Over the course of its nearly two thousand years of existence, Buddhist art has inspired and influenced creators and consumers of visual arts in countless countries.
Wisdom, spirituality and tranquility are all things that can be found as symbols in Buddhist artwork.
Buddhist art in modern times is an amalgam of historical ideals, innovative thinking and contemplation. It can be artistic, spiritual, conventional, or even scientific. These factors together explain why Buddhist art has become so beloved.
What is Buddhist Art?
Buddhist art is any artistic practice inspired by Buddhist philosophy and principles. It is intended to express the fundamental Buddhist values of compassion, wisdom and a lack of attachment to material possessions, and to encourage devotion and meditation.
Paintings, sculptures, murals, architecture, textiles and decorative arts are just some of the many media used to express Buddhist ideas and values.
A wide variety of styles and techniques are used in Buddhist art, reflecting the wide range of Buddhist cultures and traditions. In addition, Buddhist art uses symbolism and images that have profound philosophical and calligraphic origins in the religion to convey spiritual meanings and teachings to the observer.
The History of Buddhist Art
The history of Buddhist art goes back more than two thousand years and is full of diversity and depth. It was developed in India in the third century BCE, around the same time Buddhism was established there.
Sculptures depicting the Buddha and other deities central to Buddhism were among the earliest works of art produced by Buddhists. Stylized with exaggerated proportions and symbolic hand gestures, these sculptures were often made of stone or terracotta.
Art produced by Buddhists became more complex in Asia as it took on local influences. For example, Buddhist art in China developed a distinctive style that mixed Buddhist imagery with traditional Chinese motifs due to its exposure to Taoist and Confucian ideologies.
Buddhist art in Japan has a distinct style that emphasizes simplicity and elegance thanks to the influence of Shintoism and the country’s own aesthetic traditions.
The construction of Buddhist buildings was also heavily influenced by Buddhist art. Indonesia’s Borobudur Temple and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat Temple are just two examples of world-famous Buddhist temples with intricate carvings and reliefs depicting stories from the Buddha’s life.
Buddhist art is and remains today an important means of expressing Buddhist beliefs and values. It has influenced modern art and design and can be found in Buddhist temples and museums around the world.
The Symbols in Buddhist Art
Below are several symbols found in Buddhist art. Each symbol is believed to have a specific meaning and purpose.
A victory flag
The victory flag, or « dran-khang » in Tibetan, was usually carried by the victor in a major battle. It symbolized triumph over the negative emotions such as anger and hostility that would have led to and perpetuated the war. The victory banner would be on display in the public square for all to see.
The victory flag consists of a flag, pole and topknot. The flag represents the open mind from which wisdom can emerge; the pole represents stability and strength; while the topknot symbolizes your spiritual growth and willingness to interact with others to help them improve as well.
The lotus flower, also known as « Nagaswarupa » in Sanskrit, is a symbol of purity, spirituality and the promise of enlightenment. As a symbol of purity, the lotus is also used in Hinduism. It is also used as a symbol of royalty and beauty.
The Buddha statue is known as the « Buddha Vira » in Tibetan. Buddha Vira appears seated, with his feet close together and his hands in his lap. There are different variations of the Buddha Vira with different colors and hairstyles.
The fish represent unity, harmony and the union of opposites. The two fish symbolize unity as they contrast with their colors.
The symbolism was incorporated into Buddhist art to depict the union of man and woman as a single entity resembling a pair of birds or a pair of fish.
The endless knot is a Buddhist symbol often used in Buddhist art and jewelry. Symbolizing no beginning or end, the endless knot was also used as a talisman for Eastern travelers and monks to ward off bad circumstances.
The endless knot is made of different colors, including red and white. The red color symbolizes the power of passion, while the white color symbolizes the power of wisdom.
The wheel of the law
The wheel of the law is a symbol of Buddha’s teachings. It represents the law of cause and effect, also known as karma. This symbol is often used to represent various aspects of Buddhist culture, such as dharma (duty), karma (action), and Buddha’s enlightenment.
The symbolic meaning of a wheel in Buddhism is similar to that in Hinduism and other Indian religions; however, it is mostly used as a representation of dharma and Buddha.
Ribbons have been used in Buddhist art since the beginning of Buddhism. They are believed to represent determination, perseverance and clarity of mind. The ribbons can be found on religious objects such as Buddhist icons, statues and sculptures.
The ribbons symbolize many things such as spiritual progress, Buddhism, compassion and patience.
Mandalas are often used in Buddhist art to symbolize the cosmos and the interconnectedness of all things. They are also used for introspection and personal development on a spiritual level. Sand, paint and stone are just some of the many common materials used to create mandalas.
Buddhist art is a rich and elaborate style that represents Buddhist values and teachings. It was pivotal in the development of Buddhism in Asia and beyond, and remains an essential part of Asian religion and culture today.
Buddhist art has the potential to evoke devotion, encourage meditation, and convey spiritual teachings and principles through symbolism, imagery, and iconography.
Buddhist art, whether in the form of a painting, sculpture or mandala, has the potential to move people and change their mood. It is a symbol of the enduring influence of Buddhism and its teachings, and has fascinated and inspired people all over the world.