Iconography, symbols and creative arts

If it is hard to express truth in plain words, as well as stories, pictures can help. Buddhist art includes images (statues and paintings) of Buddha(s) and bodhisattvas, stupas and temples, symbols, mandalas, flags, even gardens. Creative arts include dance and drama.

Although Buddha statues are everywhere today, common in non-Buddhist as well as Buddhist homes, none have been found from the first 400-500 years of Buddhist history, and one wonders whether the historical Buddha would have even approved. Instead, symbols were used that are reminders of his presence and teachings, which are the important thing. These include footprints, a tree (under which he gained enlightenment), the eight-spoked wheel (eightfold path), a lotus flower (purity). Such symbols are still common and included in patterns such as the Tibetan ‘eight auspicious symbols’: Parasol (embodying notions of wealth), Golden Fish, Treasure Vase, Lotus, Conch Shell, Endless Knot, Victory Banner, Dharma Wheel.

An early way of commemorating the Buddha was the Stupa. These monuments take various forms but typically include a square base, a dome, a conical section, a canopy and a finial which have multiple symbolic meanings including the five elements (earth, water, fire, air, space) and the enlightened mind of the Buddha. The first were built to hold relics of the Buddha which were shared out after his cremation (notably to lay followers rather than monastics), and the 3rd century BCE Buddhist emperor Ashoka built many throughout his empire, some of which can still be seen from Nepal to Sri Lanka. The stupa is normally a solid structure but some temples have been designed in a stupa shape such as the new  ‘Great Stupa of Universal Compassion’ (https://stupa.org.au/) near Bendigo in Australia, which houses the Jade Buddha and many relics. The Chinese/Japanese pagoda is a development from the original stupa form, and thought to have originated in Nepal.

One complex symbolic structure is the mandala (circle), which has become well-known through the temporary ‘sand-mandalas’ created by Tibetan monks (and now nuns) throughout the world. A mandala is a kind of mystical diagram of both the cosmos and the individual, created as part of a meditation ritual, and described in tantric texts. Parts of the mandala represent five Buddhas but simultaneously the five skandhas, and five material elements. After spending such care and expertise on creating the mandala of coloured sands, the creators then destroy it and dispose of the sand, often in a river, a visual illustration of impermanence.

Images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, whether sculptures or flat paintings such as Tibetan thangkas, painted on cloth for ease of transport, are many and varied, especially in the many different versions of Mahayana, and interpretation of all the symbolic details is an academic specialism in itself. Different hand positions or mudras show whether the Buddha is teaching, meditating, protecting, giving, or touching the earth to witness to the truth of his enlightenment. Images may be of ‘the’ Buddha, or of Dipankara, who was 24 Buddhas ago in ‘our’ world, or Maitreya the next to come in ‘our’ world.  They may represent one of the five Buddhas that appear in Mahayana mandalas: Akshobhya, Amitabha, Vairocana, Ratnasambhava, and Amoghasiddhi (who all have their own ‘worlds’ such as Amitabha’s Pure Land). They may be of Bhaishajyaguru, the ‘Medicine Buddha’, who protects from illness, or the Buddha Vajrasattva who embodies the balance between wisdom and compassion, represented in Tibetan symbolism by the bell and vajra (thunderbolt or diamond sceptre). The fat ‘happy’ Buddha, now often used as a ‘good luck’ charm, even by non-Buddhists, is not the ‘historical’ Buddha, but a version of Maitreya Buddha, the next Buddha to come.

Then there are the many bodhisattvas, female as well as male, of whom the most well known are Avalokiteshvara (bodhisattva of compassion, sometimes pictured with thousands of arms to help everyone), Manjushri (bodhisattva of wisdom, pictured with a sword and a book), Kshitigarbha (concerned with the welfare of the dead, and connected with post-abortion rituals in contemporary Japan), and Tara (or Taras, as there are several), the saviouress, connected with Avalokiteshvara and popular in Tibetan Buddhism. In far-eastern Buddhism, the male Avalokiteshvara has transitioned into the female Kwan Yin (Kannon in Japanese), compassionate to all in trouble, and in recent times an important symbol for gender-fluid and transgender people.  Other images may be found on shrines and in temples, including arhats, famous human Buddhist teachers and founders of Buddhist groups, and in both Theravada and Mahayana settings, gods and goddesses recognisable from ‘Hindu’ traditions such as Ganesh, Vishnu or Sarasvati, and various protector deities.

Temple architecture varies by country and type of Buddhism, but are often very ornate inside, with many images. They may be attached to a monastery and have a large stupa or many small ones somewhere in the design, and offerings including flowers, incense, water, food and candles. Buddhists of all kinds may also have their own small shrine at home with an image or a few images, offering bowls, incense and a candle.  Temples and shrines are places for contemplation, devotion and prayer, and are often put in the same category with ‘places of worship’ in other religions. However, there are important differences. In Theravada, the Buddha is not ‘worshipped’ but shown respect and thanks, and at least in theory, he cannot answer prayers. The offerings have symbolic meaning rather than being ‘gifts’, for example flowers fade quickly so teach impermanence. Even if the gods on the side altars are asked for favours, they are just another life-form. In Mahayana, although Buddhas and bodhisattvas are still contactable and can answer prayers, it is still not like theistic worship, in that these beings are not completely other, but represent one’s own future state and ultimately do not exist separately from their devotee.

Although Theravada monks and nuns give up music and dance as worldly frivolities, in Tibetan Buddhism there are monks who perform music and dance/dramas as Buddhist ceremonies, with spiritual purpose for both themselves and the audience. Chanting of various kinds is found in most varieties of Buddhism and can have a musical as well as meditative effect. Tibetan Buddhism in particular has a wealth of artefacts such as prayer beads, prayer wheels both large and hand-held, the bell and vajra used in ceremonies, and prayer flags. The latter are now widely found outside Buddhist circles, such as decorating tents at music festivals. There is also an international, interdenominational ‘Buddhist flag’, designed by a Westerner, the Theosophist Henry Steele Olcott, in Sri Lanka in the 19th century.

In contrast to the rich profusion of precious texts, religious art and ceremonial implements in Tibetan Buddhism, is the attitude to both texts and visual forms in Zen Buddhist traditions. The focus is on simplicity, perhaps a piece of calligraphy with a few brushstrokes. There are stories about throwing both scriptures and wooden Buddha statues on the fire, and of a 16th century monk who used to go around reading a blank scroll to mock those who imagined that reading texts could lead to enlightenment, which happens by personal realisation of one’s inner Buddha-nature and direct transmission of truth from teacher to pupils beyond any words. On the other hand, Zen does employ art forms such as calligraphy, haiku poetry, and the creation of beautiful gardens out of simple arrangements of stones and gravel, as well as having its own traditional texts. The seemingly iconoclastic blank scroll reading and Buddha-statue burning can themselves be viewed as a form of performance art. Buddhists from all traditions would agree that all things like scriptures, statues, philosophies, shrines, ideas, meditation practices, temples, relics, are not sacred in themselves but ultimately all just means to an end, the ending of suffering for all. The Buddhas and bodhisattvas have produced these ‘skilful means’ as a way of helping people, and so they should be treated with respect, unless they start to get in the way.

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Buddhist worldview traditions


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