The Buddha FAQ: Answers to your top 10 questions about Buddhist art

Mia recently revamped its display of Buddhist temple sculpture, in Gallery 200 on the second floor, with the help of dozens of art fans who sent us their questions about Buddhist art. We condensed the list, had our fans rank their favorites, and asked Aaron Rio, Mia’s A.W. Mellon Assistant Curator of Japanese and Korean Art, to respond. Here’s the top 10.

1. How was Buddhist art expressed differently across cultures, geographies, and languages? And what factors led to those differences? (Asked by Ian)

Buddhist artists used common conventions when depicting buddhas and other deities, but oftentimes expressed them in a style that reflected local tastes. The selection of artworks in Mi’s Buddhist sculpture gallery demonstrates the stylistic diversity of Buddhist art. We strongly encourage you to visit the exhibition and get a closer look at the sculptures yourself.

As for languages, linguistic differences also depend on geography. In much of Asia, Buddhist scriptures are read in ancient Indic languages (e.g., Sanskrit), whereas in China, Korea, and Japan, scriptures are more commonly read in Chinese. Other cultures also translated Buddhist scripture into local languages. Nevertheless, Sanskrit across all Buddhist cultures remains the sacred language of Buddhism. A single sacred Sanskrit character can stand in for a deity, for example.

2. What is the role of women and children in Buddhism? (Asked by R. Freese)

Seated figure of a bodhisattva Guanyin.

Seated figure of a bodhisattva Guanyin.

Let’s talk about these roles in the creation of art, in temple life, and in Buddhist icons.

For whatever reason, men have tended to be more visible in Buddhism. Nevertheless, women have always been important patrons of Buddhist art. The creation and commissioning of art is a religious act in itself that reaps good karma in this and subsequent lifetimes.

As for temples, monastic life has not been limited to men. Nuns have abounded throughout the history of Buddhism, and many have played crucial roles in the spread of Buddhism and temple life itself.

Finally, images of buddhas and bodhisattvas often represent the deities as male, but not always. The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (you may know this deity by its Chinese name, Guanyin) is often represented as a mustachioed man with long hair and flowing robes, but there are also several forms that present as female. One of these forms is widely worshipped in East and Southeast Asia as a protector of mothers during childbirth.

3. Do Buddhists who practice today revere these old pieces or prefer more contemporary interpretations? (Asked by Wendy)

Yes and no. A devotional image is sacred regardless of the time period in which it was created. A 2,000-year-old sculpture has no more religious significance than one made yesterday. Both are consecrated in a ritual that is believed to “activate” the works. New or old, they embody the deity represented. That said, an old icon will of course have more historical and artistic significance. To some believers, that may make it seem more sacred.

4. What did the Buddha have to say about age and death? Is it shown in art? (Asked by Daniel)

The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, was born a prince and spent the early years of his life leading a secluded, privileged lifestyle. At age 29, he set out on a rare outing from the palace, and discovered a sick man, an aged man, and a dead person. These three realities of human life—sickness, aging, and death—he came to understand as the unavoidable forms of human suffering. He spent the rest of his life exploring, discovering, and teaching how humans can escape them. This is the core of Buddhism: doing what you can to escape rebirth so you don’t have to suffer anymore.

As to whether it’s shown in art, yes, there are lots of images of death, aging, and other forms of suffering in the history of Buddhist art, particularly in works that present or portray Buddhist hells.

5. What do the hand gestures on the Buddha statues indicate? (Asked by Adele)

Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light

Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light.

Lots of things. There are numerous hand gestures, called mudra in Sanskrit. Some commonly seen examples include preaching, welcoming, and calling the earth to witness.

6. I would like to know more about specific Hindu influences on Buddhist art. (Asked by Gena)

One example of Hinduism’s impact on Buddhist art is the existence of hybrid or appropriated deities. Brahma, a commonly known Hindu deity, for example, was adopted by Buddhism as a subsidiary, protective deity. There are a number of similar examples of Hindu gods being adopted into the Buddhist pantheon.

7. What do the head bump, long ears, and third eye mean on Buddha’s imagery? (Asked by Maureen)

I’ve never wanted to answer a question more. These are all markers of buddhahood. The protrusions on buddhas’ and bodhisattvas’ heads, called ushnisha, represent the larger brains of enlightened beings. The distended earlobes hearken to the Buddha’s years as a prince, when he wore heavy, bejeweled ear ornaments. The long ears are visible reminders of the Buddha’s abandonment of worldly possessions and privileged life.

As for the third eye, it is an urna, a curl of hair that is sometimes interpreted as a third eye. In some Buddhist teachings, it is believed to be the source of a ray of light that the Buddha uses to reveal the universe.

8. What about Buddhism in America? (Asked by Mark)

The Buddha Manbaya.

The Buddha Manbaya.

Immigrants to the United States from places like China, Korea, and elsewhere in Asia brought Buddhist practices with them beginning in the 1800s. Buddhist teachings were also transmitted by figures like D.T. Suzuki (1894–1966), a Japanese scholar of Zen who was influential in spreading Zen Buddhism in the United States. There are also many spiritual practices prevalent in 21st-century society, such as meditation, that are derived from or are informed by Buddhism.

9. What’s the difference between a Buddha and a bodhisattva? (Asked by Alex)

A bodhisattva is a being who has achieved enlightenment but who remains in this world to aid sentient beings on the path toward salvation. This differentiates them from buddhas, who have attained enlightenment and achieved buddhahood, and thus exist in otherworldly realms.

The way you can tell a buddha from a bodhisattva is a buddha never wears bodily ornamentation, while bodhisattvas’ bodies are often heavily adorned.

10. How did the influence of Buddhist art change the course of Chinese and Japanese history—or vice versa? (Asked by Bryan)

The impact of Buddhism on the trajectory of Japanese history was immense. At various times during Japan’s history, beginning in the sixth century, waves of Buddhist teachings, practices, and scripture were brought to Japan from the Asian mainland. These religious practices were necessarily accompanied by new cultural, political, and artistic practices, all of which shaped Japan in fundamental ways.

The arrival of Zen to Japan from China in the 1200s, for example, introduced not only this Buddhist sect but also cultural practices such as ink painting, the drinking of powdered green tea, and painting formats like hanging scrolls—all things introduced from China that we now associate with traditional Japanese culture.

We’re happy to answer more questions—you can use the form on this page to submit them. And be sure to see the exhibition in Gallery 200. It’s Buddha-ful.

Top image: Detail of the head of a bodhisattva, made in China in the late 500s, acquired in 2017 by Mia.