Buddhist practice and Buddhist art have been inseparable in the Himalayas ever since Buddhism arrived to the region in the eighth century. But for the casual observer it can be difficult to make sense of the complex iconography. Not to worry—Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt is here to help. In this “Himalayan Buddhist Art 101” series, Jeff will make sense of this rich artistic tradition by presenting a weekly image from the Himalayan Art Resources archives and explaining its role in the Buddhist tradition. This week we explore the image of the Buddha.
The Buddha is the most iconic visual form found in Buddhist art in general and this is also true for Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhist art in particular.
The standard depiction of the Buddha is a seated figure, upright with the back straight, arms and hands placed in a variety of postures and gestures, and with the legs folded in vajra posture. Other, less common, forms of the Buddha can be found seated with the legs forward, lying down, standing, or walking.
The head of the Buddha is slightly taller than an average head with the addition of a round protuberance called an ushnisha topped with a gold ornament. The hair on the head is short and curly, formed in small tufts, appearing like acorns in later art. Sometimes a small dot or mark urna is placed between the eyes. The earlobes are elongated and on the neck often three horizontal lines can be seen. The Buddha wears two simple robes that are visible in art—an upper and a lower robe. The proper right shoulder is almost always left uncovered, as are the soles of the feet when seated. Sometimes symbols such as a wheel are placed on the soles of the feet. Most of the 32 major and 80 minor marks of a Buddha are not depicted in art.
The Buddha can be seated on a simple square throne, possibly ornamented with lions or other symbols, or on a single or double lotus. Often with sculptural representations the throne, or base, is cast independently from the form of the body and therefore it is easier to become separated and lost over time.
Painted compositions of the Buddha can be far richer in iconography and detail but also far more complicated in the interpretation. A hierarchy of figure size, numerous secondary figures, landscape, and the possibility of continuous narrative sequences complicate the composition.
The easiest and quickest way to learn about the artistic forms of the Buddha is to look. Look at as much art as possible. The art doesn’t have to be physically in front of you—digital images or images from a publication also work. Look often and look carefully taking in differences and details, learning to differentiate between iconographic norms, textual standards and artistic interpretation.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.