Art and Buddhism: A Journey

How have Buddhism and art traveled together across time and space?


An Artistic Journey

For centuries, art and Buddhism have traveled together—from India to Japan and through Southeast Asia to Java. Along the way, they’ve informed one another while influencing—and being influenced by—other traditions. Here, guided by highlights from The Met’s Asian collections, we follow along on the journey, to discover art as an essential component of the world’s fourth largest religion.


I. Meet the Buddha

II. Across Time And Space

III. Insider Insights







The Buddha

He went by many names—Shakyamuni, Siddhartha, and Gautama—and lived around the 6th to 5th centuries B.C.E. in North India. Born into an elite family, he gave up his riches and went to the wilderness to perfect control over his mind and body. This allowed him to reach a state of bodhi, or enlightenment. 

Golden sculpture of a buddha with blue coiled hair and long drooping earlobes

Across Time and Space

After the Buddha died, devotees could no longer hear the dharma, or teachings, directly from him. Buddhist schools developed new ways for people to access the teachings and to find assistance on the path, like connecting to physical relics, calling upon living Buddhas residing in heavens, or asking for aid from spiritual guides called bodhisattvas.

Golden statue of a buddha with long drooping earlobes and a blue cranial bump looking downwards

Insider Insights

As Buddhism became the dominant religion across Asia, the teachings inspired new schools of thought. Some widely known schools are Pure Land, Zen, and Vajrayana (also known as Tantric or Esoteric) Buddhism. Each of these three schools offers devotees alternate paths to enlightenment.

Look Inward Grapple with Paradox


Through meditation and other spiritual practices, Zen Buddhists seek heightened awareness of the true nature of reality, and of themselves.

Shoot for the Moon Pursue Enlightenment
Look Inward


When the Indian sage Bodhidharma tried to spread Zen teachings to China, he ran into a few setbacks, so he went to a cave and meditated for nine years. In this Japanese picture painted 1,000 years later, the puffy, darkened eyes suggest his relentless pursuit of self-realization (and the success of his teachings). 

Grapple with Paradox

Paradoxical Dialogues

Famous, sometimes unusual, old encounters with Zen masters appear often in Zen painting. Here, a skeptical scholar says, "Seeing your face is not as good as hearing your name." The master replies: "Why distrust your eye and value your ear? Just as between the water and the clouds, Do not say there is nothing there."

Pursue Enlightenment

Awaken the Mind

In this picture and poem by a Japanese monk, Zen practice and the pursuit of awakening is likened to a bird pecking at lichen clinging to a rock. "Within the rock is a block of jade," he writes, "but when will he manage to dig it out?"

Shoot for the Moon

Delusions and Distractions

This large picture by a Zen monk shows a troupe of fuzzy gibbons clinging to tree branches and trying to grab hold of the reflection of the moon in the water below. Delusions and distractions are the Zen student’s worst enemies.

Continue the Journey

One sign of a good trip is to arrive back at the starting point, slightly changed. In this case, the journey begins and ends with art.

As Buddhism has spread around the world, art has helped the teachings transcend geographic and cultural barriers. Artworks are the physical manifestation of the teachings and the intentions behind them. Just as the dharma has been adapted by global devotees, artistic innovations also reflect different yet remarkably consistent characteristics. 

In some cases, these artworks have the power to help believers visualize and access sacred realms. At the end of the journey, they also communicate the impermanence of all things...including the artworks themselves.

Visit The Met

Continue your exploration of Buddhist images in The Met’s fifty five galleries for Asian art, which include masterpieces from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, the Himalayas, China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan.


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A grid of six images of different art objects of paintings

Image and Video Credits


Primer made possible by Dasha Zhukova Niarchos.


Supported by


Logo of Bloomberg Philanthropies Driving Innovation Through Arts and Culture

and the Director's Fund.


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