The History of Buddhist Art

June 5, 2016

The legendary Siddhārtha Gautama, also known as Buddha, once said: “Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.” The Buddhist art seems to go along the wise words of one of the most celebrated religious figures in the world. The simple message and the inner peace that the artworks inspire in the viewer are responsible for the appeal of the Buddhist art among the appreciators around the world. In the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., the time of the great thinkers such as Plato and Socrates in Greece, Laozi, and Confucius in China, India had its own great philosopher, thinker, and inspirational figure – Buddha. After his death, the religion we know today developed and crossed the borders of its homeland and spread across the world.

Siddhartha who later became Buddha was a prince born into the Kapilavastu royal family. It was predicted that he would become a great conqueror, of the physical world or the world of the mind. The story we all know is that Siddhartha sat in the yogic meditation under a banyan tree and achieved enlightenment. Since then, he became known as Buddha – The Enlightened One. He rejected asceticism and luxury. He was an advocate for a life of good thoughts and intentions, with the goal of reaching Nirvana, the extinguishing of the fires of attachment, aversion, and ignorance, that cause rebirth, and suffering.

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An Indo-Corinthian capital with the Buddha at its center, 3-4th century, Gandhara via

Early Instances of Buddhist Art

When Buddha died, his body was cremated and divided into several relic caskets known as stupas. The relic of Buddha and other holy figures were the first known examples of Buddhist art. These sacred relics are divided into three categories: Saririka – the physical relics of Buddha; Uddesika – the religious symbols that include the image of Buddha, stupas, Dharmacakra (Wheel of the Dharma); Paribhogika – the articles used by the Buddha. The earliest recovered pieces of Buddhist art originate from the Hindu and East-Roman art with references to Buddha’s life.

These early examples belong to the category of the Pre-iconic phase of Buddhist art that lasted from the 5th to the 1st century B.C. in this period, Buddha was represented through the aniconic symbols such as the Bodhi tree, an empty throne, the horse with no rider, Buddha’s footprints, and the Wheel of Dharma. According to Alfred A. Foucher, these anthropomorphic images of the Buddha are considered a result of a Greco-Buddhist interaction. Other scholars argue that at a time it was considered inappropriate to depict the one who had achieved Nirvana. However, during the 2nd and the 1st century B.C., sculptures became more explicit and began depicting scenes from Buddha’s life, but still represented through symbolism, rather than in his human form. In the 1st century B.C. the artists from India started adopting stone instead of brick, thatch, bamboo, and wood. They built stone gateways and railings to the stupas and covered them with sculptures that depicted the events from the life of the Buddha, as well as his previous 550 lives.

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Sarnath pillar via

The Wheel of Dharma

When Buddha first reached awakening, he is said to have explained his findings to five ascetics. This first teaching is marked as the moment at which the Wheel of Dharma was activated. As it was not permitted to depict Buddha in his human form, the wheel became the symbol of Buddhism, often carved into the artworks and created by the craftsmen of that time. Dharmacakra is the symbol taken from Jain tradition, an ancient Indian religion that promotes ahimsa (non-violence) towards all the living beings on this Earth. One of the earliest instances of Dharma art is the Sarnath pillar, one of the Pillars of Ashoka. These pillars were built by the Mauryan king Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. In this pillar, the lion serves as a reference to Buddha, and at the bottom, the wheels and an ox are emerging from a stylized lotus flower.

The actual Wheel of Dharma is comprised of three basic parts: the hub, the rim, and the spokes. It was said that the round shape of the Dharma represents the perfection of the Buddhist teaching, the rim represents mindfulness and concentration which are the glue that holds the dharma together, the hub is a symbol of moral discipline, and the three swirls on the hub can sometimes represent the Three Treasures – Buddha, dharma, and sangha. The spokes can symbolize various things depending on their number. When the Dharma wheel has four spokes, which is very rare, they represent the Four Noble Truths: dukkha (the truth of suffering), samudaya (the truth of the cause of suffering), nirhodha (the truth of the end of suffering), and magga (the truth of the path that frees one from suffering). When it has eight spokes, the most commonly used one, they represent the Eightfold Path. When it has ten spokes, they represent the ten directions, and when it has twelve spokes they represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. When the wheel has 24 spokes, they represent the combination of the Twelve links and liberation from Samsara, and this type of wheel is also known as Ashoka Chakra. Finally, when the wheel has 31 spokes, they represent the 31 realms of existence, taken from ancient Buddhist cosmology.

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” – Buddha

This paraphrased quote by the Buddha can be interpreted in a number of ways, and each one can be as genuine as the next one. However, we have chosen to interpret is as the Three Turnings of the Dharma. It is said that the Buddha had turned the wheel three times, which represent three teachings of Buddhism. The first one he taught when he rose from meditation and explained the Four Noble Truths. The second turning marked the inception of Mahayana Buddhism, and it is said to have happened some 500 years after the first, and it presented the ideal of practice as a bodhisattva, the one who seeks to bring enlightenment to all beings. The third turning offered the focus on the Buddha nature, which basically meant that all beings can reach enlightenment as they are all fundamentally of Buddha nature.

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The detail of the statue of Prajnaparamita from Singhasari, East Java via

Iconic Phase – 1st Century A.D. to the Present

The 1st century AD. brought something completely new to the Buddhist art. The artist started to depict Buddha in his human form, and one of the first examples of this was found in the North-West India in the area known as Gandhara, the ancient name for Pakistan. The Gandhara artists combined the Buddhist symbolism with the elements from the Hellenistic world and created a unique style. They created young Buddhas with curly hair that resembled the Roman statues of Apollo, they dressed him in the robe that covered both shoulders with heavy folds that reminded of the toga. By the 2nd century, the philosophers of the Mahayana found that the artworks could serve as a reminder of the Buddha’s teachings, the Dharma, and not just as the figure of worship. The first images of Buddha appeared during the Kushan Dynasty and the time of King Kanishka and can be found at two locations, Mathura, and the previously mentioned Gandhara. Mathuran artworks were less influenced by the craftsmen who came to the East with Alexander the Great, and they sprouted out of the Indian yogic traditions and were primarily done in red sandstone.

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Buddha and Bodhisattvas (Gupta period, 5th–6th century), Eastern India via

The Gupta Period

For a few more centuries the Buddhist art continued to develop in India, flourishing in the Gupta period, also known as the golden age, which lasted from the 4th to the 6th century. Almost all of the works we can see today are religious sculptures, though the period saw the emergence of the Buddha figure and Jain Tirthankara figures. The Gupta period is significant for its creations of an “ideal image” of the Buddha, achieved through the combination of his traits from the region of Gandhara and the sensual form of Mathuran artists. These Gupta Buddhas later became the model for the generations of artists who followed, in post-Gupta and Pala India, in Nepal, Thailand, and Indonesia.

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A Chinese wooden Bodhisattva from the Song Dynasty via

Buddhist Art Outside of India

As Buddhism expanded to the places outside of India, its aesthetics mixed with other influences, leading to different views on the religion and art. There are two main routes of Buddhist art: the Northern route, with the inception in the 1st century AD. in Central Asia, Tibet, Bhutan, Korea, Japan, and China where the Mahayana Buddhism was prominent, and the Southern route in Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, where Theravada Buddhism was dominant.

Northern Route

In Afghanistan, Buddhist art thrived until the spread of Islam that came in the 7th century. The best examples of Afghan art were the Buddhas of Bamyan, and the sculptures that blended Hellenistic, or Greco-Roman influence and post-Gupta mannerism. However, the Islamic religion was not tolerant towards Buddhism, as it was no the religion “of the Book”, and it was considered to depend on idolatry. In Islamic art, human figurative art was prohibited, which led to the systematic destruction of Buddhist art by the Taliban regime.

In Central Asia, the expansion of the Former Han to the West caused the increased influence of the Hellenistic civilizations, especially the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom on the Buddhist art. This led to the expansion of Buddhism to the communities on the Silk Road, where some cities were filled with stupas and Buddhist monasteries. The eastern part of Central Asia was rich with Serindian art, influenced by the Indian and Hellenistic sculptures, as well as by the Gandharan style.

In China, Buddhism appeared in the 1st century AD., and it brought the idea of statue to Chinese art. One of the earliest instances of Buddhist art in China is the sculpture found in the Han dynasty burial in the province of Sichuan, created circa 200 AD., showing a heavy Gandharan influence. During the Tang dynasty, artists were influenced by the Gupta period, but in the year 845, the emperor Wuzong prohibited the foreign religions, including Zoroastrianism, Nestorianism, and Buddhism, in favor of the indigenous Daoism. He seized all Buddhist artworks and forced the religion to go underground. Under the Song dynasty, however, Chan Buddhism (which will later become Zen Buddhism) prospered. China is a country with the richest collection of Buddhist art, including the Mogao Caves in the province of Gansu, the Longmen Grottoes in Henan province, and the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are the most important Buddhist sculptural sites.

In Japan, Buddhism was discovered in the 6th century, and accepted the religion in the centuries to come. The government often sponsored the creation of numerous sculptures and paintings. The Japanese style was influenced by the Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Hellenistic styles, and the period between the 8th and the 13th century was especially fruitful for the development of Buddhist art. In the 12th century, the Japanese Zen art was at its peak, characterized by paintings and poetry (especially haiku), as well as by the Ikebana art, and the Chanouy tea ceremony.

In Tibet, one of the most significant creations was the mandala, a diagram of a “divine temple” comprised of a square enclosed by a circle, the purpose of which was to help with the focus of attention during meditation. The strongest influences here were the Gupta and Hindu art.

Southern Buddhist Route

In Myanmar, the strongest influences came from India. Beikhtano temple in central Myanmar was the earliest instance of Buddhist art, and it dates back to the time between the 1st and the 5th century. The influences of Gupta and post-Gupta periods can be seen, and later the jeweled statues of the Buddha were created.

Cambodia saw the expansion of Buddhism under the Khmer Empire when over 900 temples were built all over the country. Angkor had a Buddhist temple complex where a large number of sculptures and other artworks are preserved.

In Thailand, Buddhist art was influenced by India and Gupta tradition, as well as by the Cambodian Khmer art, based on the Mahayana, with the creation of Bodhisattvas in large numbers. In the 13th century when Theravada Buddhism was introduced, highly stylized images became prominent, and during the Ayutthaya period, the Buddha was represented with lavish clothing and jeweled ornaments.

Indonesia was heavily influenced by India as well, accepting both Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. A large number of statues of Bodhisattvas can be found all over the region. But probably the richest remnants of Buddhist art can be seen in Java and Sumatra, one of the most important ones being the temple of Borobudur, which is actually the largest Buddhist building in the world. The temple was created after the Buddhist concept of the universe, the Mandala, comprised of 505 images of the Buddha and a bell-shaped stupa. The oldest Buddhist building in Indonesia is the Batu Jaya stupas that date back to the 4th century AD. In Sumatra, there are the temples Muara Takus and Muaro Jambi, and the most beautiful example of this type of art is the statue of Prajnaparamita, the goddess of wisdom from Singhasari. Unfortunately, the Buddhist art of the region was destabilized by the expansion of Islam in the 13th century, however, some remnants of this art can still be found in Indonesia.

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The Grand Maitreya Project statue manufacturing process via

Contemporary Buddhist Art

Contrary to popular belief, Buddhist art is not just the relic of the past. There are many prominent contemporary artists who create such artworks, especially with the new-found interest in the Buddhist religion we are witnessing today. Not only visual arts, but literature as well has expressed the Buddhist influence, as seen in the works of Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, as well as in writings of Walt Whitman, J.D. Salinger (who was greatly influenced by Zen Buddhism), Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and Big Sur, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island. When it comes to visual art, the great Marcel Duchamp was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Buddhism, and the painters Mark Tobey, Agnes Martin, Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, , and Ad Reinhardt reported that they found sources of inspiration in Buddhism. The artists Tenzing Rigdol and Gonkar Gyatso address Buddhist themes in their works, although the primary goal of their art is their own artistic expression and not the devotion to the religion. In Mongolia, a super large-scale statue of the standing Maitreya Bodhisattva is to be built under the spiritual direction of Dalai Lama. Tsherin Sherpa depicts Buddhist symbols in his works, along with Tenzin Norbu, Dedron, and Kesang Lamdark.

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So, what can we conclude? As Buddhism is becoming more and more accepted by the middle-class people it is certain that the Buddhist art will continue to prosper. In the time of great political and religious turmoil, a peaceful religion such as Buddhism is getting its second (or is it third) comeback with its pacifist teachings and non-violent rules. Albert Einstein once said, “If there is any religion that could respond to the needs of modern science, it would be Buddhism.” And indeed, it is. The serenity and the humility that Buddhism promotes are what made it so popular over the course of centuries, and now, more than ever, we need that serenity to calm the overwhelming violence and sadness we are facing every day. We need to get over the petty differences that the society imposes on us, and we need to find that inner peace in order to flourish and reach our full potentials as the dominant animal on this planet. We need to reach deep into our souls and find the beauty in all things living and in all fascinating works of art we have at our disposal. We need to get over the things that draw us apart, and accept the things that bring us together, and art is just one of them.

“Greater in battle than the man who would conquer a thousand-thousand men, is he who would conquer just one – himself” – Gautama Buddha

All images are for illustrative purposes only.
Featured image: The Big Buddha in Kamakura via
Image in the slider: The Wheel of Dharma via

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