In the west, it’s not uncommon to see representations of the Buddha used in the home as decoration.  However, it’s important to remember that these decorative pieces follow a long tradition of making statues in the Buddha’s likeness for spiritual and religious purposes. In this article we want to guide you through the history of Buddhism. We’ll teach you how these statues would have been originally used and give some examples of how the depictions changed over time.

Origins of Buddhism

Buddhism was founded in the 6th Century BC when Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) sought the path of truth. Born Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha was a prince who grew up in Lumbini in the foothills of the Himalayas. After a soothsayer warned that he might renounce palace life, his father decided to keep him within the walls of the palace in complete luxury – away from all suffering. However, on carriage rides outside of the palace he saw suffering in old age, illness and death. This inspired him to leave his new family and follow teachers to try and discover the truth of this life. After trying to starve himself, he realised that many of the current teachers were just adding more suffering to the world. Therefore, he took himself off, ate some food and meditated under a Bodhi tree until he attained Nirvana, or Enlightenment.

Then known as the Buddha, he spread teachings that life is full of suffering. But importantly, he also said that this suffering can end by following the Eight-Fold Path and the Middle way. This philosophy focussed on living a balanced and noble life that includes meditation and good morality.

Image of Buddhist Historical Expansion. Gunawan Kartapranata, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Do Buddhists worship the Buddha?

Like all religions, Buddhism developed over time. Indeed originally, there was no real image of the Buddha – he was usually represented by the Bodhi tree. However, this would change. Eventually Buddhism split into two main schools of thought around 1st Century AD – the Mahayana and the Hinayana branch. One, Hinayana Buddhism that’s now most commonly found in Theravada Buddhist practice, put more emphasis on the figure of the Buddha himself. This lead to more images of the Buddha being created – in both strains of the religion. However, neither of the branches worship the Buddha in the way that western monotheistic religions worship their God. In the words of the Buddha Dharma Education Association; ‘He was a human being who perfected himself and taught that if we followed his example, we could perfect ourselves also.’

The statues of Buddhas in temples might seem like idols to those unfamiliar with their practice. However, Buddhists do not worship, or see, these statues as gods. They are symbols that are a focus for practice and meditation. They remind the individual that Buddhism is essentially a human practice and to reach enlightenment one needs to look inwards. The Buddha Dharma Education Association also explains what the Buddha represents; ‘A statue of the Buddha with its hands rested gently in its lap and its compassionate smile reminds us to strive to develop peace and love within ourselves.’ Bowing to statues of the Buddha is a sign of gratitude for the teachings he departed, not a sign of deity reverence.

Gandhara

When we refer to ‘Gandhara’ we are generally referring to the semi-classical sculptures made by individuals in the North West of India/Pakistan between the 2nd and 5th Centuries AD. Inspired by the art of the mediterranean, they are striking to behold. In the words of Jack Sewell, it could be described as ‘the easternmost appearance of the art of the Roman Empire.’

Soon into the period, one of the most common depictions in Gandharan art became the Buddha. Originally, these artists were following earlier Indian Buddhist artistic traditions. However, they took a step further and evolved this practice into representing the Buddha himself. Along with images of Boddhisattvas (enlightened individuals) these statues were made for temples and homes. As to their purpose? Sarita Khettry remarks, ‘the function of these images was mainly devotional.’. This is supported by I-sing who came to visit India in the 8th Century. He noted that Indian monks all had their own rendition of the Buddha that they treated with the upmost respect, even giving it a meal at midday. Many of the Buddha made in this period were life size with halos of light and urnas (auspicious circular mark) placed in the centre of the forehead. They had a style that might now seem strange, but it reflected the cultural mixing in the region.

Learn More about Gandharan Art Here

Buddha Gandhara Pax Romana
Left: Gandhara Schist Panel with Buddha Right: Superb Gandhara Torso of Buddha

Northern Wei China

The Northern Wei Dynasty in China was in power between 386 to 534 AD in the Northern region of China. When the Northern Wei came to power it was against the backdrop of the failure of the Han. They were attracted to the relatively new Buddhism as it promoted equality and therefore could legitimise their rule. They became official patrons of the religion, which is no more prominent than in the Buddhists sites in the region. More than 30,000 Buddhist images have been recorded from just the Longmen Caves alone, and the UNESCO heritage Yungang Grottoes houses over 51,000 grottoes – each including an image of the Buddha.

Whilst they funded these builds, the government also supported a large monastic tradition and built temples throughout the region. Within the building of these sites were many images of the Buddha. He was often depicted in a sinicised Han Chinese style – especially when the piece was sponsored by the ruling elites. However, when a lower class member of society dedicated a portrait of a Buddha they often displayed local features. The Buddha Bricks were a part of this, as they would have been sponsored by individual families to be placed in public temples in order to show their own loyalty to the Northern Wei dynasty as well as to show their piety.

Left: Northern Wei Brick with Buddha Right: Northern Wei Stone Panel with Buddha

Tang Dynasty China

It is said that the Tang Dynasty was the ‘Golden Age’ of Chinese Buddhism. It had already been consolidated by the Northern and Southern dynasties and became the patronized religion by the Tang leaders. Buddhist monks were highly revered in society and many visited India for spiritual Buddhist teaching. Perhaps the most famous of these individuals was Xuanzang who travelled to India and returned in 645 AD with 700 Buddhist texts. In the everyday setting, Buddhist monks also held an important economic position. They had large areas of land and employed many ‘serfs’ to work their mills and oil presses.

During this period there was a great maturing and solidifying as to the ‘Chinese’ portrayal of the Buddha. The softly closed eyes, strong oval face long ear lobes and lotus flower became common. Many pieces were crafted under the orders of rich landowners to be donated to local government or monasteries. This was seen to bring political and religious prestige. However, by the end of the period the tide changed, and the ruling emperors became to prefer Taoism. It saw the end of this period that created large amounts of elite sponsored, beautiful Buddhist Art.

Left: Tang Dynasty Marble Head of Buddha Right: Large Stone Head of Buddha

This article is not an exhaustive list of the historical portrayals of Buddha’s in ancient history. It is instead just a taste of how important these images are and what religious, but also social and economic, importance they held to those who made them.

References and Further Reading on the Buddha

Abe, S. ‘Provenance, Patronage, and Desire: Northern Wei Sculpture from Shaanxi Province’. Ars Orientalis, 31, 1-30 (2001)

Buddha Dharma Education Association

Harvard X’s ‘Buddhism in Brief’ on Youtube

Khettry, S. ‘PORTABLE’ IMAGES (BUDDHIST) FROM GANDHARA. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 72 . (2011)

Jack Sewell. ‘Gandhara Sculpture.’ The Art Institute of Chicago Quarterly, 54 (1960)

1 Comment on “Ancient Depictions of the Buddha – Buddhist art from Ancient India to China

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