Richard Cooler, Professor Emeritus, Art History

Northern Illinois University


Buddhism can be seen as a reform of earlier Hindu beliefs, although the Buddha never considered himself a "reformer" as such.  Buddhism retained the Hindu ideas of circular time, Samsara, and Karma, as well as a belief in the merit path to salvation (Nirvana).  Buddhism rejected the Hindu belief in a vast pantheon of gods, the need to make religious images, and the use of magical formulas, drugs, etc.  Also rejected was the Hindu belief that priests had to conduct rituals and intercede on the behalf of devotees.  Instead, the Buddha professed that every human as a result of their own merit making efforts and deeds, was capable (at least in theory) of attaining Nirvana, just as he had done (without being reborn as a god as in Hinduism).  (A Buddhist monk, however, has the most realistic chance of attaining Nirvana because he has turned his full existence toward achieving Nirvana).




Gautama Buddha was born c.560 BCE in the city of Kapilavastu (located in present-day southern Nepal).  He was born a prince, and lived an elite existence until, at the age of 30, he saw evidence of suffering.  His conversion came about when he saw “The Four Great Sights” that led him to the conclusion that all human life is suffering.  These four sights were: a man suffering from illness, a man suffering from the infirmities of old age, a corpse, and a Hindu ascetic who had given his life to discovering the cause of human suffering.  He then renounced everything in order to answer the question of why mankind must suffer.  He discovered the answer to this question (known as Enlightenment or Nirvana) under the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, India.  After sharing this discovery in his First Sermon in the Deer Park at Sarnarth, the Buddha wandered on foot through the small kingdoms along the middle Ganges River where he preached until his death, around 480 BCE.  Buddhists celebrate the Four Great Events of Buddha’s Life because they are proof that Enlightenment or Nirvana can be achieved by humans in like manner.  Consequently, these events are frequently depicted in Buddhist art:


1.       The Birth - Buddha’s mother dreamt that she would give birth to an extraordinary child who would become a world emperor, known as a Chakravartin.  The Buddha was born from his mother’s right side while she stood in Lumpini Park and held the branch of a tree.  This is the position in which fertility goddesses were sculpturally represented in ancient India.  At birth, the Buddha was not a baby but a small boy who could already walk and talk.  Immediately after his birth, he reportedly took seven steps and said, "I will not be born again"- foretelling his future enlightenment during this lifetime.


2.       The Enlightenment - After the Buddha saw the four sights, he renounced his life and possessions as a prince, left the palace and wandered in northern India with a band of ascetics who were also seeking to discover why man must suffer.  He abandoned their extreme practices after collapsing from starvation due to extreme fasting.  He then started alone on the Middle Path rather than following any extreme spiritual regimen.  After 30 days and nights of meditation alone under the Bodhi tree, he discovered why mankind suffers.  He then formalized his discovery as the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.  Since Enlightenment was the most important event in the Buddha’s life (and also for mankind), it is the most frequently represented event in Buddhist art where the Buddha is shown seated in meditation with his legs crossed.  His right hand rests on the shin of his leg; his fingers point to the ground below him.  This gesture is known as Bhumisparsa mudra (bhumi = earth, parsa = touching, mudra = symbolic hand-position) or Calling the Earth (Goddess) to Witness the Buddha’s perfect conduct in this life as well as in his previous lives – which was the cause of his last temptation to abandon his quest because he may not be worthy due to any misdeed in a former life which he could not remember.  Only the earth itself personified as a goddess could do that.  Hence, the hand gesture (right hand pointing to the earth) calling the Earth (Goddess) to bear witness to his perfect past lives.


3.       The First Sermon - Shortly after Enlightenment, the Buddha preached his first sermon in the Deer Park at Sarnath, northern India.  The Buddha sat with legs crossed before five of his disciples.  Holding both hands before his chest, he created circles with his fingers while explaining his philosophy of suffering and release.  Hence this hand gesture is known as dharmachakra mudra (dharma = the way or law, chakra = wheel) or Turning the Wheel of the Law because it began the unfolding of the Buddhist doctrine in our cycle of time.


4.       The Death - The Buddha died a very human death – we believe from dysentery – which is yet another indication that he was not a god but a mortal.  He expressly told his disciples that he did not wish to be memorialized by the erection of images as if he was a god but, rather, he wanted to be remembered for his philosophy, the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path.  His ashes were placed in four reliquaries that were then interred under four great earthen mounds, the exterior forms of which were made to represent the eight belongings allowed a Buddhist monk – symbols of renouncing the desires of everyday life – and thus architecturally indicating the way to Enlightenment.  These solid reliquary mounds are known as stupas and continue to be created in vast numbers by devout Buddhists to gain merit to improve their individual karma in order to obtain Nirvana in a future rebirth.


The Four Noble Truths:

        1. Life is suffering

        2. Suffering is caused by desire

        3. There is a way to overcome desire

        4. That way is the 8 Fold Path:

The 8 Fold Path:

1. Right knowledge

2. Right aspiration

3. Right speech

4. Right behavior

5. Right livelihood

6. Right effort

7. Right mindfulness

8. Right absorption


Buddhist Images

The first anthropomorphic images of the Buddha did not appear until the 1st century A.C.E., more than 600 years after the Buddha’s death.  The sculptors drew upon the ancient Indian practice of reading a baby’s body shortly after birth to determine what kind of person it would become as an adult.  This ancient practice employs a series of analogies, the 32 Major Marks, such as:


- A cranial protuberance known as the usnisha


- Hair curls like snail’s shells


- A "dot" between the eyes known as the urna


- Eyebrows like Swallow’s Wings


- Nose like a parrot’s beak


- Chin like a mango stone (similar to a large lima bean in shape, i.e. a flat not pointed chin)


- Radiant skin - golden toned body (images are therefore gold color)


- Eyes like the profile of a pigeon drinking


- Shoulders like elephant trunks


- Thighs like a gazelle


- Fingers and toes all the same length


Buddhist stupas

The shape of a Buddhist stupa is thought to represent a Buddhist monk’s belongings (except for his razor): from the ground moving upward, the stupa has architectural elements that represent the rope belt (=compound wall), three folded robes of a monk (=stair-step pyramid), alms bowl (=dome or bell), drinking cup (= harmika), drinking straw, staff and/or umbrella (sun-shade with shaft).  Unlike Judeo-Christian-Islamic congregational worship, the Buddhist worship at a stupa (solid) or temple (hollow) is performed by circumambulating the stupa (i.e. processional worship in contrast to western congregational worship), symbolizing the steps in the journey to Nirvana.


Jataka Tales

The Buddha had over 500 lives before being born during our era as Gautama Buddha.  Like all mortals, he experienced successive rebirths while moving up the Scale of Being.  This included several lives as fish and as animals as well as humans.  The stories of these lives are referred to as the Jataka Tales or Zat.  All these stories are moral tales and are the equivalent of western Sunday School or Church School stories.


Making Merit

The creation of Buddhist stupas and images is motivated by the desire to make merit.  Making merit improves a person’s karma, and good karma assures a better rebirth thus increasing one’s chances of attaining Nirvana in the future.


Buddhist Monasteries

Buddhist monasteries serve social and educational functions, as well as their religious functions. The village school was traditionally located within the monastery compound and the monks frequently reared orphaned boys. Some monks prescribe medications for the ill or cast horoscopes.


Buddhist Sects

Today, Buddhism is divided into three sects, these are:

1.  Hinayana (Theravada) – Southern Buddhism: Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand


2.  Mahayana – Northern Buddhism: Nepal, Tibet, China, Japan


3. Tantrayana – Esoteric Buddhism: Tibet, Nepal in particular

Enormous variety of gods which may include Hindu as well as Buddhist deities as well as widely varying practices, including sexual and magical, many of which are secretly practiced in closed monasteries by initiates.


Extent and Duration of Buddhism in Southeast Asia

  1. Burma, Thailand, Laos - 6th century to present
  2. Cambodia - 6th century to present
  3. Indonesia - 6th century to 12th century
  4. Northern Vietnam - Mahayana Buddhism as secondary religion in conjunction with Confucianism - no influence
  5. Philippines, Borneo - no influence



Updated May 22, 2003