddha image should be consecrated and empowered by specific rituals before it is 'alive' enough to be worshipped . The same image serves different purposes. At the most popular level it is considered the repository of supernatural power, recipient of prayers. And a magical being that can intercede in daily life. In the resolutely animistic countries of Southeast Asia, images often have distinct personalities and preferences, and are sometimes even jealous of each other. At another level, the image is a springboard for meditation, a means of filling the mind with a form, which represents perfection. True appreciation of form leads to the formless, just as true perception of sound leads to silence.

Buddha's head

As the spiritual center of consciousness, the head received particular attention from Buddhist artists. In example, the dreamy head of stucco Buddha from Gandhara, the origin of the earliest school of representation, shows the influence of Greece in its similarity to the adolescent Apollonian sungod of late Hellenistic art. Two of the thirty-two bodily signs (lakshana) of a Buddha are discernible: the third eye (urna) in the center of the forehead, signifying spiritual insight, and the protuberance at the crown (ushnisha), which represents Enlightenment, when the 'thousand-petalled lotus' at the apex of the subtle body is fully opened. More typically oriental in their willowy stylization are heads of the bodhisattva Miroku (the Japanese Maitreya), the Buddha of the future age, shown pondering the means to achieve the salvation of humanity. They can show a third lakshana, the elongated ear lobes which, although originally perhaps caused by Gautama's princely earrings, came to be a symbol of wisdom.

Mudra, Buddha's hands

In Buddhist iconography, all hand gestures (mudras) have a meaning, just as they do in Hindu images. Mudra movements mirror the movements of the mind, and are one of the main symbolic means of conveying the principles of the dharma. One of the most common is the mudra of teaching, in which the fine discriminative insight of the Buddhist way is portrayed by the joining of the thumb and index finger, a circularity also recalling the Wheel of the Law and the eternal continuation of the dharma. Less usual is the healing mudra from a bronze image of Yakushi, the Japanese Buddha known as the Master of Medicine, who cures the root disease of ignorance. In his palm is the lakshana of the 'lotus whorl' in the form of the eight-spoked Wheel of the Law. Mudras may well have originated in the ancient gestures of Indian dance, such as this representation of the lotus, symbol of purity and Enlightenment. back to top

Buddha's feet

Feet represent the grounding of the transcendent, and have long been the focus of respect in India. The 'lotus feet' of gods and gurus are worshipped there even today, elders and parents merit having their feet touched in respect by their children, and bare feet are always expected in temples, shrines and houses, in the early days of Buddhism, natural declivitous were sometimes seen as evidence of the Buddha's footprint (buddhapada), and especially in Theravada countries the cult flourished as a natural extension of animistic stone worship. Examples can show a catholic combination of Hindu and Buddhist symbols: the solar disc, related to he deity Vishnu (of whom orthodox Hindus see Shakyamuni as the ninth incarnation), the trident of Shiva, representing the unity of past, present and future, and the eight fold lotus, alluding to Enlightenment and the path there. The soles of reclining Buddha are covered with the 108 auspicious signs of the faith. back to top

Early Buddhist images and Gandhara figures

In Buddhism, as in Christianity, it was three or four hundred years after the death of the founder of the faith that the first figurative images appeared, perhaps as a response to fading memories of the early days of the community. The first cult objects were the fly whisk of parasol - symbols of Gautama's royal status - the bodhi tree and the meditation seat beneath it, or else the Buddha's footprints or sandals.

After Shakyamuni's death, his ashes were interred in eight stupas by the eight groups of his followers assembled at Kushinagara (the number eight symbolizing the universe as the four cardinal directions and four midpoints). It was the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka who first made Buddhism a state religion in the 3rd century BC; his patronage encouraged new waves of artistic and architectural production. Legends accredit Ashoka with the building of some 84,000 stupas, but even if this is a great exaggeration, it should be remembered that even the tiniest fragment of ash or remnant of anything that once belonged to the Buddha or to a great Buddhist teacher was considered a genuine relic. In any case, many of Ashoka's monuments were surely commemorative rather than relic stupas. Some were depicted with archaic signs of good luck, such as the snake, parasol and royal elephants. Ashoka also had pillars set up throughout the empire that were inscribed with Buddhist teachings and topped by beasts. The most famous of these show a strong Persian influence in the form of the solar lions, whose eyes were originally studded with gems, and the pillars themselves hark back to the memorial columns of ancient Mesopotamia.

Western influences culminated in the late Hellenistic style of Gandhara, an isolated pocket of artistic legacy left behind by Alexander on his abortive attempt to subdue the Indian subcontinent. Gandhara figures display a realism of dress and physical form eschewed by the sublime and truly Indian style of the Gupta period, the golden age of Buddhist art. back to top

Buddhist monkshood

A boy who spends his early years in the monastery gains not only a good education, but also has the opportunity to make contacts which, should he later choose to leave the Robe, would stand him in good stead. It is still the custom in Theravada countries, particularly in Thailand, for young men to enter the monastery at least once in their lives for a limited period, often during the annual three-month rainy season retreat. So established is this custom that employers will grant time off for it.

Life in the sangha is traditionally very regimented. Monks should eat their one daily meal by noon, and offerings of food or drink given to images should likewise be made only in the morning. In addition, a monk should observe 227 vows - including prohibitions on handling money and watching entertainment - which are recited in their entirety by the community each full moon. Traditionally only a, limited number of possessions is allowed: a robe, an alms bowl, needle and cotton, and water filter. Although such rules still apply in Theravada sects, nowadays they tend to be less strictly observed in Buddhism as a whole. Monastic life is devoted to meditation, study, debate and eventually teaching. back to top to top

Stupas and Chedis

A stupa is a solid reliquary mound derived from the ancient tumuli of India, which had been royal tombs since earliest times. Miniature stupas were used as reliquaries or votive offerings. The pagodas of the Far East are versions of the stupa, the name being a derivation from the Sri Lankan term dagoba ('relic store').

The first cult object in Buddhism was the bodhi tree, or cuttings from it, which were taken wherever a major seat of the new faith was established. This custom will have dovetailed well with existing animistic tree-worshipping cults, and allowed the new faith to take root. The tree was then stylized and used as the crowning member or finial of the stupa.

Symbolically the dome of the stupa (the anda) refers to the Cosmic Egg from which the universe sprang, and the stupa thus belongs to that type of sacred building which represents the origin and center of the world, whereas the finial (or yasti) is a version of the axis mundi which unites heaven and earth. The relics are commonly called bija, menacing 'seed', a term, which implies the life-giving force, and transforms the funeral mound from a monument to the dead to an inspiration for the living.

There are four categories of stupa: those containing ashes or belongings of the Buddha; those containing ashes or belongings of an important teacher; those commemorations an event; and those donated as an act of merit by a layperson. The stupa is found everywhere Buddhism spread, and is the religion's major contribution to world architecture. The variety of form is enormous and each country has a different name for similar structures; all seeing chortens in the Himalayas; monolithic pagodas in Burma; and gracefully attenuated chedis in Thailand.

All phenomena are interrelated; thus in the macrocosm the levels of the stupa symbolize the five elements (base =earth, dome =water, spire =fire, parasol capital =air, finial =ether of Buddha nature), and in the microcosm of the human nervous system, the five principal chakras and the five senses smell, taste, sight, touch, and hearing respectively. A modern stupa, marking the establishment of a dharma center in England, combines traditional elements of design.
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The Vajrayana, Tibetan Buddhism, Tantrism and shamanism

No other single school has developed such spectacular and arcane rituals as the esoteric Mahayana school known as the Vajrayana ('The Way of the Adamantine Thunderbolt') practiced in Tibet, and thence t he other Himalayan countries. Buddhism was introduced into Tibet by the great Indian yogi Padmasambhava in the eighth century, and Vajrayana is a complex mixture of Indian transcendental philosophy and esoteric ritual derived both from Tantric sources of north east India and Tibet's indigenous shamanistic religion of Bon-Po. Linked to and ancient Central Asian tradition, Bon-Po provided much of the vocabulary that expressed the Mahayana vision, including masked spirit dances, rituals using human bones and skull-caps, communal exorcism, liturgical music, and offerings sculpted out of yak butter, one of the country's most treasured commodities.

Under Buddhist influence, the raw cosmic powers were allied to the bodhisattvas and a pantheon of peaceful and wrathful deities, and were invoked for the benefit and protection of all beings. Ceremonies of universal purification, especially at New Year, are an important ritual. The daily eight-hour trances and pronouncements of the State Oracle, spokesman for the awesomely powerful spirit-protector Pehar Gyalpo and his principal emissary to Tibet, Dorje Drakden, governed much Tibetan life. The institution is still active in Dharamsala, north India, the headquarters of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan peoples in exile.

The liturgical music of the Vajrayana centers on resonant bass chanting, and is used to summon, appease or banish elemental energies, or to induce the spirit to leave the body and travel in the astral realm. The complex deities with many limbs and heads, often studded with coral and turquoise, are cast in bronze, a skill the Vajrayana developed to great effect, while deities and mandalas painted on cotton and mounted on silk (thankas) constitute some of the finest Buddhist art. It is sometimes said that Tibetan and thence Vajrayana art is, for all its strangeness, essentially provincial Chinese work, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. As with all aspects of its extraordinary world-view, Vajrayana developed a profoundly idiosyncratic artistic style whose transcendental inspiration owed little to the imperialistic influence of its more powerful neighbor.
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Protectors and spirits.

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Protectors and spirits.

Buddhism and Hinduism

The jungle countries of southern and eastern Asia have always been rich mines of animistic lore, and Buddhism adopted many local protective spirits as it spread. In conformity with the dharma's tolerance - a result of its non-dual perspective on life - the Buddhist worldview has always sought to include pre-existing beliefs and practices rather than to banish or alienate them. Thus spirits associated with trees and fertility were incorporated into myths of Gautama's birth; serpents and dragons, always a beneficent supernatural presence in the East, protect Buddhist teachings and temples, and celestial musicians and dancers grace the walls of complexes such as Angkor Wat. In this way, Buddhism flourished as a natural outgrowth, albeit more refined and significant, of the existing cultural mulch and as a result could be easily assimilated by cultures converted to the dharma. The sacred inner sanctum must always be protected from the profane outer world of impurity and death - the threshold and entrance are always the most vulnerable points. Protectors may appear as deities awaiting sacrifice or warriors thirsting for battle.

In these and many other cases, the lines between what is Hindu and what is Buddhist iconography are often blurred, myths and images being shared as part of the vast pan-Indian reservoir of imaginative life. Indeed, temple sites may be sequentially, or even simultaneously, worshipped by Hindu and Buddhist, with no sense of friction. Garuda, a mythical man-bird, attendant of the Hindu deity Vishnu, appears on many temple lintels as a protector in the Himalayas.

Many protectors are represented as peaceful beings, suffused with a soft and happy beauty to show the sensuous bliss that awaits those who penetrate to the heat of life. Many are female, expressing the mysterious and irrepressibly fecund power of nature. Male protectors, in conformity with ancient Indian ideals of beauty and wholeness, exhibit an androgynous grace, and it is often impossible to tell from the face alone the gender of the being.

This type of representation perfectly suited the artist's intentions to portray an energy that is beyond the normal divisions of our dualistic vision and managed to combine the sensual and the spiritual in works that are, at their best, breathtakingly lovely.
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In Buddhism, the entire universe of relative existence is known as the realm of namarupa - 'name and form' - and it is through the correct understanding of sound and substance that its secrets are unlocked. The supreme man-made form is the Buddha image. Beautiful though they usually are, to the believer considerations of aesthetics are secondary, and the charm of an image (rupa) does not derive only from the sensory level. The image is somehow mysteriously charged with the power of the dharma, and in this capacity provides both a focus for the cultivation of refined emotions - such as loving-kindness, reverence and devotion - and also a springboard from which the mind can ascend in contemplation. Buddha rupas are traditionally made by hereditary families of artists and craftsmen, who are considered to be time-tested channels through which the sacred forms can be made manifest. In the creation of a rupa, the craftsman should mindfully follow a routine of purification and invocation before visualizing the divine form to be represented. Form is structured by sound; the most perfect man-made sound is the chanted scripture, through which the mind and senses are purified and the world of name and form can be understood in its fullness
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Buddhist calligraphy.

Thus the arts of the manuscript - calligraphy, block printing and illumination - have always been of great importance in Buddhism. Monastic libraries are traditionally the repositories of all aspects of knowledge - religious, medical, administrative - as were their counterparts in medieval Christendom.

In the fine arts, Buddhist calligraphic skills linked the philosophy of the dhama to the refined sensibility of the Chinese landscape tradition. Ch'an, the Chinese meditative school that became Zen in Japan, was founded by Budhidharma, a monk from India, always portrayed as a somewhat lugubrious character with bushy eyebrows. Some of the Far-Eastern representations of nature (often featuring bamboo, the epitome of strength though flexibility) are justly celebrated. The best capture the unity of form and emptiness expressed in the Zen aphorism that 'the trees show the bodily form of the wind', and manage directly to suggest the creativity of the Void, the inexhaustible freshness of the Buddha-field.
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Sound and Silence

Conches, drums,

Life at both gross and subtle levels is movement: movement involves sound. And just as all form is sculpted in stillness, so all sound is grounded in silence. Tibetan prayer wheels containing texts printed on rice paper of cotton send silent supplication to the gods who themselves are manifest as vibration energies in the realms of subtle sound, and who can be invoked by the correct intonation of their harmonic bodies as chants and mantras. Shakyamuni observed that between any two moments in time, an infinite number of 'mind-moments' occur, and these in turn arise out of the immaculate void that is our real nature. This subjective awareness of the undisturbed ground of activity is fundamental to the oriental disposition, and has influenced all aspects of its culture. Eastern classical music incorporates quarter tones and deliberate tonal spacing to allow for minute subdivision and thence silence, and its concept of harmony comprises not only the component parts of the music itself, but also the fact that tonal rhythms should be in concord with the other planetary rhythms of time and space. Thus in ancient India particular types of music were deemed to be suited to particular times of day, seasons and places, and all music had a liturgical purpose. In this way the healing power of sound, known to all cultures, was incorporated consciously and therapeutically into the structure of what we call music. Buddhist ritual instruments such as the conch and the drum should be played in such a way as to enliven rhythms in the physiology of the listener and to make full use of the stillness between each note. Similar considerations lie behind the phrasing of the Gregorian Chant of the West.

Mental silence, the culmination of all internalized sound, is the outcome of meditation, a procedure by which images, thoughts and sounds are traced to their root in the matrix of inner quietude. The silent mind is achieved through long retreats when the world of the senses is left far behind. Nor is the lucid equanimity that results from retreat limited to the conductive surroundings of forest or cave. As Gautama's own cycle of retreat, solitariness and eventual compassionate return indicates, for the wise the tranquil state persists under all conditions of life.

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