The Droll Docent

Now You See Him, Now You Don’t

I enjoy sculptures of men in half smiles whose sole (soul?) desire is to help me find a path to peace. Hence, I love Buddhist art. There has been much debate about art that uses Buddha’s image (iconic) versus those that use only symbols of Buddhism (aniconic). This tour will guide you through various pieces to make you appear smarter at the cocktail parties in which I am never invited because my cocktail conversation tends to be about these sort of things.

Background is always important in art so I am going to start with what Buddhism is. Buddhism is that religion that your neighbor’s dreadlocked son “practices.” Oh, and it allows Sting to have days-long sex sessions. Also, that Dalai Lama guy definitely has something to do with it. The religion started with the Buddha aka Siddhartha aka Shakyamuni who lived in India sometime around the 5th Century BCE.   He was the first one to teach of “The Middle Way” and the Noble Eightfold Path. He taught lessons on suffering and how to end it (hint: it happens when one stops reading gossip magazines). Also, he is definitely huge in Japan.

Examples of Aniconic Buddhist art:

The Wheel or Dharmachakra:

Probably one of the most important aniconic images is the wheel because it is what you spin in order to guess a letter in the puzzle. Okay, it actually represents Buddha’s earliest sermon in which he set the wheel of dharma in motion. Dharma is very difficult to explain but here is how someone on Wikipedia tried to define it: “Dharma is to cultivate the knowledge and practice of laws and principles that hold together the fabric of reality, natural phenomena and personality of human beings in dynamic interdependence and harmony.” That should clear things right up for you!

In Buddhism, Dharma basically refers to Buddha’s teachings as he helped mankind try to achieve enlightenment or at least get through this life in one piece. The wheel also represents Samsara, the endless birth/re-birth cycle. Later, there would be eight spokes on the wheel to represent the Eight Fold path.



Footprints represent the path that Buddha left here on earth for people to follow. It also represents the parts of Buddha that were the most ticklish.


Bodhi Tree:

There is a great article about Buddha reaching enlightenment here: (theologee article). Full disclosure: I wrote that one as well and I am too tired to cut and paste that article into this one. For the short version: it was under the Bodhi tree where Buddha reached enlightenment. I reached mine eating a divine meal at the restaurant Nobu, so to each his own.

SV-AS10 ImageData

Examples of iconic Buddha art

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Now there has been much debate in the art community about the reason aniconic art exists in Buddhism when there was never a mandate against depicting the man. Some argued that in Buddhism your corporeal body doesn’t matter so why have him depicted? Others argued that it was only when the monks and other believers started spreading Buddhism throughout Asia that people wanted a physical depiction of the enlightened one so that they could put his image in their restaurants. Others argue that the first images of Buddha started in the Gandharan region of India because of the Greek and Persian influences- two cultures who really liked statues. So it was believed for a very long time that these aniconic images were meant to represent the Buddha without actually showing him.

Then along came Susan Huntington (title: “Bad Ass Art Historian”) who basically told the Asian art community to hold the dharmic wheel for a second and chew on these facts. First of all, there are very few references in written works which address a ban on the image of the Buddha and only come from really small sects of followers. Also, there may have been corporeal Buddha depicted in the early years of Buddhism, but the material used may not have survived (for instance, wood and ivory sculptures that may have decomposed or gold which is sent in for cash). Huntington also argues against the whole western influence theory, stating that some of the earliest depictions of Buddha are not found in the Ghandaran region but in other, non-trade route areas. Lastly, Huntington also argues that perhaps these aniconic images aren’t supposed to represent Buddha himself but important places for followers to worship at and they are showing worshippers how to practice the religion at those spots (kind of like an early form of a religious Rick Steves).

So there you have it. You can now spot the different types of aniconic Buddhist art and offer some explanations about why it existed. Art is all about adaptation and change. As Gautama said, “Nothing is forever except change.”


Links to more useful (and better written) articles:

The Huntington Archive

The Image of the Buddha: Buddha Icons and Aniconic Traditions in India and China

New World Encyclopedia- Buddhist Art



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