What was the Buddha’s great wisdom, and how do the artworks and images of the Buddhist tradition convey it to us today? Whether they depict the Buddha himself, episodes from his life, or boddhisattvas (those who have taken a vow to seek enlightenment), this art was meant to inspire the Buddha’s devotees and remind them of his teachings, whose core message is about compassion and the path to relieving suffering.
One classic representation of the Buddha, depicting a key moment in his life, is the museum’s “The Buddha triumphing over Mara,” a ninth-century Indian stone sculpture. In it, the Buddha is seated in meditation at the very moment of his awakening, or enlightenment, when he realized the causes of suffering in human life, and understood that meditation could release humankind from such suffering.
Another exceptionally fine representation is the brass “Buddha Shakyamuni” from the twelfth or thirteenth century in central Tibet, explained John Guy, curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. This particular sculpture is rare since it avoided destruction in a historical purge: “It’s one of the rare survivors of Tibetan art to have come down to us from this very early period,” he said over the phone.
It’s not only gestures that clue viewers in to the fact that a sculpture represents the Buddha and conveys his teachings, but also distinctive physical attributes. One common feature of the Buddha among Tibetan renditions, Guy explained, is the fire atop his head, seen in this work. “Kings and rulers are understood to have distinguishing body marks, of which this is one,” he said.
Another telltale mark is the profile of the Buddha’s cranium. That’s not a headdress you see creating a conical shape on top of the Buddha’s skull — it’s actually a bodily attribute called the ushnisha (cranial protuberance), which signifies great wisdom.
The Met’s seventh-century Indian bronze sculpture “Buddha Offering Protection,” meanwhile, shows how some of the earliest artists to depict the Buddha combined attributes that were unique to Buddhist teachings, with those associated with regal figures in other art historical traditions, such as the raised right hand, palm outward, which extends protection to his followers. They also used umbrellas, fans, and thrones, which were meant to help followers of other traditions shift their loyalties to the Awakened One, said Guy.
Referring to the seated Buddha sculpture in San Francisco, which is inscribed with the message that all things are connected by causality (in contrast with the deterministic belief that our fate is out of our hands), Durham, too, brings matters from the time of the Awakened One to today.
“What he saw when he woke up is that things don’t happen by chance, that everything is connected by causality,” he said. “And if nothing else, Covid-19 is waking us up to the fact that we are all connected.”
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