The Buddha As Icon

03/19/2011 12:31 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2011
  • Michael Brenner Senior Fellow, the Center for Transatlantic Relations; Professor of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

This is the season when religious symbolism is prominent -- especially in the Christian world. We tend to assume that similar symbols figure in the same manner in other religions. That is not so. Buddhism is the notable example of why.

The Buddha image is the most exceptional of religious icons. Its aesthetic is unique. Sculptures, paintings and photos have made it as familiar as portraits of Jesus on the cross. Ubiquity, though, has voided it of mystery and meaning. For stylistic simplicity makes it all too easy to miss the refinements of expression that convey the essence of Buddhist cosmology. The observer thereby fails to grasp its value as an aid to meditation as well.

In the first centuries after Siddhartha's death, the emergent spiritual movement that was early Buddhism created no images of their guide. That was not due to any prohibition on physical representations such as that laid down in Islam against depictions of Allah or Mohammed. Rather, it reflected two cardinal features of Siddhartha and the religion that he inspired. Paramount is the central fact that he was not a prophet, did not see himself as a prophet and was not viewed as a prophet by his disciples. Comparisons with the prophetic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism are quite beside the point. The Buddha did not claim to be a messenger for an anthropomorphic god or have special access to any sort of Supreme Being. Indeed, unlike the Hindu sages of his times he never affirmed the existence of a universal spirit or immanent consciousness. In other words, his perspective deviates from the core Vedic concepts of the individual atman as an emanation of the universal brahman. That distinction was the theological difference that has separated the two great Indian religions.

Buddha's teaching stemmed from two elemental truths. The first, experiential and inferential, is that human life is a veil of tears. We suffer because the practicalities of life are painful and pain is everywhere, because we are afflicted with illness and the dread of death, and because we cannot make sense of any of this. The human condition. His answer offers no fairy tales of salvation or a paradisiacal afterlife. There is no cosmic drama, no creation myths -- not even the consolation of belief in a spiritual unity at some deep level of existence as with the Hindu's 'divine ground of being.' Buddha's austere teaching speaks only of the state of Nirvana which, once attained, liberates us from a world where we are consumed by the cares and things of this world. Those cares and things have no fixed reality or meaning; they are all transitory states of mind that are in constant flux.

Nirvana is commonly described as 'nothingness' or a 'void.' From our commonplace perspective it seems as such. (For example, how we feel when hung-over on a Sunday morning and awaken to the drone of politicos on Sunday morning talk shows). But the Buddhist conception is of unnatural serenity and bliss. It is what persons feel when they are in the most rarified mystical experience -- or 'zero experience' as it called (itself a misnomer). That experience is transformative insofar as one retains a residual awareness of the insignificance of our prosaic wants and passions. Hence, we can live at peace with ourselves and our condition. Upon physical death, those who have achieved Nirvana will forever be in that state.

How then can the ineffable be conveyed? The only way that Buddhists have found to do so is to represent the Buddha as he appeared when in Nirvana. There is reason to assume that Siddhartha was born with the propensity to slip into the zero experience with relative frequency. Unlike other famed mystics, he had no preconceived religious beliefs or doctrine to which he could revert for supernatural explanations. Nor any inclination therefore to concoct a doctrine to attach readily comprehensible meaning to his experiences, i.e. become a prophet. To put it somewhat differently, he was disposed not to -- since he was surrounded by the rich, symbol laden and inquiring spirituality that pervaded early Hindu India that could have inclined him in that direction.

So the tangible Buddha image bears the heavy weight of coming as close as possible to hinting at the ultimate intangible. The great, unmatched achievement of the finest Buddhist sculptures is to do exactly that. These supreme masterpieces literally raise the aesthetic to the plane of the most distant spirituality -- all with no or the very slightest symbolism as an assist.

(To what extent they also serve to assist the seeker of Nirvana to advance toward his goal is unknowable). The artist's success, therefore, cannot readily be explained in terms of particular features or technique as in commonly done for Western art forms depicting religious figures. Why some piece of sculpture succeeds while others do not probably has something to do with the particular artist's own inner spiritual aesthetic. The subtleties that make the difference are unlikely to be consciously planned; they confer the sentiment of piece's creator at the time of creation.

Some time spent in the presence of one of these exceptional sculptures allows us to sense the difference. That is, we sense something that is absent when we view less exalted works even where their depiction of Buddha is well done by technical standards. The physical differences are ones of millimeters in size, curvature and plane. It would be illuminating to place them side by side, but that opportunity rarely presents itself. I possess one high grade, if mot masterpiece, Buddha. I also have a couple of heads done by Thai artists who sought to emulate the purest of Khmer and Ayodhya classic works using the same materials and conception. After a while, it becomes evident that the 'true' sculpture evokes feelings that the excellent modern work does not.

This not simply a matter of aesthetics as conventionally understand. Some of the most exquisite works of Buddhist art are from the Gandharan period. These refined pieces display the influence of classical Greek sculpture. Of unsurpassed beauty, they remain of this world. To my eyes at least, they do not manage to convey that extra-worldly dimension that their finest counterparts in Indian, Khmer, Thai, Tibetan, Chinese or Japanese Buddhist sculptures somehow realize.

These subtle issues of the Buddha images' spiritual aesthetic bear on the religious life of the most Buddhists only slightly. For few intentionally seek advance toward Nirvana through contemplation of Siddhartha's image. Ritual, virtuous deeds, ecstatic devotion, immersion in the learned texts are all avenues that the faithful can follow to find edification. Together they compose the rich legacy of a religion whose stringent eschatology is oddly permissive of a full range of spiritual practices. Siddhartha is a pervasive presence in all forms of Buddhist religious expression -- as guide, teacher, model, and icon. So, too, is his image. Through two and a half millennia, it has evolved as the visual expression of a multiform religious persona. Siddhartha could not avoid being cast as the incarnation and the embodiment of all truth. So he is the object of devotion for Buddhist's desiring inspiration, hope, consolation and wisdom as well as the ultimate release. The Buddha's teaching of transcendence of the world we experience did not preclude his prescribing principles for the virtuous life. Like the other great sages of the Axial Age. His abiding concern was the well being of all humanity while in this mortal coil even as we navigate the path that leads beyond it.

The following sequence of Buddha sculptures illustrates the text.