Buddhism is the oldest of all the major religions practised around the world in the twenty-first century. It was established by Shakyamuni (Sage of the Shaka clan), also named Siddhartha (He who has accomplished his objective) and Buddha (Enlightened awakening), who lived from the mid sixth to the early fifth century BCE. Born the son of the ruler of the kingdom of Kapilavastu, located just north of the current India–Nepal border, Shakyamuni had a privileged upbringing, shielded from suffering and difficulties. At the age of twenty-nine, while journeying beyond the palace walls, the young prince is said to have had four life-changing experiences: he encountered an old man; a sick man; a corpse; and a wandering holy man, known as a Brahman, seeking a deeper understanding of life. Emotionally moved by these four meetings, Shakyamuni left the protective confines of the palace, cut his long hair, exchanged his garments with those of a poor street person and pursued studies alongside Brahman sages in a quest to escape the relentless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
For six years, in an attempt to learn humility and rid himself of desire, Shakyamuni engaged in the practices of self-starvation and self-infliction of pain that included lying on a bed of thorns. After arriving at few answers from these extreme activities, and to the dismay of fellow ascetics, Shakyamuni decided to engage in the passive practice of meditation. Through meditation he discovered what his followers would come to know as the Middle Way – a path of moderation in opposition to the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. At this defining moment, at the age of thirty-five, he sat in meditation for forty-nine days under a Bodhi tree, finally detached himself from all worldly desires and obtained enlightenment.
By understanding this arduous quest to obtain enlightenment, we too can gain an appreciation of the elation, sense of liberation and release from mental emancipation that Buddha must have experienced at this moment of self-reckoning. We can envisage the corners of his lips gently raising to create a serene smile, the smile that has become universally synonymous with Buddha. An extract from The legend of Ashoka – the great ruler and unifier of India – provides further understanding of this moment of great importance to Buddhist devotees and Buddhist art:
The Buddha smiled and varicoloured rays of light extended from the smile, up to the gods in heaven and down to the various hells, where warmth brought relief to those suffering in the cold hells and its coolness brought relief to those in the hot hells.
Adaptation from The Legend of King Ashoka (2nd century CE)
The Legend of King Asoka was composed in Sanskrit some four to five hundred years after the king’s death. It tells the story of how Asoka, a convert from Jainism to Buddhism, installed Buddhism as a state religion throughout India during the third century BCE. He sent Buddhist missionaries not only to the nearby regions known today as Kashmir and Afghanistan but also as far afield as Syria, Egypt and Greece. This early transmigration of Buddhist philosophy was soon followed by the transmission of Hinayana (Small vehicle) Buddhism, or Theravada Buddhism, to Sri Lanka, Burma and the rest of South-East Asia; and the introduction of Mahayana (Great vehicle) Buddhism to China via central Asian trade routes in the first century, and to Korea and Japan in the sixth century. From Nepal and China during the seventh century Buddhism was introduced to Tibet, where a specific school of Buddhism, known as Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, became widely practised.
Buddhist iconography was spread via these transmigratory paths. The earliest Buddhist imagery did not show the founder, but rather images associated with him; for example, the Bodhi tree under which he obtained enlightenment; a footprint; a stupa; a throne; and a wheel with eight spokes that represented the eightfold path to enlightenment. It was not until the first century CE that two distinct styles of images of the Buddha himself emerged. One in the kingdom of Gandhara (now north-west Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan), and the other in the area of Mathura (northern central India). While Gandhara images of Buddha were strongly influenced by Graeco-Roman traditions brought to the subcontinent by Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE), Mathura images were influenced by earlier Indian folk culture and imagery of Hindu gods.
These two original physical interpretations of Buddha were gradually transmitted throughout Asia, journeying thousands of miles and being exposed to generations of reinterpretation and a mosaic of cultural influences. Local artisans were employed to create Buddhist devotional objects that in turn perpetuated the ongoing evolution of Buddha’s image and his philosophies. In central Asia, caves were dug in hillsides in which Buddhist sculptures were formed from brick foundations, covered with moulded straw, mud and stucco and then colourfully painted. In China, monumental grottos with sculptures were carved into stone cliffs. In Japan, skilled wood carvers created graceful likenesses of Buddha and his numerous incarnations of Bodhisattvas from cypress. In Burma and other areas of South-East Asia, people’s familiarity with bamboo weaving and lacquering resulted in the creation of distinct regional styles of Buddhist iconography, and in Tibet, Thailand and surrounding areas, metal and bronze workers created regionally distinct styles of Buddhist art.
Regionally specific craft skills, such as textile or ceramic production, were employed to produce Buddhist items of veneration, adornment and decoration. Outstanding examples include intricate double-ikat dyed cloths, painted story hangings and embroidered textiles from South-East Asia and luxuriant silk and guilt thread brocade monk’s robes created in Japan. The refined porcelain traditions of China led to the production of small delicate figures and bowls, some pure white or green and others with overglazed enamel colours. Furthermore, the scholarly practices of bush-and-ink painting in China and Japan found new and philosophically compatible subjects in Buddhist iconography and the bold visual expressions of Buddhist ideals in Zen paintings.
To this day, the ideas and practices that Shakyamuni established 2600 years ago remain relevant to countless people and continue to influence artists and creators. Takashi Murakami references the Japanese tradition of Zen painting to create his manga-inspired mixed-media works using woodblock print, silkscreen print and platinum leaf. The Chinese-Australian artist Liu Xiaoxian has used Photoshop and digital printing to create his large interfaith dialogue Our Gods, Laughing Buddha, 2000. Yoon Kwang-cho employed the Korean ceramic traditions of earthenware with a slip-glazing to create his Vase, Impermanence, 1991. Sopheap Pich employed South-East Asian historical bamboo crafting skills to form his tactile Figure, 2010, and the Australian artist Tim Johnson references Indigenous dot painting and his interests in tantric meditation in his mesmerising mindscape Imitating art, 2005.
From the sixth century BCE to the present, Buddha’s spirit has transcended time and geography in many forms, such as the hand gestures, abstract forms, written scripts, illustrated narratives, devotional objects and symbolic pictorial elements on display in the Buddha’s Smile exhibition. The oldest and purest transmission of Buddha’s revelation of enlightenment, however, might found in the simple gesture of a smile.