Works of Buddhist art and architecture, in addition to having cultic use and artistic value, also enjoy prominence in the national heritage of several Asian countries regardless of the following Buddhism presently enjoys in each. While rooted in the millenary process of the formation of national cultures, this prominence is more immediately the outcome of archaeological investigations, architectural restorations, and museum collections that were initiated in the late 19th century by colonial officials, and royal commissioners in independent Siam and Japan, and continued by postcolonial governments, often with international support. The examination of Buddhist art and architecture as vehicles of national memory-making can be framed conceptually by the dialectical tension between their cult value as continuing foci of devotion and their exhibition value as evidence of cultural achievement. Four aspects of this productive tension are emphasized: the foundational tension in Buddhism between the doctrine of impermanence and the cult of relics; the tension between Buddhist monuments as elements of the diffuse sacred landscape and, conversely, of individual countries’ historical landscape; the tension between the place and reception of buddha images in the temple and, instead, in the museum; and finally, the tension between the traditional pious care for Buddhist monuments and their modern, scientific conservation. Owing to these productive tensions, works of Buddhist art and architecture continue to generate spiritual, cultural, and social meanings—in particular identitarian and mnemonic associations—even though in multiethnic and multireligious societies, these meanings are not uncontested.
Art, Architecture, and National Memory-Making
Buddhism and Media
Scott A. Mitchell
Many approaches to the study of Buddhism and media overlap with traditional Buddhist studies methods such as textual analysis, art theory, ethnography, and ritual studies, as well as studies of material culture. Media studies may concern itself with contemporary media messages and forms, but it need not be limited to the realms of mass media and popular culture. In foregrounding media and material cultural, scholars can trace the development and flow of Buddhism as a global religion and cultural phenomenon. Such studies also invariably draw attention to the lived aspects of the religion: How do Buddhists enact or perform Buddhism? How do Buddhists communicate ideas about Buddhism both to other Buddhists as well as to outsiders? And how do these communicative acts change one’s understanding of Buddhism? Such questions go beyond the merely textual, historical, or philosophical and call us to answer deeper questions about the nature of Buddhism in the contemporary, global age.
Buddhism in Film
Sharon A. Suh
Film serves as one of the most recent contributions to the variety of Buddhist visual forms that can offer a perspectival shift in interpretation for its viewers akin to other meditative devices such as mandalas. As a relatively recent subject of study, Buddhist films present innovative opportunities to visualize the Buddha, Buddhism, and the self in nuanced ways. Buddhist film can be understood as a spiritual technology that reshapes vision, and the act of viewing becomes a ritual process and contemplative practice. Ranging from films with an explicitly Buddhist theme and content to more abstract films without obvious Buddhist references, Buddhist films have become the subject of scholarly studies of Buddhism as well as occasions to reimagine Buddhism on and off screen. Buddhist films found in Asia and the West have proliferated globally through the rise of international Buddhist film festivals over the past fifteen years that have increased both the interest in Buddhism and the field of Buddhism and film itself. Most studies of Buddhism in film indicate that what constitutes a Buddhist film continually evolves and, as such, can be seen as a contemporary instantiation of the skillful means of the Buddha.
Buddhist Wall Paintings
Sonya S. Lee
Wall paintings are integral to the built environment of the Buddhist world. Images of deities, celestial spheres, and biographical narratives of all sorts constitute an integral part of Buddhist architecture, serving as the material and conceptual interfaces between art, society, and the ecosystem that link their viewers to the world they live in and realms in their imagination. Buddhist wall paintings are meant to make abstract doctrines and concepts comprehensible through visual means while promoting key moral lessons to devotees in vivid and memorable ways. They provide donors with an opportunity to express piety and accumulate merit for creating a beautiful home for the Buddha that would enable his followers to follow his footsteps and at the same time impress nonbelievers. Though far from a vehicle of individualism, the medium of wall painting challenges artists to be innovative with age-old iconographic formulae and compositional schemes in order to make the tradition anew for their own time and place. This important artistic medium developed in tandem with the emergence of Buddhism as a world religion during the 1st millennium ce. To underscore the remarkable flexibility that Buddhist concepts and practices exhibited as they were adapted into disparate local cultures, the present study will focus on major sites in the Taklamakan and Gobi Deserts in China to explore the inter- and intraregional connections in the dissemination of Buddhist wall painting across Eurasia.
Michelle C. Wang
The oasis city of Dunhuang lies at the eastern end of the southern Silk Routes, in Gansu Province in northwestern China. In the 2nd century BCE, Dunhuang was established by the Chinese Han dynasty as a center for military operations and trade. Over time, Dunhuang became an important hub for multicultural trade as well as for the transmission of commodities, ideas, and religions. The status of Dunhuang as an important regional center for Buddhism is demonstrated by a wealth of paintings and manuscripts that provide crucial insights into the unfolding of religious praxis and developments in visual culture over many centuries. A few centuries after the establishment of Dunhuang as a military garrison, the construction of cave shrines in the area began. Four major groups of cave shrines were constructed in the Dunhuang region: the Mogao, Yulin, and Western Thousand Buddhas caves, and the Five Temples site. The most well-studied of these are the Mogao 莫高, or “peerless,” cave shrines, which are located 25 kilometers southeast of Dunhuang at the eastern edge of Mount Mingsha 鳴沙山 (Mountain of the Singing Sands). From the 4th to the 14th centuries, 492 man-made caves were carved from the sandstone cliffs, stretching 1,680 meters from south to north. They were painted with over 45,000 square meters of mural paintings and installed with more than 2,000 painted clay sculptures. To the north, 248 additional caves were carved. Mostly unadorned, the northern caves served as habitation chambers for monks. In addition to the mural paintings and inscriptions in the Mogao caves, more than 50,000 manuscripts and portable paintings were discovered in 1900 by the caretaker and Daoist priest Wang Yuanlu 王圓籙 from one cave, numbered Mogao cave 17, popularly though perhaps problematically known as the “library cave.” These objects were dispersed in the early 20th century to library and museum collections, the most prominent of which are the Stein collection in the British Museum, British Library, the National Museum of India, and the Pelliot collection in the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet and Bibliothèque Nationale de France. For this reason, the study of Dunhuang art and material culture encompasses both objects held in museum and library collections worldwide as well as mural paintings and sculptures located in situ in the cave shrines. Bringing these two bodies of material into conversation with one another enables a nuanced understanding of Dunhuang as a religious and artistic center, focusing in particular on the Mogao caves.
At the turn of the 20th century, a small, walled-up cave was discovered by Daoist monk Wang Yuanlu王圆禄on the Buddhist site of the Thousand Buddha Caves, or Mogao Caves, located near Dunhuang (in the present-day Chinese province of Gansu). The room revealed a huge cache of manuscripts dating from the late 4th century up to the beginning of 11th century; the time around which it was probably sealed off. Although it also contained a smaller number of drawings, paintings, textiles, and other artifacts, the secret repository is popularly referred to as the “Library Cave” or “Cave 17” after the number that the explorer Marc Aurel Stein assigned to it. The oasis town of Dunhuang was once positioned at a strategic point on the Silk Road. The manuscripts found in Cave 17 reflect the multicultural nature of the region through the range of languages represented and the variety of subject matters covered. They were written in Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and other ancient Central Asian languages. Although they are primarily Buddhist texts, there are also secular manuscripts, such as letters and contracts, along with a minority of manuscripts showcasing other religions. For these reasons, as well as the relative scarcity of materials surviving from the period, the Dunhuang manuscripts have revolutionized the understanding of medieval China and Central Asia. A whole academic discipline, Dunhuangology, or Dunhuang studies, has developed around them. They open a window into the wider religious and secular worlds of the Silk Road, constituting a major resource for various research fields, including history, Buddhism, linguistics, science, literature, and manuscript studies.
Holy Books and Manuscripts
Mikeal C. Parsons
Most religious traditions venerate a certain corpus of writings as authoritative for the beliefs, practices, doctrine, and ethics of that community. Often that corpus is a closed canon of sacred texts collected in one document that may be accompanied by traditions of interpretive strategies, which in turn may be formal and written, ad hoc and oral, or some combination of the two. Reverence for those writings often manifested itself in the care of and attention to the ongoing production of those texts. Illustrations, illuminations, or decorative designs frequently accompanied the reproduction of the text, further revealing the devotion to and reverence for the community’s holy book. Judaism and Christianity are two such religious traditions, and their adherents are often called “people of the Book.” Manuscripts (in particular illuminated ones) played a crucial role in establishing and sustaining the religious authority of the Bibles of Judaism and, especially, of Christianity.
Imaging the Buddha in South Asia
The image of the Buddha appeared in the north of the South Asian subcontinent around the 1st century ce, following a period when no actual representation had been produced. Detailed considerations on how to represent this human being who had reached the highest spiritual plane are clearly illustrated in the highly elaborate portrayal in the literary sources and led to the visual formulation of an image based on strict iconographic rules, texts and art being both sides of the same issue. The texts include lengthy lists of either thirty-two or eighty marks that characterize the body of the Buddha, some being actually seen in the visual depiction, such as the tuft of hair between the eyebrows, the protuberance on the head, and the webbed hands, all of which contribute to the manifestation of a metamorphosed body that can become a powerful source of magic. This image does not stand on its own but is 1ed in a set of motifs—the throne, the nimbus, the aura, the lotusseat—that bring out the supramundane nature of the Buddha; further additions were to be the crown and the necklace, transforming the simple monk into a king. The various gestures that the Buddha displays reflect different aspects of his personality, as protector, as paradigm of generosity, as the ultimate teacher. Elements such as the monachal robe or hair style showed up in various forms in the early phase; however, the stylistic evolution progressively led to a uniformized figure that appeared in the 4th–5th century and became standardized in South Asia before finding its way to faraway regions. This figure was also used to represent the Buddhas of the past or the Tathāgathas and became the visual element unifying all Buddhist schools.
The spread of Buddhism across Asia has been studied mainly from a perspective focusing on the transmission through the overland routes popularly known as “Silk Roads” and emphasizing Central Asia as an important transit corridor and contact zone between South and East Asia. However, recent scholarship has increasingly recognized the significant role played by the sea routes or maritime “Silk Roads” in shaping premodern intra-Asian connectivity. This has paved the way for an appreciation of the important contribution of the southern rim of Asia—especially South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia—to the genesis, transformation, and circulation of various forms of Buddhism. Evidence of the long-distance transfer of Buddhism from its northeastern Indian cradle to the outlying regions of South India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and China via the maritime routes goes back to the early centuries of the Current Era. From the 5th century onward, written and material vestiges from the southern rim of Asia became more substantial, testifying to an efflorescence of long-distance maritime contacts that were to last several centuries. As is shown by textual, epigraphic, and art historical materials—including icons, ritual accoutrements, dhāraṇīs, manuscripts, and monuments—Buddhist cults, imaginaries, and ritual technologies flourished across the vast swathe of littoral, island, and hinterland territory that can be conceptualized as the sociospatial grouping of “Maritime Asia.” Buddhist vestiges recovered from the Indian Subcontinent littorals, Sri Lanka, the Maldives Islands, peninsular and coastal mainland Southeast Asia, and what are now called the Indonesian Archipelago and the Philippine islands, speak in favor of the existence of pervasive and sustained multidirectional Buddhist exchanges among interconnected nodes linking South Asia and the Western Indian Ocean to China, Korea, and Japan through the maritime routes. A polycentric, geographically wide, and maritime-based approach is necessary to fully appreciate how religious, mercantile, and diplomatic networks acted as catalysts for transmission of Buddhism far and wide across Asia over nearly two millennia.
Music: Sacred Genres From the Renaissance to Modern
Christine Suzanne Getz
Prior to the 16th-century Reformation, sacred music was defined by its role in Catholic liturgical and devotional practice. The liturgy of the Renaissance and early modern Mass and canonical hours (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, and Compline) was delivered largely in plainchant but was ornamented with improvised and composed polyphony. Although such polyphony took a variety of forms, the dominant genres comprised polyphonic settings of liturgical texts from the Mass, as well as other liturgical, paraliturgical, and biblical texts, many of them taken from the canonical hours. In these compositions, both musical and extramusical devices were appropriated for their symbolic or rhetorical potential to convey meaning, resulting in a complex intersection of the sacred and secular in terms of not only content, but also performance venue. Efforts to educate the laity, especially during the post-Tridentine era, resulted in the development of repertoire associated with the Triduum, including Lamentation cycles and dramatic music, as well new genres for performance at Vespers and in private devotions. They further led to the proliferation of simple, easily memorized songs that served to reinforce the teaching of doctrine. Although polyphony associated with the Catholic tradition and the practice of psalm singing traversed confessional boundaries, the Calvinist emphasis on the metrical psalm, the Lutheran reliance on congregational singing, and the Anglican adoption of the Book of Common Prayer gave rise to the distinctive repertoire of the Reformation. With the advent of the public concert in the 18th century, sacred genres that had dominated the Renaissance and early modern era were adapted to the concert hall and stage. There they were received within the theoretical, philosophical, and political contexts of the Cecilian movement, the Tudor revival, the French Schola Cantorum tradition, and 19th-century nationalist strains. Catholic and Protestant religious music, including cathedral music in the New Spain and psalm singing in New England, was redefined through transatlantic interaction during the European colonization of the Americas. It further was defined by musical genres such as the spiritual and gospel that emerged through the worship of Black communities.
Narratives of Buddhist Relics and Images
Stephen C. Berkwitz
Relics and images of the Buddha and of other awakened beings occupy important places in ritual practice throughout the Buddhist world. Their significance and sacrality are evidenced by the numerous written and oral narratives that have been composed by Buddhist authors and storytellers to describe how they were obtained and what makes them special. Buddhist narratives on relics and images are mainly found outside of the tradition’s canonical literature, either as discrete texts or as sections in larger works. These narratives often supply explanations as to why certain relics shrines and images are worthy of veneration and can be sites for authorizing power and political status. The written and oral narratives about these allegedly extraordinary objects typically include material concerning the origins of revered relics and images linked to the Buddha or other awakened saints, as well as narratives that prophesy and recount how such special objects were found in their present locations and came to be worshipped by devotees. Such textual sources also often associate particular relics and images with the authority of a ruler or a monastic community that possessed them. It seems clear that the more important a given relic or image is for a Buddhist community, the more likely that it will have a narrative that is used to help locate this object in time and space for devotees to understand and worship it properly. In sum, these narratives play a critical role in endowing relics and images with their extraordinary natures and important roles in the devotional and political spheres of Buddhist communities across Asia.
Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist Guardian Deities: Satara Varan Devi
Sree Padma and John Holt
Satara varan devi, in the Sinhala language of Sri Lanka, refers to the four guardian deities of the Buddhist kingdoms of Sri Lanka. It is a phrase that first appears in inscriptions at Buddhist temples in the 15th-century Sri Lankan upcountry region of Gampola to denote the protective gods of the divine hierarchy who have been warranted with powers by the Buddha to not only protect the kingdom as a whole, but to provide for this-worldly well-being of individual Buddhist devotees as well. In ensuing centuries, the identities of deities constituting the satara varan devi varied from era to era and from place to place. Moreover, the identities of these deities were often composite conflations of a number of collateral deity traditions. The singular popularity of each of these deities for many devotees continues to form a significant presence in contemporary iterations of Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist religious culture. Each are regarded as Buddhist deities, even though the origins of most can be traced to Brahmanical beginnings in India. Even so, most Sinhala Buddhists would be surprised to learn that worship of Vishnu, for instance, originated in India, since he is so well known in Sri Lanka as the guardian of the Buddhasasana (Buddhist tradition). Antecedent constructions of four guardian deities appear in earlier Vedic, Buddhist, and Puranic schemes that were articulated in the earlier history of Indian religions. These various constructions not only served the function of protecting temples, cities, regions, and, in the case of early Buddhism, the Buddha himself in cosmically configured contexts, but they also reflect the way in which deities from non-Vedic, non-Puranic, and non-Buddhist origins were also assimilated and subordinated, perhaps mirroring social and political processes that were historically in play. Comparatively, analogous but not identical processes of incorporation or assimilation can also be seen within the contexts of other Theravada Buddhist-dominated religious cultures: how the Burmese have enfolded nats (mostly euhemeristic, but some Hindu deities), how the Thai and Lao have enveloped phi (various spirits or powers of place and space), and how the Khmer have embraced the worship of neak ta (again, spirits or powers of place and space). In each of these other Theravada Buddhist cultural contexts, important Brahmanic deities have also been absorbed and their significance reframed. In Mahayana contexts, other Buddhists have similarly accommodated the worship of non-Buddhist indigenous deities in Japan (kami), in Tibet (bon), and in China (Taoist and Confucian supernaturals, in addition to deities of the Chinese folk traditions).