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The Buddha Shakyamuni

How do we recognize this figure as Shakyamuni Buddha?

A gold statue of a seated buddha on a pedestal.
The Buddha Shakyamuni, 1700–1800. Mongolia. Gilt bronze. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Gift of Betty and Jack Bogart, 1994.131.
This is the traditional representation of the Shakyamuni Buddha or the historical Buddha. The statue shows the moment of his enlightenment at a place called Bodh Gaya in India, which has become the most holy site visited by Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world. Representations of the Buddha have several physical characteristics that help us identify him. He is seated in the lotus position of meditation—legs crossed at the ankles with the soles upward—his back is completely straight, He wears a simple, thin monk’s robe that covers his left shoulder and arm and exposes the right. At the top of his head is a protuberance that is associated with his transcendent wisdom. His hair is shown as a mass of compact curls. His earlobes are elongated.

Who was Shakyamuni Buddha?

Shakyamuni Buddha is the founder of the Buddhist religion. He lived and taught in India in the sixth century B.C.E., a time of burgeoning religious and philosophical thought from Greece to China. Born as the crown prince of the great Shakya Kingdom, the young Siddhartha Gautama was groomed to be a king in accordance with the wishes of his royal father. However, when he was about 29 years old, he learned of the deep suffering experienced in life by people. He left his palace life, gave up his fine garments and jewelry in order to find the causes of this suffering and the means to overcome it. After about six years of study, self-deprivation, and deep meditation he finally realized his goal. He had become an enlightened one (a Buddha). After this, he is said to have walked to a deer park in Sarnath (Benares) on the outskirts of Varanasi in India. Here he gave his first sermon, an event which is called the turning of the wheel of Buddhist law (Dharmacakra). The wheel as a metaphor for Buddha’s teaching will become a prevalent symbol in Buddhist art.

What does this statute “say”?

Buddhist figures communicate with hand and body gestures. Shakyamuni’s right hand reaches down to touch the earth. This gesture represents the moment when he called the earth to witness his transcendence of the realm of Mara, the supreme God of the world (samsara), who had tried to distract him from his meditation. In response, the earth trembled and shook to acknowledge Shakyamuni’s attainment of Buddhahood. Shakyamuni’s left hand rests in his lap in the gesture of meditation, and holds his alms bowl.

How was this sculpture used?

This style is very similar to what would be found in Tibet as it was taught to Mongolian artists by Tibetan artists, and follows the strict and detailed standards of traditional Tibetan Buddhist iconography. Tibetan sacred art always serves a religious function. This sculpture, like most Tibetan art, may be used in meditation as an aid to visualize one’s own enlightenment, as well as that of all other beings. The sacred sculpture gives the practitioner direct access to the Buddha once it is ritually empowered as an embodiment of the Buddha. It may then receive the obeisance, offerings, confessions and prayers of every variety from the practitioner. These sacred images are invited to take a place of honor on a Buddhist altar, whether at home or in a monastery. There they become a focal point for meditation and ritual.

Who was the artist, Zanabazar?

Zanabazar (1635–1723) was an important religious leader and a famous artist from Mongolia who was a descendent of Chinggis (Gengis) Khan, the great Mongol conqueror. He was Central Asia’s version of the “Renaissance Man.” He was a linguist (he invented a new Mongolian script), politician, theologian, architect, sculptor, and painter. Histories about him abound with miraculous feats, but there is no question of his artistic magic, which was recognized by Mongolians, Tibetans, and the Manchurian court in China. Although it is difficult to know which works he created, this piece is similar in style to other known works by Zanabazar. His students and their descendants followed his way of modeling and producing this style of sacred art, which has become known as the Zanabazar School.

The bottom of this sculpture is inscribed with English? Why?

A steel plate placed on top of the double thunderbolt design under the base is inscribed with the following: “J. Johnson, Quarter Master, 99th Regiment, China Campaign, 1860.” Quarter Master Johnson was part of the Allied troops that occupied Beijing and destroyed the summer palace (Yuanming Yuan). There is no doubt this piece was taken at that time.

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