Buddha-Dharma-Sangha History

Buddhist Art


“The very nature of sculptural images in Buddhism is complex and often embedded in significant controversy, both within the tradition itself and within the scholarly world that interprets such images. Further, the conception and function of images varies considerably within the Buddhist world, not only over the course of history, but also according to the particular ritual, devotional, and decorative context in which any particular image is situated, and, necessarily, according to the image’s very particular cultural context. It is thus important from the outset to recognize that although it is possible to make general statements about the nature and function of sculptural and pictorial images in Buddhism, it is also nearly always possible to find examples that seem to contradict such generalizations.” (EoBDKJNK)

The Buddha’s followers began to depict the Buddha very early on in sculpture, perhaps even before he had died, although because no such images survive this point is ultimately only speculation. The Buddha himself is recorded in some commentaries on the Pāli suttas to have said that objects associated with him – corporeal relics, primarily, but also objects he came into contact with, such as his robe and begging bowl, as well representational images – would be permissible only if they were not actually worshipped, as such worship would necessarily be involved in attachment; rather, such images could, he said, provide an opportunity for reflection on the Dharma and for meditation.

In other places, however, the tradition records that the Buddha actually sanctioned his sculptural representation. For instance, there is an oft-repeated story about a king named Prasenajit – in many versions of the story his name is Udayana – which provides one of the clearest expressions of a reason for making images of the Buddha. The story, as recorded by the Chinese pilgrim Faxian in the fifth century, goes as follows:

When [the] Buddha went up to heaven for ninety days to preach the faith to his mother, King Prasenajit, longing to see him, caused to be carved in sandal-wood from the Bull’s Head mountain an image of [the] Buddha and placed it where [the] Buddha usually sat. Later on, when [the] Buddha returned to the shrine, the image straightaway quitted the seat and came forth to receive him. [The] Buddha cried out, “Return to your seat: after my disappearance you shall be the model for the four classes in search of spiritual truth.” At this, the image went back to the seat. It was the very first of all such images, and is that which later ages have copied.1

Whether this is in fact a very early story that was still popular in Faxian’s time, or whether it is a much later “explanation” for the existence of Buddha images, the image clearly is intended to “fill in” for the Buddha in his absence, to make him present in some sense. The nature of this presence, however, is extremely complex, and has been a matter of considerable debate, as will be explored later.

Although the Pāli texts and commentaries make mention of images that are contemporary with the Buddha himself, in fact the earliest surviving Buddhist sculpture dates to considerably later. The earliest Buddhist art coincides with the Mauryan dynasty (fourth to second centuries BCE), and is typically associated with the great figure of Aśoka and his active promulgation of Buddhism through the use of inscriptions on stone pillars, many of which were adorned with various potent Buddhist symbols. Aśoka is also credited with providing rock-cut dwellings for Buddhist monks, caves that were adorned with various artistic motifs, as well as with building thousands of stūpas (funereal monuments), many of which were quite elaborately decorated, thus establishing the use of visual images in the communication of certain basic Buddhist ideas.

Buddhist art really began to flourish in the second and first centuries BCE, under the patronage of the Śuṇga dynasty. It was during this period that large monastic complexes were established at Bodhgayā in northern India, at Bhārhut and Sāñcī in central India, at Amarāvatī and Nāgārjunakoṇḍa in southern India, and at Bhājā, Nāsik, Kārlī, and other cites in western India. Significantly, however, the Buddha himself is absent from these very early images. Instead of representing his physical form, early Buddhist artisans employed a range of visual symbols to communicate aspects of the Buddha’s teachings and life story: the wheel of Dharma (dharmacakra), denoting his preaching (“turning”) his first sermon, and also, with its eight spokes, the eight-fold Buddhist path; the Bodhi tree, which represents the place of his enlightenment (under a pipal ficus tree at Bodhgayā) and also serves to signify the enlightenment experience itself (as well as the very powerful moment of enlightenment, the beginning of Buddhism); the throne, symbolizing the Buddha’s status as “ruler” of the religious realm, and also, through its emptiness, his passage into final nirvāṇa; the deer, evoking both the place of his first sermon, the deer park at Sārnāth, and also the protective qualities of the Dharma; the footprint (or footprints), which denote both his former physical presence on earth and the reality of his temporal absence; the lotus, symbolic of the individual’s journey up through the “mud” of existence, to bloom, with the aid of the Dharma, into pure enlightenment; and the stūpa, the reliquary in which are contained the Buddha’s physical remains, a powerful symbol of both his physical death and his continued presence in the world. Later Buddhism added countless other symbols to this iconographic repertoire: in the Mahāyāna, for instance, the sword becomes a common symbol of the incisive nature of the Buddha’s teachings; in the Vajrayāna, the vajra, or diamond (or thunderbolt), is a ubiquitous symbol of the pure and unchanging nature of the Dharma.

Much of the very early Buddhist art produced in India is narrative in both form and function, presenting episodes from the Buddha’s life and scenes from his prior lives. At Bhārhut and Sāñcī, Bodhgayā, and Amarāvatī, huge stūpas were erected as part of the large monastic complexes that began to be built at these sites as early as the third century BCE, and on and around these stūpas, particularly on the railings that encircled the monuments themselves, elaborate carvings were made. Many of these were scenes from the Buddha’s prior lives, which were also verbally recorded in the Jātaka and Avadāna literature; there were representations of prior Buddhas; and there were also depictions of key events in the Buddha’s life, such as his miraculous conception, his birth, and his departure from the palace in search of enlightenment (again with the Buddha himself absent).

It has typically been assumed that because the earliest Buddhist artistic images did not depict the Buddha, there must have been a doctrinally based prohibition against such depictions. First articulated by the French art historian Alfred Foucher in 1917, this idea – generally referred to as the “aniconic thesis” – has deeply influenced our understanding of early Buddhist art. The basic assumption by those who adhere to this thesis has been that there must have been a prohibition against representing the Buddha in the early centuries after his death, perhaps because the Buddha had, at the time of his parinirvāṇa, passed for ever out of existence, and therefore could only be represented by his absence.2

Recently, however, scholars have begun to rethink this basic assumption, and to re-evaluate early sculptural images in Buddhism. They have argued that perhaps these early sculptures are not reflective of a theological position which prohibits the physical representation of the Buddha (much like the Jewish or Islamic or Protestant prohibition against representations of the divine), but instead frequently represent events that took place after the Buddha’s death, and scenes of worship at prominent places of pilgrimage linked to key events in his life – such as Bodhgayā, Lumbinī, Rajgirī – and are thus intended to serve as ritual records and blueprints, visual prompters for correct veneration.

Regardless of where one stands on this debate, it is fairly certain that early Buddhist artisans and their patrons did not have a single purpose in making artistic images. There is, in fact, a wide variety of forms in early Buddhist art: in some cases, they seem to represent scenes from the Buddha’s life simply without the Buddha present; in others, Buddhist artisans seem to have represented the Buddha’s absence with an empty throne, and often depicted the throne itself as an object of veneration; and in still other images, they represented the Buddha’s physical relics or a stūpa containing his relics being worshipped in place of the Buddha. Given this variety of forms in early Buddhist art, it seems clear, at any rate, that early Buddhists had a complex understanding of both the form and function of representations of the Buddha, and that any attempt to articulate a univocal theory of early Buddhist art – such as that put forth in the aniconic thesis – is probably misguided, precisely because of the complex interactions of original intent, ritual and aesthetic context, and individual disposition. Fundamentally, Buddhist images project a polyvalent potential.

Actual images of the historical Buddha began to appear some time around the turn of the first millennium, prominently in two regions: in Mathurā, near modern Agra, and in Gandhāra, in what is now modern Afghanistan. In Mathurā, large standing images of the Buddha were made in the red sandstone that was indigenous to the region. The Buddha in these images is typically standing, depicted as broadshouldered, wearing a robe, and marked by various lakṣaṇas, the thirty-two auspicious marks with which he was born and which are described in several early texts – these included the uṣṇīṣa, or protuberance atop the head, elongated earlobes, webbed fingers, dharmacakra on the palms, etc. In the Gandhāra region, in contrast to Mathurā, the Buddha was typically depicted in what appears to be a Greek style of representation, wearing a robe that resembles a toga, and with distinctly Western facial features, details that may be evidence that an iconographic exchange took place with the Greeks who inhabited the region at the time of Alexander the Great. Many of the Gandhāran Buddha images depict him seated, forming the dharmacakra mudrā – literally the “turning of the wheel of Dharma gesture” – with his hands. In other images he is presented in a meditational posture, his body withered by the years of extreme asceticism that preceded his enlightenment. These different iconic forms were employed by Buddhist artisans (and their royal, monastic, and lay patrons) to emphasize both different moments in the Buddha’s life story as well as to convey visually different aspects of the Dharma.

By the fifth century CE, the Buddha was represented in a large array of forms and sizes. Some of these representations were truly colossal, such as the recently destroyed images at Bāmiyān, in modern Afghanistan, cut out of cliffs, reaching upwards of 30 meters (100 feet), a practice that would continue throughout the Buddhist world for the next millennium. The sheer size of these images seems to have been intended to convey an understanding of the superhuman qualities of the Buddha, many of which were also expressed in contemporary biographical stories contained in various nikāyas, the Lalitavistara, Buddhacarita, and several other well-known texts. Further, such massive images would have served as a potent means to attract new followers.

As the various Mahāyāna schools emerged and developed in India, Tibet, and later in East Asia, the Buddhist pantheon expanded tremendously, and this expansion was reflected in art and iconography. In India, particularly in the northeast, there was a virtual icono-graphic explosion after the eighth century. Although images of various bodhisattvas had been produced in the early art of Gandhāra and Mathurā, they became particularly prominent in the Mahāyāna as it developed in India.

As Buddhism spread beyond India, an elaborate iconographic lexicon related to arhats, monks, and saints emerged. In China, the veneration and representation of important patriarchs became prominent; arhats were frequently represented, occasionally individually but more commonly in groups. In the Chan schools in particular, where monastic lineage was central, portraits of important patriarchs were common. Most prominent was Bodhidharma, who is typically depicted as an aged monk deep in meditation; sometimes he is depicted floating in the ocean atop a reed, representing his voyage from India to China. He is also represented in a kind of aniconic form, as an abstract face painted on papier mache or wooden balls, and occasionally as a lascivious old man, often in the company of courtesans, conveying Chan’s understanding that enlightenment can be found in the most mundane, and even the most conventionally polluting, of activities. In Tibet, images of Padmasambhāva, who is said to have introduced Buddhism and tamed the demons who inhabited the region, are common; he is frequently depicted as a robed monk, with a crown, often holding an alms bowl and vajra. Prominent monks such as Atīśa and Xuanzang are common in both the sculpture and painting of China and Japan. In Japan in particular, individual monks, often specific to a particular monastery, are presented in remarkably realistic images, sometimes life-size three-dimensional sculptures. As with images of Śākyamuni, such sculptures function as meditational aids to be emulated, pedagogical prompters, and outright objects of devotion (See Figure 2).

Figure 2 Buddha images, Gakyonsa Monastery, North Kyongsang, Korea

It is important to note, however, that although a wide variety of figures began to be represented in Buddhist sculpture by the first few centuries of the first millennium of the common era – bodhisattvas, monks, arhats, as well as an array of female figures – there is throughout Buddhist history a continued and consistent emphasis on the image of Śākyamuni, the “historical Buddha.” Thus despite the great variety of Buddhist schools, and their particular iconographic developments, among the most common artistic images in the Buddhist world are those associated directly with Śākyamuni’s life story – his birth, his attainment of enlightenment, his preaching of the first sermon, and his death.

Indeed, perhaps the most common artistic image in all of Buddhism is of the seated Buddha displaying the bhūmisparśa mudrā. What makes this iconographic form so important, and thus so ubiquitous, is that it marks the very beginning of Buddhism, as well as the Dharma’s tremendous power. Just at the point at which he is about to attain bodhi, Śākyamuni is confronted by Māra, who realizes that he is about to be defeated by this man who has discovered the means with which to cut through all artifice and to conquer death (Māra is the very embodiment of death). Māra, however, who is also the embodiment of illusion and subterfuge, creates all manner of illusion and temptation to distract and defeat the Buddha-to-be. He unleashes his various armies – appropriately named desire, discontent, hunger and thirst, craving – but Śākyamuni is unmoved. Māra then uses his own daughters to tempt Śākyamuni, to stir in him lust and desire, but again to no avail. So finally Māra assaults him verbally, and challenges his very right to be beneath the Bodhi tree, his right to achieve enlightenment. Śākyamuni responds that all of the millions of offerings that he has made in the past have given him the right to enlightenment. Māra, however, persists; he says there is no witness to support Śākyamuni’s claims. Śākyamuni’s response is the exact moment depicted in bhūmisparśa mudrā images: he reaches out his right hand and touches the earth. The bhūdevī, the goddess of the earth (who is also sometimes depicted in the images), is impartial and free from malice, and thus serves as the ideal character witness, creating a terrific earthquake to confirm the Buddha’s enlightenment. Māra, death (and hence rebirth) is thereby defeated.

Finally, although from the moment they appear in the Buddhist world visual images were intended to narrate aspects of the Buddha’s life and teachings and therefore function on the ground as visual texts to be read, they were also very much intended to be objects of ritual worship. A wide range of texts are available for making and consecrating Buddhist images, from locally produced manuals in the vernacular to pan-Buddhist iconographic manuals. Perhaps the most common form of worship in the Buddhist world is Buddha pūja, literally “honoring the Buddha.” This is a ritual that typically involves making some sort of offering to a Buddha image (or to a relic or a stūpa) – a flower, a small lamp, food, or even money. Many images, particularly the stelae that were abundantly produced in the medieval Indian milieu – although this is also an iconographic theme on some of the very earliest Buddhist images – actually depict such worship as part of the sculpture, usually along the base of the image, at what would, in a ritual context, be eye-level for the worshipper. The iconography in such cases, then, serves as a kind of visual guide to proper ritual action.

Buddhist iconography is also frequently intended to focus the mind of the worshipper on the Buddha and his teachings, to serve as a visual aid, and to help the practitioner engage in Buddha anusmṛti, or “recollection of the Buddha.” This important form of meditation involves contemplating the Buddha’s magnificent qualities and internalizing them, very often with the use of an image, either a sculpture or a painting. The iconography of such images, then, serves a mimetic function, in that the meditator is to emulate the iconographically presented Buddha, and in the process to create a mental image by internalizing the external iconographic form; in short, the practitioner is to become like the image, and in the process like the Buddha himself.


As with Buddhist artistic images, the variety of architectural forms in the Buddhist world is staggering. The most basic architectural form in Buddhism is the stūpa, the ubiquitous burial mounds that are found, sometimes in great abundance, throughout the Buddhist world – in monastic complexes, in villages and cities, and sometimes in extremely remote locations where Buddhists attempted to establish their religion. Originally intended to house the physical relics of the Buddha (dhātu, or śarīra), in its most rudimentary form the stūpa is a hemispherical dome or mound of varying height and diameter; some stūpas are only a few inches high, others rise to over 30 meters (100 feet). Although the earliest stūpas were quite simple, very early on in the history of Buddhism the stūpa became one of the physical foci of monastic and lay life, and developed into an elaborate symbolic structure, as evinced by the great Indian stūpas constructed at Sāñcī and Bhārhut and Amarāvatī in the early centuries of the first millennium, or, several centuries later, the magnificently complex structures at Borabadur in Indonesia, or Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Likewise, in Sri Lanka, several huge monastic complexes were constructed beginning as early as the fourth century BCE, such as the Thūpārāma at Anurādhapura, the Mahāthūpa, and the Abhayagiri dāgaba, structures that reached nearly 120 meters (400 feet) in height.

Typically, larger stūpas were (and continue to be) situated at the center of a temple complex, surrounded by railings, with gates at the four points of the compass where there were gateways (toraṇa) on which were frequently carved images of the Buddha, scenes from his life, Jātaka and Avadāna stories, etc. As Buddhism expanded across South and East Asia, temple structures took on decidedly local characteristics – the intricate pagodas of Japan, for instance, or the thousands of distinctly Burmese temples that stretch nearly as far as the eye can see at Pagan – although the basic model has always been the stūpa.

In the traditional Buddhist temple, clustered around the main stūpa are several monastic structures. The caitya hall, for instance, is the place where a range of rituals would take place, and where the monks in residence at the monastery, as well as laypersons in some contexts, would gather to hear Dharma talks. The first such halls may have been wooden, although the most famous examples of caityas are the elaborately carved cave structures located at Ajaṇṭā and Ellorā. In India free-standing caitya halls appeared as early as the third century CE. Traditionally the caitya was a rectangular hall with columns running down the walls, allowing for an open space in the center that was used for collective rituals; there was usually only one entrance (and thus only one source of light), at the opposite end of which was located a stūpa. Some caityas are elaborately decorated with images, while others are quite spare. As is the case with the development of stūpa architecture, caityas took on the specific stylistic character of their locales.

Vihāras, monastic dwellings, have taken many forms throughout the history of Buddhism. The earliest vihāras seem to have been simple cave dwellings. By the medieval period in India, however, vihāras had developed into complex temple structures. The sprawling medieval Mahāvihāra at Nālandā in northeastern India, for example, was in fact a huge complex of several different monasteries (constituted by different sectarian identities), with elaborate caitya halls, large stūpas, and multiple shrines. At Nālandā there were several stūpas that were surrounded by brick towers that were then decorated with a variety of stucco images set in individual niches. Likewise, at Pāhārpur, in modern Bangladesh, under the patronage of the Pāla kings a huge, three-leveled stūpa was erected, with terraces on which devotees could circumambulate the main structure, around which were built several smaller temples.

Perhaps the most famous of all Buddhist architectural structures is the Mahābodhi Temple at Bodhgayā. Dating probably to the Gupta period, although a structure may have been built at the site as early as the Mauryan period, under the patronage of Aśoka himself, the temple – which has been repaired and essentially rebuilt several times – remains the most venerated structure in all of Buddhism. The present-day temple at Bodhgayā consists of a large central structure that rises to some 50 meters (160 feet), above four smaller temples, around which is a high wall; image niches cover virtually the entire surface of the temple and the surrounding walls, along with several elaborately decorated gates. Inside the temple itself are several stories that house Buddha images. Around the central courtyard, within the confines of the outer walls, are dozens of images and smaller stūpas, many containing the remains of prominent monks. Because of its significance, marking as it does the place where Buddhism began, the Mahābodhi Temple has been replicated throughout the Buddhist world, both in large-scale monuments and in smaller, portable shrines.


1 H.A. Giles, trans., The Travels of Fa hsien (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923), pp. 30–1.

2 See Alfred Foucher, “L’ Origine grecque de l’image du Bouddha,” Annales du Musée Guimet (Chalon-sur-Saone: Bibliothèque de vulgarisation, 1913), pp. 231–72. In this highly influential article, Foucher first articulates the view that the origins of the earliest Buddha images were Greek; see also Foucher’s “The Beginnings of Buddhist Art,” in his The Beginnings of Buddhist Art and Other Essays in Indian and Central Asian Archaeology (Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1917), pp. 1–29. Perhaps the most vocal opponent of this theory was Ananda Coomaraswamy; see his “The Origin of the Buddha Image,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 9 (1927): 1–43; and also see his “The Indian Origin of the Buddha Image,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 46 (1926): 165–70. For a more recent discussion of the issue, see Susan Huntington, “Early Buddhist Art and the Theory of Aniconism,” Art Journal, vol. 49 (1990): 401–7, a useful survey of the relevant points here. See also Vidya Dehejia, “Aniconism and the Multivalence of Emblems,” Ars Orientalis, vol. 21 (1992): 45–66; and S. Huntington’s response, “Aniconism and the Multivalence of Emblems: Another Look,” Ars Orientalis, vol. 22 (1993): 111–56 (and Dehejia’s brief response, on p. 157). Also see A.K. Narain, “First Images of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas: Ideology and Chronology,” in A.K. Narain (ed.) Studies in Buddhist Art of South Asia (New Delhi: Kanak Publications, 1985), pp. 1–21; see also John Huntington’s article, in the same volume, “The Origin of the Buddha Image: Early Image Traditions and the Concept of Buddhadarūpanapunyā,” pp. 24–58. One of the most fruitful discussions on this subject, and one that has been far too often ignored, is found in Paul Mus’ article, “The Iconography of an Aniconic Art,” RES, vol. 14 (1987): 5–28.

See also: Art, Gupta; Art, Mauryan; Art, Pāla; Art and ritual; Art and Zen; Art as ritual; Art in Sri Lanka; Art in Thailand; Sacred places; Stūpa; Tibet: an expanded pantheon; Tibet: maṇḍalas.”


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