Because it was a proselytizing religion, Buddhism, which originated in India around the fifth century B.C., spread quickly and widely. The type of Buddhism that reached East Asia is known as Mahayana, or the Great Vehicle. One key feature of this sect is its emphasis on the attainability of salvation, and hence the importance of the bodhisattva—compassionate beings who assist mortals to achieve enlightenment. Buddhist sculptures produced in East Asia often represent not only the Buddha (“the awakened one”) but also a pantheon of bodhisattvas.
Buddhism was introduced to the Korean peninsula in 372 A.D. Monk-emissaries from the northern and southern dynasties of China played a crucial role in disseminating the religion to the three Korean kingdoms—Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla—during the fourth through sixth centuries. Despite its foreign roots, Buddhism came to be an influential political, religious, and cultural force during the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.–668 A.D.) and the subsequent Unified Silla period (668–935). Many Korean monks traveled not only to China but also to India to learn the various teachings of the Buddha. In the sixth century, visiting envoys from Baekje contributed to the adoption of Buddhism by Japan. The success of Buddhism as a religion and way of life in Korea through much of the Three Kingdoms and Unified Silla periods owes to the enthusiastic patronage of royalty and powerful aristocrats. But beyond the elites, the majority of the general population, too, devotedly followed this faith. Buddhism proved an effective unifying force for the state.
Along with architecture, sculpture comprised one of the principal forms of Buddhist art of the Three Kingdoms period. But unlike the grand temple complexes, which for the most part were state-sponsored public monuments, sculptures ranged from large-scale icons for public display and worship to statuettes intended for private devotion in the home. The early sculptures of the three kingdoms adapted the iconography and styles of those produced in the northern and southern regions of China. One source was the sculpture of the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534 A.D.), characterized by the frontal stance of the figures, the flaring edges of their garments, and the flamelike decoration on the halos. Korean sculptors, however, were highly selective in their interpretations of foreign models, sometimes fusing multiple styles from different regions of China and often integrating native sensibilities. The Buddhist statues of Baekje, with their gentle faces and harmonious proportions, are particularly distinctive. During the first half of the seventh century, sculptures of the pensive figure (often identified as the Buddha of the Future, or Bodhisattva Maitreya)—immediately recognizable by its seated posture, with the right leg bent over the left and the right hand touching the face—became immensely popular in all three kingdoms.
Buddhist sculpture of the Unified Silla period reflected the cosmopolitanism of the society. As Silla monks traveled to Tang China (618–906), the crossroads of Eastern and Western cultures, and returned with ever greater knowledge of numerous Buddhist sects, so the art of this religion embodied a convergence of multiple influences. Unified Silla statues have an undeniable sensuality, from their round faces and dreamy expressions to their fleshy and curvaceous bodies. In essence, the style of this period can be characterized as an international style cutting across much of East, Central, and South Asia.