Sunday, June 10, 2012

ARTICLE ~ Symbolism & Representation of the Buddha

This is intended to give a general brief overview of how symbols and imagery, specifically representations of the Buddha, developed during its two and a half thousand year history. I've relied on my own albeit limited research, of existing articles and investigations. Please forgive any lapses, omissions or errors, which I'm open to correcting as and when they are pointed out to me. This article has not by any means been academically thorough or exhaustive, This was really not my purpose, which was merely to sketch out very broadly a spiritual/aesthetic process, indicating how changes in the needs of practitioners may have instigated the production of particular forms of symbolic imagery. I am personally intrigued with how Buddhism, that appeared to have no need of images in its early existence, ends up two and a half millennia later with such a richly diverse iconography surpassing that of most other religions.

In the Buddha’s Time
6th Century BC

Early Buddhism is believed to have been aniconic. There is an almost total absence of carved or painted representations of the Buddha in the three hundred years following the Buddha’s death. But this absence alone cannot be taken as conclusive evidence for imagery being forbidden. There are no incontrovertible doctrinal sources either way. This textual evidence is admittedly slight, which means any fully authoritative viewpoint is currently impossible to obtain. It is unclear exactly what did create this absence of imagery. Is the dearth of images the result of a specific request by the Buddha, or a decision made by his senior disciples in the aftermath of the Buddha’s death? Similar to the Sutras it could be that any prohibition was only orally transmitted,which  missed being subsequently written down? If not this, then we are left with the suggestion that all the imagery from this period has simply not survived, in any shape or form. After two and a half thousand years, theoretically and practically this is quite probable. However, this is based on the limited detailed archaeological investigation of this period that has been done so far, So the reasons for this aniconic phase has,for the moment, to remain an open question without any definitive factual confirmation

There is apparently one passing reference in the Digha Nikaya (reference not yet found) suggesting that the Buddha expressed a dislike of images being made of him after his death. There are no other references in the Pali Canon to indicate disciples were encouraged or discouraged from making iconic images. If one reads the Maha-Parinirvana Sutra which contains the detail and reported words of the Buddha's last days. The Buddha devotes most of his time, unsurprisingly, to urging his followers to continue practising the Dharma, and reminding them what they need to do in order to attain Enlightenment. No remark concerning making images of him is reported. In the context of the Buddha’s own teachings you can understand him wishing to focus on practice of his Dharma, and not acknowledge any personality cult that might emerge after his death. His legacy is his teachings and example, not his physical appearance. When he has gone from the world, he has gone from the world, what endures of his presence rests, as it still does, in the hands of his practitioner followers. Also, at this early formative stage post the Buddha's demise, his disciples may simply have considered it inappropriate or even disrespectful to represent someone who had attained Nirvana. How do you represent someone whose state was ineffable?

There is one oblique mention in the Sarvastivardin's Vinaya that seems to imply the existence of an injunction against Buddha images, where Anathapindika says:- 'World honoured one, if images of yours are not allowed to be made,pray,may we not at least make images of Bodhisattvas in attendance upon you?' to which the Buddha assents. This is by no means conclusive, it does imply that the Buddha didn't want himself represented,, but as this was written down more than three hundred years or so after the Buddha's death, we have to treat this as suggestive rather than authoritative proof.

There is apparently one reference from a Chinese translation of the Anguttara Nikaya, whose origins may have come via a Korean or directly from an Indian document source. Its reliability has therefore to remain open to question, as mistakes in translation and interpretation, retrospective reinterpretation, cultural or textual insertions are all probable. Either way this Chinese text dates from between the 3rd-1st Century BC so its still well beyond living memory. Traditionally its been taken as at least the mytho-poetic birth of Buddha imagery. In it the King Uddiyana asks if he might make a representation of the Buddha whilst the Buddha is away preaching to his deceased mother Maya in heaven, to which the Buddha agrees. This indicates that making a representation was, by this time at least, theoretically possible.

The Buddha used only one symbolic image ~ The Wheel of Life. He does, however, make extensive use of metaphor and analogy in his illustrative teaching stories. As the Buddha’s Dharma remained an oral tradition for many centuries before being written down, we cannot know for certain whether references forbidding making representations of the Buddha have been left out. It is certainly of worth noting; that by the time his teachings were transferred from memory to being written down on paper, images of the Buddha were already a commonplace thing. So it may simply be that there was no point in trying to re-enforce any prohibition, to close the stable door as the horse had already bolted.

If images existed in this first period, then they simply have not survived.  Archaeologically there is little that supports the idea of a vanished early tradition of Buddha images. This doesn't necessarily mean there weren't any, just that none have survived or have yet been found. If they were carved in wood, painted on clay, walls, or textiles, then the fragility of these materials would mean they were less likely to survive 2,500 years, let alone the subsequent purging iconoclasm of Islam, or absorption into the all encompassing bosom of Hinduism.

First Buddhist Imagery and Symbolism

6th - 3rd Century BC

The story of what happened before and after the Buddha's death, is set out in some detail in the Maha Parinirvana Sutra. Before the Buddha's body was cremated, there was much heated discussion between his disciples and tribes associated with the Buddha, about who should have relics, and how many. The relics were eventually divided into ten parts and each took a portion to their homeland and erected a Stupa there to contain them. The Stupa was adapted from an already existing tradition of burial mounds marking the burial place of significant individuals. It.became the first and oldest visual structure used as an object of reverence in Buddhism, as it originally represented a place where actual Buddha relics were kept. 

Over time more and more Stupas were erected, and whilst many still claimed to contain Buddha relics, most did not. The Stupa began to cultivate its own meanings and associations, with an elemental cosmic symbolism being applied to its structural shape. This meant that whilst it was once a structure solely built to contain relics, it began to represent in symbolic form any Buddha or revered Enlightened being. Eventually it came to use the elements as a means of representing the spiritual path to Enlightenment. It is known today as an object for devotional reverence to the Buddha, an encapsulation of the qualities necessary for Enlightenment, and a symbol of a disciple's path, their own potential Buddhahood. The Stupa is the first object to define this trinity of meanings, one which is subsequently found in many future Buddhist imagery and symbolism.

3rd Century BC The earliest surviving Buddhist imagery is from the period of Asoka (273-232 BCE). Asoka widely commissioned pillars, sculptural reliefs and Stupas to be built during his reign. The earliest surviving Stupa is at Sanchi, in Madhya Pradesh, this is richly decorated with storytelling reliefs depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life. 
The Buddha, however, is only symbolically represented, by an empty throne, or his two footprints, which are shown being venerated by disciples. This was in line with their experience, the Buddha was no longer here, nevertheless he was still worth revering. These symbols are still consistent with the view that a Buddha cannot be represented figuratively, but this has been taken not to include symbolic representations. You suggest presence by showing his absence. In the 1990’s Susan Huntingdon, suggested another interpretation of the reliefs as depicting his disciples re-enacting scenes from the Buddha’s life. This radical reinterpretation is controversial, and is still contested. What these reliefs do indicate is a reluctance, perhaps still out of reverence, to create specific images of the Buddha.

2nd Century BC Apart from those early pictorial reliefs, all the other imagery is symbolic in nature. It has been suggested that the wide occurrence and popularity of these symbols may be because they became ‘souvenir’ insignia picked up by visitors at pilgrimage sites. Of these, the Dharmachakra Wheel, under Asoka’s influence, underwent a distinct change in emphasis, from being the symbol of a wheel rolling monarch, to a broader symbol for the Path.

Other symbols used are - The Empty Throne - The Begging Bowl - The Lion  - The Riderless Horse - The Lotus Flower.
A couple of symbols, in the west at least, are less well known or disavowed. One is the Trisula, which is a form of trident, which in Buddhism represents the Triratna of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The more contentious one, is the Swastika, associated these days with the Nazi’s, but in Buddhism it was widely used as an auspicious symbol of good luck and a representation of eternity. The swastika is more a folk symbol, and hence not purely Buddhist, it is heavily used in many other Indian religions  
The first symbol that borders on physically representing the Buddha, is that of the Buddha’s Footprints. Traditionally meant to show the impressions left in the ground by the Buddha after his Enlightenment. It again represents both his presence and his absence, the imprints that he left behind him, the tracks of the trackless one. It forms a visual invitation to any disciple of the Buddha to follow in his footsteps, metaphorically and imaginatively to step into his shoes and be awakened.

A series of symbols are often carved upon the feet, the Dharmachakra in the soul of the foot, surrounded by either 32,108 or 132 of the auspicious signs associated with a Buddha. The first example found of this is at Sanchi. There are countless references in the Pali Canon to disciples expressing their reverence by kissing the Buddha’s feet. It is a common practice in India even today, to venerate the feet of a guru.

First Images of the Buddha
1st Century AD

Susan Huntingdon points out that there are in fact a few anthropomorphic Buddha representations which existed prior to the Ghandara/Greco-Buddhist period. These are in the form of cave paintings from Chilla in Pakistan, these show a standing figure with a Stupa shaped head, forming an fascinating hybrid of figurative and symbolic representation, the pre-iconic and iconic phases.

Cave paintings and stupas at Ajanta and Baja  executed in the 2nd Century BC are without any Buddha representation, but by the Ist Century BC, images of the Buddha decorate them everywhere. 
There are also Kushan gold coins which show the image of a standing Buddha on them from around 150 - 50 BC. As the Ghandara period reached its height under Kushan rule, it may indicate that the coins were part of a localised trend towards representation.This was accelerated further by the arrival of Alexander the Great and the profound Greek influence on all subsequent representations in Buddhism. Greek iconography and the realism of its sculptural forms in representing the Godlike, was highly developed by this time. Its influence would have propelled Buddhist practitioners along a path of imagery undreamed of prior to the Greeks arrival. It cannot, however, be simply just influence, it must also have been in response to a perceived need, a sense of lack in Buddhists of the time, to have an actual focus for their devotions and an icon of their own Awakening potential
The modern view has been that the first significant images of the Buddha emerge after Alexander the Great’s invasion, and the consequent founding of a Greco-Buddhist tradition in the Gandhara region. There may, however, have been an existing tradition of representational carving skill in this region, that creatively cross fertilised and merged with the stylistic influences of the Greeks. 
There is a counter claim made for the first Buddha images being made in Mathura in South India, and that this is the original source for an indigenous Indian form of Buddha Rupa. The dating of these around 80-90 AD is clear, but even though the Ghandara dating is a conjectured one, experts still place the conclusive weight of evidence with the latter. In terms of breadth of influence the latter has clearly been the winner. Its melding of Greek and Indian styles, forges the predominant style in all representations of the Buddha. One that all future portrayals of the Buddha to some extent conform to, across many cultures and eras, right up to the present day. Such was its visual impact, that anyone asked to tell you what the Buddha looked like, will describe something like a Ghandara Buddha. What began to help practitioners in their devotion an connection with the ideal, begins to fix in our minds one particular vision. This makes it very difficult to imagine him in any way differently.
Tantric Images
6th Century AD

With the full flowering of the Mahayana and Vajrayana, a diverse explosion of colourful symbolic representations of Enlightened figures emerges into Buddhist iconography - male Jinas and their consorts, Bodhisattva’s, in wrathful or peaceful form, dakas and dakini’s,nagas, gardharas etc Once the genie was let out of the bottle, imagery flourished often in epic proportions. Alongside Hinduism, Buddhism has some of the most richly depicted iconography to ever emerge out of India. There are aspects of this which strikes me as being particular to that culture. Devotional passions being given pictorial form in a colourful vibrant exuberance.

There is a view that the movement from the aniconic viewpoint to the iconic, may have been synchronous with the widening split between the Hinayana and Mahayana viewpoints over interpretation and imagery. Certainly there are difference in approach to practice, but also in imagery. To broadly generalise,Theravada temples usually contain one very large Buddha image, whilst Mahayana temples frequently overflow with multiple images of the Buddha and all sorts of Enlightened beings. However, Zen Buddhism, provides a exception, whilst not explicitly prohibiting imagery, it does have a tendency towards giving a diminished importance to imagery. Over 2.500 years, Buddhism has had to revive and renew its approach continually. Returning to,or restating, its fundamentals tine and again. So the emphasis placed on images and symbols also shifts in the strength and importance given  to them.
It’s clear from this general overview that over the 2,550 years of Buddhist history, there has been a gradual movement towards representation ~ from the focus being on practice of the Buddha Dharma, rather his representation ~ to storytelling reliefs in which the Buddha is only symbolically represented ~  to the widespread use of symbols to represent the Buddha, such as his physical footprints ~  to the full flowering of images in Ghandhara, Greco- Buddhist  Rupas ~ to the explosion of Tantric images over a thousand years after the Buddha’s death. Why this was became the path by which imagery emerged is easy to conjecture over. Though it is clear that whatever caused it was primarily responsive to a practical spiritual need or difficulty. 

There is a recurring problem for all of the Buddha’s disciples from the Parinirvana to the present day. Practitioners from the time of the Buddha had lived by him or remembered an experience of him. Subsequent to his death, as the decades and centuries passed, it became harder to connect with what the Buddha’s qualities actually were. A immediate sense for what an Enlightened state is like, is lost, unless you are lucky enough to be in the presence of another Enlightened being, which you cannot always expect to be.  Visualisation or recollection practices alone, obviously were not enough to bridge this imaginative gap for everyone, hence the emergence of forms of representation as a focus for devotion..

For Western Buddhists, who’ve inherited access to over 2,500 years of imagery, it is hard to re-imagine the Buddha, or feel what a vivid living connection with the Buddha actually would be like. Imagery can help, by giving us a doorway, a way in. But they can also hinder the freedom of our imaginations to conjure up a vision that is not constrained or predefined by the weight of this huge legacy of symbolism and representations of the Buddha.  That is our challenge.


greg conaway said...

Wonderful. Mathura was and is in India.

greg conaway said...

Wonderful site, a correction: Mathura was and is in India, south of Delhi.

Jayarava Attwood said...

Re the Chiense version of the Anguttara Nikaya. I think you're a little confused about this. All the Nikaya parallels were translated from Prakrit into Chinese in the 5th century. There are two Chinese parallels called Ekottarāgama.

Of the first we known "This Ekottarāgama (增壹阿含經) was translated by dharmanandi (曇摩難提) of the Fu Qin state (苻秦), and edited by gautama saṃghadeva in 397–398 CE. The school affiliation is uncertain." Source: Sutta Central. Of the second we know less. It is only partial, but likewise directly from an Indian source not via Korean.

See also Bodhi's Numerical Discourses, p.71-4