Imprints of Buddhas: the Buddhist Art in the National Palace Museum Collection
Buddhism originated in India in the sixth century BCE and underwent more than 1,700 years of development on the subcontinent before the Muslim invasion of the late twelfth century. In the process, Buddhism evolved and its teachings became more and more systematic. With the support of Indian ruling houses and the efforts of Buddhist clergy, the religion spread to Central Asia, China, Tibet, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. From China, the religion also spread further to the Korean Peninsula and Japan. Since then, Buddhism has flourished and now exists in diverse incarnations around Asia.
Across Asia, Buddhist images and sūtras all center on encouraging followers to attain enlightenment, but different styles have emerged in different cultures, hence the large variation in calligraphy and framing and representation of deities. All these have contributed to the diversity and splendor of Asian Buddhist art.
This exhibition comprises five sections: “The Joy of Birth,” “The Wisdom of the Buddha,” “The Compassion of the Bodhisattva,” “Transmission and Transformation of the Buddhist Striptures,” and “The Mystery of Esoteric Buddhism.” Each section presents exhibits side by side in chronological fashion in order to show the similarities and differences in Buddhist art, so that the viewer can appreciate the beauty of Buddhist artworks from different regions during the same period and can see the depth of its philosophical foundations.
The Joy of Birth
Legend has it that Siddhārtha, crown prince of Kapilavastu, was born from his mother’s right ribs. He is said to have taken seven steps forward, with lotus flowers blooming in his footsteps. Pointing with one finger to the sky and another to the earth, he proclaimed, “Above and below the sky only I am the World Honored One. The three realms are nothing but suffering and I shall relieve sentient beings of their suffering.” Then, the heavenly kings showered fragrant water on the crown prince, who would later found Buddhism and become known as Śākyamuni. Because of this story, the Buddha’s birthday is also known as the Bathing Buddha Festival. Nowadays, many temples still hold Buddha bathing ceremonies on the Buddha’s birthday. The many infant Buddha statues depicting him pointing one finger to the sky and another to the earth are probably associated with Buddha bathing rites.
The Wisdom of the Buddha
Śākyamuni Buddha is the only religious mentor revered in early Buddhism. However, Mahāyāna Buddhism holds that the “Buddha nature” is in every one of us and that in parallel universes there exist many Buddhas, including Maitreya, Amitāyus, and Bhaiṣajyaguru. Buddhist imagery across Asia has been influenced by Indian or Chinese art, but as Buddhist culture has taken root in various other places, regional features with strong ethnic flavors has also developed.
The Compassion of the Bodhisattva
The essence of Mahāyāna Buddhism is altruism and the central figure is the bodhisattva, who vows to liberate all sentient beings from suffering. Among the many bodhisattvas, the largest followings and the most statues belong to Maitreya, Buddha of the Future, and Avalokiteśvara, bodhisattva of compassion. Their statues have also enjoyed popularity for the longest time and over the greatest area. As Buddhism spread, bodhisattva cults became intertwined with local cultures and new iconographies emerged, such as China’s Guanyin of Fertility and the Kingdom of Dali’s Yizhang Guanyin, which were distinct from those of Indian Buddhism.
Transmission and Transformation of the Buddhist Scriptures
In ancient India, the teachings of Buddha were passed down orally in the beginning, but later on, in order to preserve the teachings of lineages or to facilitate the spreading of Buddhism to other cultural areas in Asia, the Buddhist scriptures were written or inscribed in different languages and scripts. For example, Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit, Pāli, Chinese, or Tibetan represent the various distinctive Buddhist cultures. Similarly, other Buddhist texts, like the Manchu Buddhist canon or the Burmese palm-leaf manuscripts, started to appear in certain local cultural areas, and this also contributed to the diversity of Buddhist scriptures. This section features a variety of Buddhist texts in the National Palace Museum’s collection. Some are the xylograph editions, others hand-written manuscripts. They are not only in different languages but also the framing styles are diverse, depending on their origins in various space and time.
The Mystery of Esoteric Buddhism
Esoteric Buddhism marked the last phase of Buddhism’s development in India. As a way to compete with Hinduism, during this period Buddhism absorbed elements such as traditional mantras, mandalas, and burnt offerings, and multi-faced and multi-armed, wrathfull, and female deity statues started to appear in large numbers.
Tantra, or Buddhist scriptures on esoteric practices, can be divided into four classes according to their time and contents: Kriya Tantra, Carya Tantra, Yoga Tantra, and Anuttarayoga Tantra. Anuttarayoga Tantra can be further divided into Method-father Tantra and Wisdom-mother Tantra. Esoteric Buddhism practiced during the Tang Dynasty in China and in Japan mainly focused on Carya Tantra and Yoga Tantra, whereas Tibet followed the Anuttarayoga Tantra tradition. Esoteric Buddhist art is rich in contents and diverse in style.