Reading The Cosmic Buddha

Rare images of the Buddhist world, carved in stone.

Cosmic Buddha (0550/0577) by unknownSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

The Cosmic Buddha

This larger-than-life sixth-century Buddha is one of the most important objects in the Freer Gallery’s collection. Standing 151 cm. (5 ft.) tall, its significance lies in the narratives that unfold all across its surface. 

According to the sacred text of the Lotus Sutra, when the historical Buddha delivered a sermon, a vision of the entire cosmos often appeared before him, which is why he was sometimes called the Cosmological Buddha.

Digitally unwrapping the story of Buddha

Thanks to finely-detailed 3D scanning techniques, we can now unwrap the Buddhist narrative. The illustration on the front and back of this figure's monastic robe feature scenes of the life of the historical Buddha and cosmic imagery.

Focusing on just the front of the Buddha, there are six scenes that run from the neck of his garment to its hem, and they represent a hierarchical map of the Buddhist universe.

Trayastrimsha Heaven

At the top of the chest is the realm of divinities. Here, the Historical Buddha preaches to deities who are still subject to the suffering of worldly existence.

Mount Meru

Directly below that is a depiction of Mount Meru, the center of the Buddhist universe. It doesn’t take the shape of a traditional mountain here. It is depicted as a pillar circled by a pair of dragons. There are giant demigods with multiple arms at the column-mountain’s base. 

Further down the figure’s form, you will notice the realms of humans, and animals...

 ...and the realm of spirits and ghosts.

And at the lowest point, at the figure’s feet, suffering is shown. Figures are prodded by buffalo-headed beasts in the realms of Hell. 

Vairochana, the Cosmic Buddha

This rare instance where such stories are illustrated cascading over the figure of a standing Buddha would have been used to teach believers basic lessons of goodness and the nature of reincarnation. 

Cosmic Imagery - the Realms of Existence

Let's explore in greater detail "The Realms of Existence" cascading down the Cosmic Buddha's front surface.


A number of figures are arranged in a scene here that illustrates the complex meaning of karma, the notion that actions in past lives determine the conditions of future rebirths. This is a key Buddhist concept. 

Karma - judgement

The scene is divided in half. The left portion shows deceased individuals explaining their lives to a judge; at the right, the judge deliberates and assigns each individual to a new life in one of the six Buddhist Realms of Existence.

Karma - the judged

Standing to the left of this scene, deceased men await judgement. They worry about their reincarnation.  Even though they stand outdoors, they are almost naked and have large, heavy yokes locked around their necks.  This kind of treatment suggests they may not have a favorable judgement from Yan, the ruler and ultimate judge of the dead in the underworld.

Karma - Yan, Judge and Ruler of the Underworld

Placed near the center of the composition, Yan appears again, seated outdoors on a stool, arm raised, pointing to the right to signal the destiny for those he evaluates. After hearing evidence in each case, Yan rewards those who have led principled, pious lives with a favorable rebirth while those who haven't been good may be sent to hell.

Karma - Devas, the Divine Beings

Standing in front of Yan are devas or divine beings, ascending to a Buddhist heaven. Following the judge's gesture, devas walk to the right with confidence following a favorable judgement. The devas' hands are pressed together and raised in front of the chest in a gesture of respect; beautiful new clothes flutter behind as the devas ascend to a heaven called Trayastrimsha.

Karma - child destined for rebirth in the Human Realm

A child, arms outstretched, ascends with three other figures. The human realm is one of the six Buddhist Realms of Existence. While ranked below Trayastrimsha Heaven, home for the highest of the reborn, the earthly realm is still better than the worlds of the wandering spirits or animals.

Karma - all are judged

A horse gallops to the right, out of the scene. The horse is one of two animals running to the right in the direction indicated by the judge's raised arm. In the vertically ranked series of figures, animals are placed at the bottom, below devas, humans, and wandering spirits.

Karma - descending to Hell

Depicted as naked humans, two figures walk with another down a steep slope leading to the underworld. Receiving the worst possible sentence from Yan, judge and ruler of the Buddhist underworld, they are destined for the tortures of hell.

Karma - suffering the horrors of Hell

Naked on its knees, a human is being forced to enter a hole and the unknown fate that lies beyond. Buddhist hells include an unimaginable series of torments, all meted out by the guardians of hell who are distinguished by their animal heads and long, pointed spears.

Karma - Guardian of Hell

This guardian of hell holds a strong spear firmly in both hands. Although standing like a man, it has the fearsome head of an animal. Like the other guardians of hell, it makes captives endure unspeakable suffering; here using a spear to force two of them through holes into a frightening, invisible ordeal.

Karma - held in the flames

Another guardian grasps a strong spear in its hands. With the frightening head of an animal, it stands over a suffering figure. The object of this torture lays on a stone platform placed over a raging fire, surrounded by flames. He tries to rise but is held in place by the guardian's spear.

Karma - Resident of Hell

Tied to a post and literally roasting in flames, there is no escape as the guardian torments him with a spear.

Trayastrimsha Heaven

This heavenly scene represents the highest of the six Buddhist Realms of Existence

Less exalted lands shown below include the world of the demigods, and the realms of the humans, animals, and wandering hungry spirits, with hell at the bottom.

All of these realms are linked to the concept of karma, the belief that actions in past lives determine the conditions of future births. Thus, the divinities shown in paradise were reborn here because they lived virtuously in previous incarnations.

Here, divine beings gather in the Buddhist paradise called Trayastrimsha Heaven. Everyone is focused on the Buddha, who sits cross-legged in an open pavilion.

Sitting cross-legged in an open pavilion is Shakyamuni, the Historical Buddha. His proper right hand is raised in a gesture that shows him preaching to the residents of this Buddhist paradise. He often visits this place because his mother, called Queen Maya or Maya-devi, was reincarnated here after her earthly death. Buddha comes to see and teach her.

Devas, or a divine residents of this Buddhist paradise stand close to the Buddha so that they can easily hear his divine lessons. Their hands are pressed together and raised in front of their chests in a gesture of respect.

Only those deemed virtuous in their previous lives by Yan, the judge of the dead, are allowed to be reborn in this paradise, the highest of the six Buddhist Realms of Existence.

Floating in the air with scarves aflutter are special divinities known as tiannu in Chinese. Literally meaning "heavenly woman," tiannu dwell here in the realm of the gods but can also visit the human world.

Unlike other divine beings shown here, a highly placed divinity sits crossed-legged, just like the Buddha, occupying an open pavilion. The huge lotus underneath allows it to hover in the air, suggesting the divinity has flown to this location to hear the Buddha speak.

The air in this heavenly paradise is beautifully scented by flowers that fill the sky. These blossoms floating midair look like those of a lotus, a favored flower in Buddhism. Lotus blossoms represent the purity of Buddhist teachings because the beautiful flowers float above the dark waters of ponds and pools.

 A large incense burner is placed on the ground directly in front of the seated Buddha. It resembles a large round jewel on an open lotus. The rising scent serves as a metaphor for the Buddha's divine words.

Two mighty dragons helps to support the heavenly realm of Trayastrimsha. Note their long sinuous necks, large heads, and bent front legs, angled to hold the weighty foundations of heaven. Their bodies rap around a representation of Mt. Meru. In China, the mythical dragon was viewed as a symbol of great strength, making it the logical choice for this strenuous task.

This textured ribbon above the dragons represents the rocky ground of heaven. The highest visible Buddhist paradise, it is still connected to the lower regions by Meru, the central peak of the universe. The rough texture of the ground plane -- distinct from the smooth surfaces around it -- provides a foundation for a wondrous landscape filled with palaces and divine beings.

The Future

This portion of the sculpture bears an illustration of a beautiful Buddhist paradise called Tushita Heaven. It is the spiritual home of the bodhisattva Maitreya. According to Buddhist teachings, Maitreya will become the next Buddha in a future rebirth. In the meantime, he resides in his Tushita Heaven with other exalted beings surrounded by palaces and bejeweled trees.

This depiction is very formal and symmetrically arranged, with the primary deity shown at the center. He is surrounded by other Buddhist divinities and a group of lay believers. Given their prominence in this scene, these mortals may represent the donor who had a role in the creation of the sculpture.

Divine beings gather in the Buddhist paradise called Tushita Heaven, the home of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Maitreya sits in the middle, flanked by pairs of standing deities.

Additional divinities fill the sky...

...or sit on the ground in front of Maitreya's pavilion.

Remember that these scenes are rendered on the Cosmic Buddha's robe. The standard Buddhist robe is a long, untailored piece of cloth that is wrapped around the body, with one end thrown over the shoulder. In this instance, the artist uses the arrangement of the garment to establish a clear boundary for the narrative scene.

Maitreya is portrayed as a bodhisattva, a devout being who takes a vow to become a Buddha for the benefit of all sentient beings. Maitreya will become the next Buddha. He sits "European style," with his legs pendant and feet touching the ground. This is one way you can distinguish Maitreya from the Buddha Shakyamuni, who is usually shown cross-legged.

Maitreya's importance and status is indicated by his central location, size (the largest figure in this scene), by the halo behind his head, and the lotus blossom at his feet.

Floating in the air with scarves fluttering behind, are special divinities known as  tiannu in Chinese. Literally meaning "heavenly woman," tiannu dwell in Buddhist paradises but can also visit the human world. They enjoy hearing Buddhist teachings.

Here, above and behind the umbrella, is a monastic or lay believer, not a deity. You can tell because he doesn't have a halo and wears the simple garment of a monk. He must be a very special person since he stands so close to the Future Buddha. Maybe he had an important role in sponsoring the creation of this Buddhist sculpture.

Kneeling, dressed elegantly, and shown with a beautiful hairstyle, she appears to be a very wealthy and powerful person. Her servants stand behind; one of them holds an umbrella over her as a sign of respect. She is probably shown here because she contributed money to create this Buddhist sculpture.

The air in this heavenly paradise is beautifully scented by flowers that fill the sky. These blossoms, floating midair, look like those of a lotus, a favored flower in Buddhism.

Explore the Cosmic Buddha in 3D

We've only scratched the surface of the stories that unfold on the surface of the Cosmic Buddha.  If you'd like to learn more, try our interactive 3D tours at tours illuminate both the narrative and the science behind this priceless cultural treasure.

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