Buddhist Art and Iconography

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Buddhist Art and Iconography

As Asian culture became popular, Buddhist art became very familiar to Americans. We can find statues of Buddha not only at Asian restaurants but also at bars, night clubs and even at furniture stores. Buddhist art is becoming less associated with religion; however statues of Buddha and other Buddhist motifs such as lotus flowers have significant religious meanings behind them. Although some of people who are interested in Buddhist art are non-Buddhist, there are millions of followers in the United States today. The followers include non-Asian converts as well as Asian Americans. Buddhism was brought to America mainly by immigrants, Western scholars, writers and artists. The number of Buddhists in the United States has been growing since then. Buddhism in the Western world has a very short history compared to its more than 2500 years of history in Asia (Buddhist studies, 1995). Buddhism began in India in 6th century BCE with the birth of Siddhartha Gautama. He sought the path to Enlightenment and became known as the Buddha, the awakened one” or “the enlightened one”. By the third century B.C, the teaching of Buddha spread to the whole India. Then, it continued to spread to the rest of Asia, and became the dominant religious force in most of Asia. In early years, the Buddha was represented by symbols but not in a human form. According to Coomaraswamy (1972), in early Buddhist art, “the Buddha is constantly represented by a simple seat or throne situated at the foot of a Mahabodhi-tree” (Elements of Buddhist iconography, p. 39), and after the second century A.D, the Buddha himself started to be represented in a human form seating on a lotus-throne. In early Buddhist art, other deities were also represented by various symbols such as bull, tree, mountain, circle surmounted by stemless trident, lotus, bow and arrow (Coomaraswamy, The origin of the Buddha image, 1972). When the Buddha became to be depicted in a human form, a set of rule regarding how the Buddha should be depicted was developed. The Buddha is believed to have 32 main features and 80 sub-features. These features, called lakshanas, express his state as the Enlightened One and distinguish the Buddha from regular human beings. “The bulge at the top of his head—the ushnisha—signifies his transcendent knowledge. The urna, a whorl of hair between the eyebrows that can also be depicted as a dot, is another symbol of his transcendent nature; its placement corresponds to that of the pineal gland”(Kossak & Watts, 2001). Other main characteristics of the Buddha include flatfoot, projecting heels, long fingers and toes, golden-colored complexion, fine skin, bluish body hair curls clockwise, lion-like chest, evenly-spaced teeth, and so on (“Signs of a great man”, 2002). Also, the halo, or nimbus of light is frequently represented behind the Buddha’s head or sometimes surrounding his entire body. The Buddha wears monastic robe draped over both shoulders or with the right shoulder bare. His ears are elongated by the weight of earrings he had worn in his youth as a prince (Coomaraswamy, The origin of the Buddha image, 1972). Except the walking Buddha that are seen in Thailand and Laos, the Buddha is always seated, standing, or reclining. In each case, there are certain general patterns of postures. When seated, there are five positions. 1) both hands held at the breast, 2) both hands rest with the palms facing upwards on the lap, 3) left hand rest on the lap and the right hand either hanging over the right knee, resting on the knee with the palms facing outwards, or raised. When standing, the right hand is usually raised, and the other hand holds the robe (Coomaraswamy, The origin of the Buddha image, 1972). In reclining images, the right hand is either supporting the head or lying down next to the body. If the hand is supporting the head, it means that the Buddha is resting, but when the hand is next to his body,...
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