Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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5 / Cosmology and Belief

Shakyamuni Buddha
Shakyamuni Buddha
Artist / Origin Unknown artist, Nepal
Date 1200–1299
Material Copper
Medium: Sculpture
Location Rubin Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

expert perspective

Robert A. F. (Tenzin) ThurmanProfessor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, Columbia University

Shakyamuni Buddha

» Unknown artist, Nepal

expert perspective

Robert A. F. (Tenzin) Thurman Robert A. F. (Tenzin) Thurman Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, Columbia University

As the Buddhists understand it, art is a way of communicating the nature of reality to people. For example, from the Mahayana Buddhist point of view, which is the Indian and Tibetan and Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc., the Buddha himself is a work of art. A Buddha is a being that feels completely one with the entire universe, and yet, at the same time, feels so connected to what other beings feel and think that they can manifest out of particular segments of that sense of oneness, they can manifest what looks to others like an individuated embodiment. And so that manifestation therefore is only for the benefit of those others to open them to the possibility of their connection to the universe, because those beings are suffering because they feel separate from the universe. So a Buddha manifests, as they say, whatsoever is necessary for whomsoever to educate them to the nature of reality. And so that’s what art is—art in the broadest sense, in other words, methods of doing things skillfully and creatively that better the world in some way.

Now the historical Buddha fits into that pattern in the Mahayana view by being a type of being who has already attained enlightenment before he’s born actually. And he is in this state of sort of vast unity and blissfulness beyond any specific embodiment. But then chooses in a particular world system. And that being picks a particular moment in the different cycles of this planet to manifest what they call a Supreme Emanation Body Buddha. And that Supreme Emanation Body Buddha is one who takes rebirth in a certain clan—on this planet, usually in India. And then they leave that lifestyle and they go into a self quest, and then in the quest they discover themselves in their enlightenment and then they teach. And according to Buddhism, Shakyamuni Buddha is the fourth manifestation of a Supreme Emanation Body Buddha in this world system, in this planetary system, and there will be nine hundred ninety-five more of them every few thousand years.

The historical Buddha of the Supreme Emanation Body form is meant to look a little different, but close enough to the human form that the human thinks they are kind of human. So that they are encouraging to the human, because they don’t want to—if they look something totally different like an alien—then the human would think I can’t do what he did, I can’t understand like that, I can’t become a transcendent being like that, because they are like a god or they are something beyond me. This is a person who was human and then achieved this extraordinary form.” 


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