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.
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.
In some images from East Asia, including this one from Japan in the 1400s, the Buddha appears exhausted and emaciated after years of self-deprivation. Seeing promise in a more moderate path, he left the wilderness and continued on a meditative spiritual journey.
Out of the Wilderness
At the moment of his awakening, the Buddha touched the ground, calling upon the earth itself to bear witness. This Thai sculpture from the 1400s shows him in his enlightened state, with a gleaming body and a flame coming from the top of his head, a sign of his transcendence.
After the Buddha attained enlightenment, he revealed his teaching to five former companions, who became the first monks. His preaching is symbolized by his turning of the Buddhist wheel of the law.
When the Buddha died, he attained nirvana, or eternal freedom from rebirth, suffering, and attachment. Pictures like this one from Japan show others grieving as they struggle to comprehend his death. They will need the Buddha’s teachings as a guide on their own paths.
The Buddha’s ashes became powerful agents of enlightenment and were placed in solid relic structures known as stupas. This relic container is designed to look like a stupa, with pillars at the four corners and umbrellas to shelter these auspicious remains that radiated the power of enlightenment.
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.
A host of compassionate bodhisattvas and other deities across the cosmos are always available to guide and protect (and to be fierce as needed).
Avalokiteshvara offers help along the path to enlightenment and is able to hear the cries of suffering of all living beings. This rare early Korean painting imagines him receiving visitors in his paradise. The painter describes in meticulous detail his jewelry and luxurious robes.
The bodhisattva Manjushri is associated with wisdom. He embodies the Buddha’s teachings and is available to help devotees understand them. His presentation in this Nepalese sculpture as an innocent young boy signals his approachability.
Known for destroying barriers to enlightenment and for protecting the common person, Mahakala is one of the most popular guardians in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon. Here, he tramples a corpse while wielding a flaying knife and a skull cup full of blood.
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.
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).
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."
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?"
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.
Primer made possible by Dasha Zhukova Niarchos.
and the Director's Fund.
© 2022 The Metropolitan Museum of Art