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ABSENCE OF THE BUDDHA IMAGE IN EARLY BUDDHIST ART (Toward its Significance in Comparative Religion)

ABSENCE OF THE BUDDHA IMAGE IN EARLY BUDDHIST ART (Toward its Significance in Comparative Religion)
Item Code: IDD692
Publisher: D. K. Printworld Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 1998
ISBN: 9788124600900
Pages: 271 (Color Illus: 32, B & W Illus: 25, Figure Illus: 14)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.8" X 7.4"
weight of the book: 890 gms
About the Author:

Kanoko Tanaka, born in 1964 and a Ph.D. from the University of Delhi, is an eminent scholar and a member of the International Institute for the Study of Religion, Tokyo, who has devoted more than a decade to studying the methodology and practice of religious studies. Her papers on Buddhist art and comparative religiooon have been aperciated in academic societies and institutes all over the wrold. She has won special acclaim for her elaborate theories of 'the stupa-art', 'the vedika-design', 'the stepped-pyramidal motifs' and 'the empty throne' in early Buddhist art, which were first pesented by her at the XXIXth international Congress of the History of Art, 'Memory & Oblivion', held in Amsterdam in 1996.


It was more than ten years ago that I came to know for the first time there is no Buddha image in early Buddhist art. In those days, I was looking for a good theme for my research from various points of view. On discovering the 'absence of the Buddha image in early Buddhist art', I was inspired by the significance of this theme and so I made up mind to search for its meanings. It was just like something voiceless out of ancient Buddhist sculptures forgotten by modern people had called out to me.

From the beginning, I had an intuition that a study of early Buddhist art would not end in dealing with fine arts but begin to create something valuable and worthy of the fine arts. But it took a long time before I set about working on such a theme. The reason was simple. It was necessary for me to go through the general process of studying the fine arts first of all.

The present work is the result – shall we say, 'fruit' – of my research on the 'absence of the Buddha image in early Buddhist art'. The fruit has ripened getting its sustenance from the soil, the water, and the sunlight of India. It may not taste sweet enough to satisfy everyone. But if he taste contains a sort of newness unknown to anyone before, it should be a joy for the cultivator who has been expecting a good harvest. Whether I get another 'fruit' in the near future depends on the manure and cultivation given to the same object of research.

My speciality has been comparative study of religions especially through the medium of fine arts. Therefore, I have tried in this research to look for linkage between 'absence of the Buddha image in early Buddhist art' and other elements of non-Buddhist religious arts. The attempt might be seen as adventurous in the study of fine arts. But I do not feel so because in modern times different types of studies are expected to be interdisciplinary. Both Buddhism and Buddhist art do not belong exclusively to Buddhist people any more. Each of them should be understood properly by everyone. For the purpose, it is necessary for a researcher to pursue new aspects and methods. In this context, the 'absence of the Buddha image in early Buddhist art' was quite an ideal theme because it continually inspired me by opening up new avenues of interest till the last.

Even in modern times, all the people in this world do not know that there is no Buddha image in early Buddhist art. It is natural that some of them will end their lives without knowing the fact because it is impossible to know everything in this world during one's lifetime. But some other people will have a chance to know about it and get some impression in their minds just as I have experienced.

It is important to remember that human beings always come to know about their coultural inheritance of the first time in their own lifetimes, although the inheritance itself becomes old year after year. As long as one is inspired by something of the past, one's research is worth carrying on. This is why the same object can be discussed by different people of all ages.

I hope that the subject of this book will be taken up by more researchers in the future so that their own religions and cultural backgrounds may be reflected in the results of their research.


The absence of the Buddha image in early Buddhist art is a 'visible fact' that can be clearly seen in the archaeological discoveries of Buddhist arts works. In other words, there was a long span of Buddhist life in India after the decease of the Buddha himself when the Buddha was not seen through the Buddha image. This religious position of the ancient Buddhists is noteworthy because they were then free from accepting 'the Buddha' in its artistic sense. The freedom must have enabled them to behold the Buddha in their own minds just as they experienced him. The aim of this research is to rediscover their spiritual attitudes through the study of early Buddhist art.

On the contrary, 'the Buddha image', once it came into being, made an indelible impression in Buddhist minds. Its visual impact was overwhelming enough to take roots in the faith and rituals of Buddhist people in later periods. Indeed, it might have been significant to the people to the extent that they could not see 'the Buddha' without remembering 'the Buddha image' in their minds. It was not easy for them to be conscious of this psychological bondage as long as they did not need to take an iconoclastic attitude towards their own reverence for 'the Buddha image'.

So far as we known, there is nothing to prove that Buddhists have ever supported iconoclasm to destroy 'the Buddha image'. What is the reason? It is that the Buddhists have never doubted their faith in the fact that 'the Buddha image' portrays 'the Buddha' himself.

The legend of the first Buddha image in India is as follow.

According to the Chinese version of the Anguttara Nikaya, the first Buddha image was made by the order of King Udayana and King Prasenajit who missed the Buddha during his absence from this world for three months with a view to sermonizing Maya, his mother in the Trayastrimsat, the heaven of the Thirty-Three. After the sermon, the Buddha descended to Sankasya by means of the triple-staircase and was welcomed by kings of many countries. Then King Udayana showed his Buddha image made of sandalwood to the Buddha himself. The Buddha is said to have preached the great virtue of making the Buddha image.

As far as the scene of Sankasya is concerned, it is found in Bharhut and Sanci sculptures in which Buddha images are not seen at all. In Illust. 11a-1 (second century, BC), the triple-staircase from the heaven to the earth is surrounded by noble people. Illust. 11a-2 (late first century AD) shows a variation in the simple staircase. Both these scenes do not present the Buddha's figure but try to only emphasize the Buddhas's descent from the heaven in their depiction of the staircase.

On the other hand, the legend of the first Buddha image in India is not seen in Pali texts, and its earliest example in sculpture from Gandhara cannot be retroactive before the latter half of the third century AD. In the sculptural sense, King Udayana holding the Buddha image in his arms is beside the Buddha himself who is in dharmacakramudra. It is apparent that his scene is nothing but a creation after ages to authorize the origin of the Buddha image. However, the sculptor instead of regarding it as a creation might have believed it to be true to the Buddha's biography, because he must have been born in the period when everyone had already forgotten the following points:
1. There was a long time gap between the creation of the Buddha image in India for the first time, and the Mahaparinirvana of the Buddha with his believers left behind.
2. The Buddha was one of the sramanas in his days who took the tonsure (mundaka) without any kind of special sign on his body just as seen in the Buddha image.

When the memory of (1) and (2) faded, one's way of seeing the Buddha image became devout enough to give rise to the belief that 'the Buddha image' portrays 'the Buddha' himself. It may be one of the most interesting phenomena in the history of religious arts. Such a tendency is seen at its best in Buddhist countries other than India.

For example, Pl. 16 is the image of Sakyamuni Buddha brought from China to Japan in AD 986 by Chonen (938?-1016), a Japanese Buddhist monk. Both in China and Japan, it was worshipped as the replica of the first Buddha image made under the orders of king Udayana. We can recognize the influence of Buddha images from India – the Gandhara Buddha' - in its drapery covering both the shoulders, curved lines flowing down the standing posture, decorous looks, and the overall impression from its good proportions. However, the evidence of Buddhist faith in 'the replica' is found in its internal rather than external appearance, as 'the replica' contains the models of internal organs which are formed by coloured pouches made in Japan. All of them are filled with the powder of fragrant word, and the inter-connections of these organs have been found to be very accurate by the medical scientists of today. This fact seems to show us the acme of Buddhist enthusiasm for the physical reproduction of Sakyamuni Buddha. Though Sakyamuni as the historical Buddha was not popular and influential in Japan as compared with the Amitabha Buddha of Mahayana Buddhism, it is inferred that the legend of King Udayana must have stirred one's yearning toward India, the cradle of Buddhism, enough to make one press the palms together in prayer before 'the replica' with pure mind.

In this way, the Buddha images was welcome to the Buddhist countries and it became the centre of daily worship performed by the Buddhist people. This situation has formed an impression among the non-Buddhists that idols are worshipped in Buddhism. It may be right in the sense that Buddhists treat the Buddha image just as the Buddha himself. But it must be wrong if the Buddhists' reverence for the Buddha image is regarded as essential to Buddhist faith. Indeed we cannot ignore its visual impact on Buddhist minds, but setting aside chronological questions, its origin was in the first century AD at the earliest. The Buddha image is a product of the historical process of Buddhist art. The Buddhist faith might have been coloured by 'the artistic product'. But if this 'colour' is removed, we would see the original form of Buddhist faith where no one ever relied on the Buddha image for the purpose of prayer. In other words, 'the Buddha image' developed out of the consciousness of those who produced early Buddhist art. They must have been really satisfied with the creation of their own fine arts; otherwise early Buddhist art would not have been able to make itself ripe in those days so that it could deserve one's appreciation.

There is no Buddha image in early Buddhist art. This visible fact should be accepted by everyone as a matter of course, and its significance should be considered independently of the origin of the Buddha image.

Scholars in the past have lacked these viewpoints as pointed out in the beginning of this Chapter. For the most part, they discuss positively as to how the Buddha image began to be made in India, and try to find the reason as to why 'the Buddha image' is not seen in early Buddhist art. The absence of the Buddha image looks so strange to their eyes that cannot help referring to the problem. They never grasp the idea that early Buddhist art matures itself without 'the Buddha image', or rather, 'the absence of the Buddha image' is described as the negative expression of 'the presence of the Buddha image'.

The motive of our research originates in the criticism of such a theory – one that regards early Buddhist art as imperfect and immature fine arts for lack of the Buddha image. In this context the opinions of most of the scholars may be summed up as follows:
(a) There is no Buddha image in early Buddhist art, even in the biographical relief-scene where the Buddha should play a role of the central figure.
(b) Instead of the Buddha image, the motifs of the stupa, the dharmacakra, the asana under the Bodhi-tree, etc, symbolize the Buddha's presence.
(c) As the relief (belonging to the domain of fine arts) would seem to naturally visualize the Buddha's story (belonging to the domain of literature), there must be a reason why the Buddha was never represented in early Buddhist art.
(d) The reason is that there was probably a taboo against image-making among the Buddhists of those days. Therefore, ancient sculptors had to wrestle with the difficulty of depicting the biography of the Buddha without portraying the Buddha himself.

(e) Then, where did the taboo come from? Needless to say, from the scriptural accounts. It must be easy to find its philosophical source in Buddhist thought as found in the scriptures, because there must be a scriptural background (literature) in the tradition of religious art (fine arts).

If one feels satisfied with the logic given above, one has already lost the chance to appreciate the absence of the Buddha image in early Buddhist art.

First of all, in the historical process of Buddhist art, the Buddha image emerged on the way, came to play an important role in Buddhist faith and rituals, and evolved enough variation to form the Buddhist iconography. Accordingly, it is quite preconceptual for the scholars to observe early Buddhist art with the shadows of the Buddha image haunting before their eyes. As long as they do not try to remove those shadows and observe the absence of the Buddha image as it is, they cannot find the proper worth and significance peculiar to early Buddhist art.

The problem mentioned above seems to arise from the nature of human history where everyone cannot but accept new experiences one after another according to the current of the times. Sometimes, new experiences look more satisfactory than old experiences. But, at the same time, it is true that human beings tend to lose or forget something precious and memorable in old experiences once new experiences occupy their minds. The transition of history always leaves something behind and it is not easy to trace this back against the flow of time.

The emergence of the Buddha image was an epoch in the history of Buddhist art. But we should not lose sight of another epoch when the Buddha image had never occupied one's mind in Buddhist faith. There is a need to rediscover what is still unique in early Buddhist art.

Scholars tend to regard the fine arts as illustration of literary sources. This standpoint is called 'literalism' which ignores the fact that 'fine arts' enabled sculptors to accomplish the style of early Buddhist art without the presence of the Buddha image, while 'literature' never realized a story of the Buddha without his presence. This points to an essential differences between the principles of fine arts and literature. A Work of fine arts expresses itself according to the principle of the arts. In the study of fine arts, therefore, researchers have to keep on observing the object until it naturally responds to their questions without difficulty, although it is also important to collect philological data.

We should find out the principle of early Buddhist art as the basis of 'the absence of the Buddha image'. The principle must be different from any other principle of Buddhist art in later periods.

An enquiry into the absence of the Buddha image in early Buddhist art should not end in disussion of the topics on Buddhist art. It is necessary to evolve its topical scope so that modernity may be found in all the discussions as a result. This is because a research work needs to cope with the existing current of public concerns. For this purpose, this study extracts the iconoclastic nature from the absence of the Buddha image in early Buddhist art and makes it significant in terms of a comparative study of religions, especially Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism.

These monotheistic religions are characteristic in their criticism of the act of idolatry. Above all, the Jewish, the Christian, and the Islamic peoples are still dominant and influential in the modern world. In this context, it is not meaningless to see a linkage between Buddhism and monotheism through the medium of early Buddhist art.

The methodology of this work is as follows:
(a) As long as we deal with the topic of fine arts, our research gives first priority to an observation of the visible facts in 'the absence of the Buddha image', from which the most reliable knowledge can be derived (Chapter II).
(b) Next, we start to interpret the object of our research, making reference to philological data in order that the visible facts may be given the spotlights from religious, artistic, and political aspects (Chapter III).
(c) After that, our research can afford to go ahead of the former methods from a philosophical point of view: "The absence of the Buddha image' needs to become the topic of dialogues among different people of the world, and our research will not lose sight of the current of modern times (Chapter IV).

The order of (a), (b) and (c) is irreversible according to which all phases of discussion should gradually be evolved from the same object of our observation.

In the process of (a), (b) and (c), the nature of this research becomes more topical and less historical, or more philosophical and less philological.

Visual data: (1) Tables (2) Figures, (3) Illustrations and (4) Plates are the first and the last authorities in our research, because we place emphasis on knowledge and experience taken out of our own observations. The text of this book often makes reference to Tables, Figures, Illustrations and Plates in order to clarity what is being discussed.

(1) Tables are the analyses of visible objects.
(2) Figures are the drawings showing angles and viewpoints on the objects of observation.
(3) Illustrations are the monochromatic quotations from the plates of other publications.
(4) Plates are the coloured pictures to provide vivid impression of the visible objects.
Many Figures and Illustrations consist of a group of pictures in the same pages. For example, Fig. 8 has eight figures: a-1 ~ 4, b-1 ~ 3 and c. Illust. 1 is the collection of the plates: a, b and c-1 ~ 3.

Seeing is always a creative work. To show a way of seeing objects is one of the purposes of this book.
Literary sources are classified into Fine Arts, Art Philosophy, Philosophy, Scriptures, Religious Thoughts, and Religious Studies.
Now, let us return to the starting point of our research on early Buddhist art.
Try to imagine that we are standing on the hill of Sanci and looking at the silent sculptures of ancient India (cf. Pls. 2, 3 and 4).

About the Book:

It is next to impossible today to even think of Buddhism without the presence of the Buddha image! The image of the Buddha, intruth, has not only come to symbolise the essence of Buddhism but is also a brilliant expression of the culutural/artistic achievements of the Buddhists since ancient timees. Surprisingly, the Buddha image developed at a later stage of the evolutionary process; after the parinirvana of the Buddha, te Buddhists for a considerable time beheld the the Buddha and experiencd him in their own minds without taking recourse to the Buddha image itself. In Absence of the Buddha Image in Early Buddhist Art, Dr. Tanaka, a well-versed scholar, has for the first time ever explored the 'absence' of the Buddha image in Buddhist art -particularly in the period from third century BC to late first century AD -in order to rediscover the signficance of thisphenomenon.

Dr. Tanka observes Bharhut and Sanct sculptures to point out the most essential motifs and elements of stupa-art design -the visible facts pertaining to the absence of the Buddha image. The author studies the releigious, philsophical, artistic and political significance of the visiblefacts, highlighting the concept of the 'empty throne' as the motif repesentative of that absence. She applies the 'empty throne' concept to the sancturies of monotheistic religions, and thus unddertakes a comparative study of Buddhism and other religions, particularly, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism to suggest that present-day discussins on the linkage between religions can centre on this theme.

The dexterous handling of the topic combined with the author's use of first-hand research material makes this an erudite study. The directness in theauthor's approach and the unwavering eye on the theme sustains the interest throughtout. An abundance of visual marterial, i.e., drawing and photographs, and tables immensely aid in analysis of the visible facts. This intense work on a rich theme offers well-researchedand interesting marterial that will be useful to scholars of religious studies, fine art and even philosophy.



Chapter I.Introduction1
Chapter II.Visible Facts
1. The Role of 'Stupa-Art' (Fine Arts dedicated to the Stupa.)9
A Rediscovery of 'Vedika-Design'.13
The Importance of 'Stupa-Motif' in Stupa-Art.14
A. Simplicity and Impersonality of 'Stupa-Motif'.15
B. Lack of Lamentation.15
C. Always with Worshippers.16
D. Notice Boards of Donation.16
2. The Basic Composition of Stupa-Art18
A. Unification of Relief-Flames (Stages).19
B. Role of Buddhist Monuments (Stage-Setting)
- Motifs of early Buddhist art -21
1. Footprints, etc.22
2. Umbrella.23
3. Stupa.23
4. Bodhi-Tree.23
5. Empty Throne.24
6. Wheel of Dharma.24
7. Tri-Ratna.25
8. Combination-motifs.25
9. Animals.26
10. Peacock.27
11. Lotus Flowers.27
C. Devotees performing on Stage (Personage).28
D. The Atmosphere common to all the Scenes (Stage-Effect).30
E. Supplement.31
3. A Consideration of the Visible Facts.34
A. Its Accomplished Spatiality.34
B. Its Flexible Temporality34
1. The Invisible presence of the Buddha image.35
2. The actual absence of the Buddha image.35
C. Its Essential Monumentality.36
D. A Reference to the Motifs of early Christian Art.37
1. The signs regarded as equal to Jesus Christ.37
2. Fish; The creature whose name is related to Jesus Christ.38
3. Cross; the most direct symbol to signify Jesus Christ.38
4. Jesus Christ expressed in the form of metaphors in the New Testament.38
5. Orpheus and animals.39
6. The animals signifying Jesus Christ.39
7. The symbols of Christian Faith.39
8. Paradigma: the precedent examples of one's release from death by the grace of God.40
9. The sacrament of the Eucharist.40
10. Orans; the prayer.40
11. The portrayal of mother and her child, as the archetype of Modonna and her Holy Child.41
12. The archetype of Christ image.41
Chapter III.Possible Interpretations
1. The Religious Aspects
A. In Context of the Stupa-Art.51
B. The Aniconic Situation of Vedic Rituals.52
C. General Interpretations on the Usage of Buddhist Monuments.52
D. The Digha Nikaya (Brahma-Jala Sutta, 73).53
E. The Sutta-Nipata (1069, 1073, 1075).54
F. The Anguttara Nikaya (In Chinese Version; Taisho., Vol. 2, pp. 657, 664).56
G. General Comments on the Interpretations of (D), (E), and (F).57
2. The Artistic Aspects
A. The Stupa-Art as one of the Buddhist Rituals.62
B. Its Dramatic Essence.62
C. An Example of Theatrical Interpretation:
A Drama in memory of 'Bhagavato Dhamacakam'
- A Conversion of King Vidudabha -67
1. A Survey of the Interpretations in the Past.67
2. A Possibility of New Interpretation.71
3. A Comment on the Interpretation from the Artistic Aspects.75
3. The Political Aspects.76
Chapter IV.The Concept of the Empty Throne.
1. Its Meanings for Buddhist People.91
2. Its Categories in Comparative Religion.96
A. The Empty Throne in Buddhism.102
B. The Empty Throne in Zoroastrianism.104
C. The Empty Throne in Yahwism/Judaism.108
D. The Empty Throne in Christianity.114
E. The Empty Throne in Islam.117
F. The Empty Throne in Sikhism.122
3. A Discovery of its Modernity.125
Chapter V.Conclusion141
Appendix:What is the Purpose of Comparative Religion?
-A five-point ethics to be obtained through the field-work-.144
A List of Visuals149
A Guide to the Visuals158
Select Bibliography229

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