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Art Through Time: A Global View

Cosmology and Belief Art: Shakyamuni Buddha

» Unknown artist, Nepal

Shakyamuni Buddha

Shakyamuni Buddha
Artist / Origin: Unknown artist, Nepal
Region: South and Southeast Asia
Date: 1200–1299
Period: 1000 CE – 1400 CE
Material: Copper
Medium: Sculpture
Location: Rubin Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

According to Buddhist belief, enlightenment is a state in which one comes to understand the true nature of reality and is released from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth that defines earthly existence.

Buddhism teaches that anyone is capable of achieving enlightenment and, therefore, can become a Buddha, which simply means “Enlightened One.” There are thirty-two major and eight minor physical characteristics associated with the enlightened being. The statue seen here is marked by several of these features, including the ushnisha, or cranial protuberance on top of his head, and the urna, the mark between his eyebrows, both symbols of wisdom. Although such signs indicate that the Buddha is somehow different and special, he nonetheless maintains distinctly human form. The statue, thus, reminds the Buddhist practitioner that enlightenment is always within reach.

Because Buddhism allows for many enlightened beings and not just one, artistic conventions developed to help distinguish between them. This Buddha, for example, is identifiable by his posture and hand gestures (called mudras) as Shakyamuni, the Historical Buddha. According to legend, Shakyamuni was born Siddhartha, heir to a kingdom in the Himalayan foothills. When he was still a relatively a young man, Siddhartha renounced his privileged position and the material wealth that went with it. After several years of living as an ascetic, however, he concluded that attempting to overcome human suffering and desire through self-denial and force of will was an exercise in futility. At that time, he sat down beneath a tree, where he meditated until he had achieved a state of enlightenment. It is this moment in the Buddha’s life that the sculpture references.

Shakyamuni is depicted here in a meditative pose. His legs are crossed in the lotus position and his right hand rests palm up in his lap. With the fingertips of his left hand, he touches the ground, a gesture that refers to his summoning of the Earth Goddess in response to attempts by the demon Mara to disrupt his meditation. Shakyamuni called on the goddess to bear witness to his right to achieve enlightenment, which she did, enabling him to triumph over his antagonist and attain Buddhahood.

Expert Perspective:
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.”

Additional Resources

Fisher, Robert E. Buddhist Art and Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson, 1993.

Leidy, Denise Patry. The Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its History and Meaning. Boston: Shambhala, 2008.

McArthur, Meher. Reading Buddhist Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

Olinsky, Frank, and Robert A.F. Thurman. Buddha Book: A Meeting of Images.San Francisco: Chronicle, 1997.

Pal, Pratapaditya. Art of the Himalayas: Treasures from Nepal and Tibet. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1992.

Rubin Museum of Art Web site.

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