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Buddhist Art, the Mission of Harmonious Culture


Jin Weinuo

The passage east and west of the Buddhist monks of antiquity caused the Silk Road to also become a thoroughfare of cultural interchange.

From the time that Emperor Ming of the Han dispatched Cai Yin and Qin Jing to India and the Indian monks Kashyapa-matange and Zhu Falan came to Luoyang, monks coming east to preach the Doctrine and those going west to seek the dharma formed a continuous procession. Buddhist devotees carried Buddhist scriptures from Gandhara and Kashmir to Khotan, Kucha and on to China in order to propagate the faith. During the Jin dynasty (ad 265-420) the famous Kucha monks Buddhacinga and Kumarajiva came to central China to preach, and Faxian of the Eastern Jin (317-420) and Xuanzang and Yijing of the Tang (618-906) journeyed west to seek the dharma, causing the cultural exchange between east and west to advance a step, greatly facilitating the evolution of eastern thought and culture.

From ad 67 to 220 some 292 works in 395 chapters were translated. In the south, during the Liu Song dynasty (420-78), 465 works in 717 chapters; during the Qi (479-501), 12 works in 33 chapters; during the Liang (502-56), 46 works in 201 chapters, and during the Chen (557-89), 40 works in 133 chapters: so in the south, in all 563 works in 1,084 chapters were translated. In the north, during the Northern Wei (386-535), 83 works in 274 chapters; during the Northern Qi (535-76), 8 works in 52 chapters; and during in the Northern Zhou (535-81), 14 works in 29 chapters: in all during the northern dynasties, 105 works in 355 chapters were translated. When, in 730, Zhisheng compiled his Kaiyuan shijiao lu (Record of the Sakya Teaching of the Kaiyuan Era) he listed 1,076 sutras in 5,048 chapters. Translations continued to be made subsequently. Further, Buddhist cave temples and monasteries spread everywhere. Indian and Central Asian thought and culture came with Buddhism and art and was influential in the broad reaches of China, and the peaceful contacts among the monks allowed Buddhist theories to develop into glorious achievements, while the Buddhist art which was present everywhere formed testimony to this harmonious friendship.

In the temple murals discovered at Miran, in Xinjiang Province, some at present are in the collection of the National Museum, New Delhi and from these murals one can see the influence of Gandhara art on the temple art of ancient Shanshan. Although some of it is in incised stone and some in stucco sculpture and murals, still in the close connection of the two in subject-matter and in modelling, they present a positive achievement in culture and harmonious interaction. In the murals one sees the depictions of winged angels, the overly generous Prince Sudana, the Buddha and his disciples, which cause one to associate these with the Buddhist doctrine of saving all beings, and the monks who paid no heed to hardships or the long journey, scaling mountains and crossing rivers to preach the Buddhist dharma with devotion and sincerity.

The art work in the Buddhist temples included those the content of which propagated the Buddhist religion, but there were also those which transmitted popular traditional stories. The Khotan painting of the story of the eastern princess who brought the silk cocoons to the western regions reflected regional friendly intercourse, and also marks the desire of the people for harmonious friendship. The princess and her attendant are completely dressed in Chinese attire, and this also from another viewpoint reflects a mutual cultural blending.

Buddhist art disseminated foreign philosophical thought and culture, as well as foreign conditions and customs, and at the same time established its roots in China and flourished, forming in the various areas a distinctive national art. With the propagation of Buddhism, there was an evolution of the cultural traditions of each place touched by the content of Buddhism, and at the same time Buddhist art was also changed by the regional geographical conditions and the aesthetic interests of the people of each place.

The desert region where the cave temples at Kucha were constructed did not have the sort of hard stone used for sculpture in South Asia, and so the local artists carved out forms of caves in the sandstone which were appropriate to sculpture and painting to develop a Buddhist art; and the cave with the central pillar, most popular in Kucha, was the style best suited to the soft sandstone there. The stucco sculpture of the Kucha caves, largely destroyed by natural disasters and by human agency, either no longer survives or has been taken abroad. Fragments of murals, however, still demonstrate the high level of material culture at Kucha and the very distinctive accomplishment of Kuchean art. Kucha dance and music became popular for a time in Tang China, and influenced and enriched eastern art, and what remains of the painting and sculpture demonstrates the high Kuchean artistic standards. The musicians of Cave 38 at Kyzyl and the bodhisattvas of Cave 22 at Qumtara are examples of Kuchean art. They reflect the actual nature of Kuchean music and also represent a new regional character in Buddhist art.

Khotan was an ancient state with a high degree of culture, and among the excavated articles of Buddhist art there are murals which are related to the establishment of the Khotanese state. At the site of one temple, to the left of a sculpture of Vaisravana is a painting of Srideva bathing in a lotus pond, and at the side is a small boy; this picture depicts the legend about the time when the king of Khotan had no heir and obtained the son of Vaisravana, who was nourished by the earth (a nipple emerge from the ground), and so handed on the state. The direct use of Srideva bringing up the infant in place of the ‘earth nipple’ of the legend shows much human feeling and is moving. Further, the beautiful appearance of Srideva in the painting and the close relationship between mother and child is most effective and moving.

The development of Buddhist art in different places and among different peoples of China produced a wide variety of artistic traditions. The temple murals of Guge, Tibet, are among the finest of the Tibetan paintings. The depiction of the celebration ceremony on the establishment of the temple in the Red Hall, Guge, depicts amidst the huge celebration the royal family, the guests and subjects, pictures various musical scenes, and shows the lively customs of the Guge society of that time; this work has the unique characteristics of the folk painting of the Tibetan people.

On account of influences from abroad, there were formed regional styles which created the very rich tradition of Chinese Buddhist art, manifesting endless and radiant stages. Developments over close to two thousand years in the area of art have revealed, in almost every period, outstanding achievements. In the Eastern Jin (317-420) there were Dai Kui and Dai Yu, father and son, whose sculptures, which ‘changed the foreign style to a Chinese one’, can be seen in gilded bronze examples from the Yuanjia era of 424-53, or Lu Tanwei of the Song (420-77), traces of whose art, characterized as ‘fine bones and lucid forms’, can be found among the sculptures at Maijishan and Dunhuang. ‘Fine bones and lucid forms’ did not refer only to the thinness of the images, but rather praised the nobility and purity of their inner qualities, and from this one can note the high artistic standards of the statues of that time. These are all outstanding examples of the adaptation of Buddhist imagery. The four famous schools in Buddhist art (Zhang, Cao, Wu and Zhou) represent the later models of different periods.

The art of the Liang (502-56) was based on that of the Song and Qi but was constantly changing, and the Zhang school which grew out of the Buddhist work of the famous artist Zhang Sengyou differed from the ‘fine bones and lucid images’, and tended toward plumpness and was considered the model of that age. The Sichuan Provincial Museum has a figure of the Buddha of 522, found at the site of the Wanfo Temple, with the Buddha standing on a double lotus pedestal. The halo is in the shape of a lotus petal, with long robes and broad sash, which flutter slightly to the left, with an appearance of advancing; at the two sides are four bodhisattvas, and then four disciples. At the two sides in front of the niche are two lokapalas. In front of the image of the Buddha are six musicians. On the mandorla are depicted stories of the Buddha in relief, and below are the names of the donors. The carving is very fine, the form full and rich, and it has a solemn and yet merciful quality. This sort of change in the sculpture and painting of the Zhang school of the Liang dynasty carries with it the influence of that cultural interchange, but even more important was the influence on the artists of actual life and popular taste. The individual styles of the artists, the regional characteristics, the style of the time, and the intertwined geography all combined to produce this richly varied artistry.

The loose and simple lines of the clothing of the images of the Northern Qi dynasty (550-77), the thin robes sticking to the skin, the whole body being smooth and slick, is of a piece with the tranquil and serene expression of the face. From the smooth body or the glossy clothing, it is as if one can feel the body slightly undulating. This lustrous appearance and the downward flowing lines allow the figure amidst a loose dullness to emit an inherent quality. Although the figure has no great dynamism, still it expresses a vigour which can be experienced and felt; there is no ornate ornamentation, and still with a natural and realistic technique, it causes the human image to have an even more realistic feel. This sort of smooth and simple style causes Northern Qi sculptural art to have its individuality and its bright clarity moves one.

The formation of the Northern Qi sculptural style was influenced by the art of earlier periods and there was also an element of regional interaction, but of course what was most important was the creativity of the artists of that time. The Cao school founded by Cao Zhongda of the Northern Qi had even more clearly its own characteristics, and it was said his figures ‘were clad in garments which clung to the body as if they were drenched in water’. The Cleveland Museum in the USA has a seated figure of the Amitabha Buddha, of the Sui-early Tang period, with a bare right shoulder, the folds of the robe close together, the variations in the pattern conveying the texture of the cloth, as well as the changing undulations of the muscles, and the body hidden under the thin robes is one of robust flesh and blood. There is a direct continuity between this one and the figures of the Tang period at Tianlongshan, which are clearly standard products of the Cao school. With the large number of Tianlongshan images which have that typical ‘clinging wet clothing’ characteristic of the Cao school, one has a profound sense that the Cao school’s portrayal of the beauty of the human body (both in spirit and in the flesh) has gone far beyond the search for the illusory Buddha nature.

The High Tang is the period of the popularity of the image of the Buddha as made by Wu Daozi; his distinguishing features, what came to be called the Wu school, were of whirlwind energy and vigorous forms which went beyond the ordinary. One can see the effects in the Dunhuang murals and in figures from various places. The depiction of the Maharaja-deva in the murals and on silk from Dunhuang illustrates the appearance of wind ruffled-clothing of the Wu school. The Shaanxi Provincial Museum has a standing figure of a Maharaja-deva in white marble, of which the head, left arm and right wrist are lost. The figure wears armour over a robe which trails behind to the ground. The movement of the figure is robust, its energy awesome; it represents the basic features of the Wu school.

Coming to the middle and late Tang, the creativity of the artist Zhou Fang led to austere but gentle figures which are termed to be of the Zhou school, and which extended to the Buddhist images of the late Tang and later. There were canonical standards and measurements for the making of images of the Buddha, but the influence of the aesthetic views of the time were also operative. The men and women in the paintings of Zhou Fang were for the most part plump, and the Buddhist figures which he made possessed the same characteristic, but he also created a distinctive and very beautiful figure of Guanyin gazing at the moon in the water (i.e., symbolizing the unreality of all phenomena). From the late Tang figure at Dunhuang and other places, one can clearly see examples of this type.

A new sort of figural style which emerged and became popular was the reflection of a transformation in the aesthetic ideal of the time, and at the same time it conversely could affect the common view of aesthetics. The emergence of the Zhou school had a lasting effect on popular taste. The popularity of the Buddhist images of the Zhou school not only met the aesthetic demands of the time but more importantly, Zhou Fang elevated and purified what contemporary society favoured, so that they sought plumpness in the outward form and looked more deeply for an inherent solemnity. He not only depicted the beauty of the bodhisattvas’ appearance but also concentrated on depicting the inherent benevolence of their attempt to save all living beings. Because of this the Buddhist images which he created were able to be worshipped by the monks and could also be loved and venerated by ordinary laymen. The figure of the Buddha is awe-inspiring and sacred, and its kindness is moving. The artist must deal with its awesomeness and its kindness or benevolence, which are completely different, and even mutually cancelling elements, and still meld them together, so that the Buddha has an external image of gravity and an inner store of kindness. Therefore gravity should not be fearful, and the kindness cannot be offensive. In depicting the ideal Buddha one must be good at embodying the Buddha nature and good at depicting that sort of extraordinary sacredness which is yet able to move the heart of man. The ability of the images of the Zhou school to be moving perhaps was precisely that while seeking to bring out Buddha nature, they created a type of Buddha image in which benevolence was nestled within the beauty of its solemnity.

A standing bodhisattva of the middle Tang (766-820) in the collection of the Lushun Museum in Liaoning, of wood and painted, has a lotus crown. Swirling sashes hang from the shoulders, there is a full chin and thin eyebrows, and a downward glance. The upper torso is bare, it wears a brooch, the left hand holds a fluttering heavenly robe in two fingers while the right hand is raised upwards, the thumb and middle fingers forming a circle (the vitarka mudra). The figure has graceful and elegant secular female characteristics, and yet it has a solemn and quiet religious mood.

Buddhist images are required to display the thirty-two lakshanas and eighty notable physical characteristics of the Buddha, to seek dignity, a singular superbness, in order to embody all excellences and good fortune and virtue, and still to give shape to one’s own individual aesthetic view. The Buddhist idea of aesthetics, during its two thousand years of development, was enriched continuously by the artists of each period. The outstanding artists then maintained the admirable tradition of the previous age and went on to turn their minds to expressing a specific aesthetic ideal in the process of seeking to paint or to carve different personalities. And these aesthetic ideals were manifested precisely in the dialectical process of displaying the Buddha nature by the sculptors or artists who were imbued with those ideals.

The attempt to paint and sculpt the many types of human characteristics among the Buddhist images on the one hand reflected the perceptive observation of society by the artists, an intimate knowledge of customs and practices, and this circuitously reflected ability of realism which enriched Buddhist art caused the it to permeate society even more. And so the rich images in the caves and temples of China reveal a tangible view of the development of Buddhist art over more than a thousand years, and the age-old examples of this exquisite art are an extremely important treasure for searching out the artistic creations and experiences of men of the past.

Peace and friendship are important topics within Chinese Buddhist art. For example, the depiction of the Western Paradise reflects aspirations for a peaceful and prosperous life; the depiction of society’s hardships then reflects the search for peace and stability.

In cave 127 at Maijishan, of the Western Wei, there is a Western Paradise scene; aside from the three holy ones of the Western Paradise (Amitabha, Guanyin and Mahasthamaprapta), lohans and disciples, and the populace listening to the dharma, in the painting there are also pavilions and kiosks, balustrades and pools, dancers and musicians. At Dunhuang, in a Sui dynasty depiction of the Western Paradise, aside from the Buddha preaching beneath the jewel-tree and canopy, in the Seven-Jewelled Pond lotus flowers open wide, youths born of the flowers pay homage, while ducks frolic in the water, heavenly musicians soar about, it is a joyful scene. With the spread of Pure Land Buddhism among the people, many murals depicting the Western Pure Land appeared in cave temples and monasteries during the Tang — at Dunhuang these are the most numerous among the murals which are based on the sutras, over a hundred. Depicting what is said in the Amitayus Sutra, ‘There are the Seven Jewel Pool, the Water of the Eight Lakes of Meritorious Deeds, the Golden Sands which cover the earth, and the gold, silver and coloured glazed stairway. . . . In the pool the lotus flowers are as large as wheels, all sorts of exotic multi-coloured birds, a breeze rustles the Treasure Trees producing a marvellous sound.’ This sort of picture of the Western Paradise ‘without the sufferings of all, only receiving the many pleasures’, came to completion in the early Tang. In Cave 220 at Dunhuang, dated ad 624, in front of Amida Buddha, Guanyin and Mahasthamaprapta, who sit in a pavilion at the Jewel Pond, is outlined a balustrade with worshipping bodhisattvas paying homage. In front of the pond on a coloured glazed surface are symmetrical groups of dancers and two apsaras dance with orchestral accompaniment opposite each other, their movements are lively, and their robes swirl about. At the top of the painting is a decorated hall and a jewelled canopy, with drifting clouds and flying flowers, and heavenly drums harmonize, presenting a propitious atmosphere of dancing, singing and peacefulness. This dated early Tang depiction of the Pure Land paradise is the largest mural preserved in the Mogao Caves, and it is typical in the beauty of its composition and the fineness of its drawing. The depictions of the Pure Land paradise reflect the aspirations of the people of the time for peace and happiness.

At the time of the popularity of scenes from the Lotus Sutra, at the Mogao Caves there appeared individual mural panels which depict a single chapter of the sutra; the ‘Guanshiyin pumen pin’ on the south wall of Cave 45 is one of the most typical of the Tang. In the middle of this mural is painted a standing figure of Guanshiyin Bodhisattva, and on both sides are small paintings in many layers, illustrating the 33 incidents of Guanyin appearing to save others from dangers and difficulties. Among these are depicted how merchants upon encountering bandits escaped the danger, or those placed in cangues were freed, or when boats encountered an evil wind the seas were calmed, and so on, and the depictions of the people were so vivid. These pictures of calamities and dangers on the one hand depicted how helpless one was in the face of real difficulties and yet reflected how at the time one could only place all one’s hopes on an entreaty for harmony and stability.

Harmony is that for which man in every age has hoped, and to obtain peace it is necessary that people the world over strive for it together.

Chinese Buddhist art was affected by influences which came from the east, and at the same time there were also influences from neighbouring states; and these influences greatly enriched and broadened the content of eastern culture and art and at the same time achieved great success. The effect which the Buddhist monks had on cultural exchange might serve precisely as a model for the exchange of peace and friendship of the people of all countries. In these new times how we might advance cultural exchange between the various countries and bring ever-increasing progress and prosperity within a peaceful environment is that to which we ought to strive all together.


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