Buddhism from the 9th to the 12th Century

A considerable western bias exists in the American education system. History, society, and culture are all taught through the skewed ideological lens formed by the very civilizations that we learn about. A great deal of western thinking and ideology arise from the Greco-Roman societies and the Judeo-Christian ethics. That being said, the great big world that is taught in these classes no longer seem so big. This exhibit consists of two pieces from Buddhist art: “Buddha Calling the Earth to Witness” and Borobudur. Both of these pieces were created between the 9th and 12th centuries C.E and reflect the ideological influence of Buddhism. The purpose of this exhibit is to display and explain through art the misalignment between western and eastern (in particular Buddhist) philosophy.

            Buddhism as a religion and an ideology stem from the teachings of Siddhartha Guatama. The details of his life are still largely up for debate, but historians unanimously agree that he was the descendant of a high-ranking chieftain or oligarch born near the eastern border of India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. Buddhism differs from the dominant monotheistic regions of the west in many ways, the first being that there is no creation deity. In both religions, life is viewed as suffering. However, according to the four noble truths in Buddhism, this suffering is identifiable and controllable even in the physical world. This core difference in beliefs lead to a massive difference in the self-perception of Buddhists versus Christians. Buddhism rejects the idea of an entirely permanent soul. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to attain enlightenment through this attainment, one achieves spiritual nirvana. Buddhists believe in reincarnation based primarily on karma. Each life in Buddhism is viewed as an individual attempt to attain nirvana.

            Art exists as a medium primarily to express a thought, belief, or value. Thus, it’s no surprise that the vast ideological differences between western and eastern philosophy are apparent in their artwork. In depictions of Siddhartha Guatama and other Buddhas to follow him, they are shown in meditation and with a vague happiness to suggest enlightenment. Traditionally, one of their hands is shown making contact with the ground to commemorate the original Buddha’s defeat over the evil demon Mara. This connection also emphasizes the importance of the interconnectedness of the universe in Buddhism. With regards to religious monuments in Buddhism, the structure is a representation of the Buddha himself, and perhaps that of the universe as well. There is a square base to represent the Buddha’s throne and the earth element, a dome to represent the Buddha’s body in meditation and the element of water, the conical spire on top of the dome represents the head of the Buddha and the element of fire, the upper lotus parasol and the golden tip represent the crown of the Buddha and the elements of air and space. Originally, there were ten stupas built to house the remains of Siddhartha Guatama, but as time has passed, many more have been built as places of pilgrimage and worship. The purpose of the stupa is not as concrete as religious structures in other religions. The structures act as reflections of the body and thus the soul, and just as these two are imperfect and malleable, so too are the stupas. Ultimately, Buddhist art shows a deep misalignment between western and eastern philosophies with respect to the soul, the origins of life, and physical life. 

“Buddha Calling the Earth to Witness” c. Late 12th Century This statue depicts the climax of the Buddha’s journey for enlightenment. As the story goes, Siddhartha Guatma sat under a Bodhi tree and said that he would not leave until he achieved enlightenment. In his journey, the demon Mara confronts him and attempts to move him from his spot by calling upon a throng of demons for support. Mara asks the Buddha who will speak for him, and he extends his right hand towards the Earth and the Earth roars back at Mara. This subtle movement and depiction suggests that everything is interconnected and one cannot achieve enlightenment until one is one with all. Beyond the anecdotal and spiritual implications of the meditation and the hand gesture, one must also take note of the bindi located between the eyebrows. The bindi represents the “third eye” or inner-wisdom. In an act of meditation and connection, the Buddha is finally able to achieve enlightenment.
Borobudur c. 825 C.E This stupa is located in Indonesia and is widely regarded as one of the biggest and most elaborate stupas ever created. The stupa itself serves a reflective purpose in the Buddhist religion. The structure of a stupa is meant to reflect the structure of Siddhartha Guatama as well as the core elements that comprise the universe: earth, water, fire, air, and space. This stupa in particular takes this concept and embraces it fully. The Borobudur stupa is itself one stupa comprised of many other stupas. This suggests that the whole stupa is itself the universe with the Buddha located around the center, and various other stupas simultaneously acting as individual stupas and pieces of a greater whole.
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