This large gilded bronze statue represents the historical Buddha, also known as the Shakyamuni Buddha, in princely attire. His gesture and posture are meant to dispel fear, and his delicate face appears calm and soothing. The lavish materials and intricate decoration of his crown, jewelry, and clothing reveal the Buddha’s spiritual wealth and merit and his role as the prince of Buddhism. Heavily ornamented and gilded figures such as this would have been used by Buddhist practitioners in the process of meditation, aiding them on their own path towards enlightenment.
Buddhism originated in India and is based on the teachings of Prince Siddhartha [sid-DAHR-thah] Gautama [go-ta-ma]. Prince Siddhartha was born in 567 B.C. and became known as the Buddha, or Enlightened One. He taught that all life is suffering, and that renouncing desires and the self can lead to a state of enlightenment beyond both suffering and existence. Over time, diverse interpretations of the Buddha's teachings led to a variety of sects. Buddhism is no longer widely practiced in India, but has spread to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Far East through missionary activity. Today it is one of the world’s largest religions.
Buddhist teachings are based on the Four Noble Truths: all existence is suffering, the cause of suffering is desire, to renounce desire is to renounce suffering, and one can achieve renunciation by following the Noble Eightfold Path. This path includes right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
The Buddha began his life as a prince named Siddhartha Gautama. As a prince, Siddhartha had everything he could ever want, including abundant wealth and possessions. However, when he ventured outside the walls of the palace, he was confronted with a state of universal suffering: many people were sick or unhappy. In an attempt to gain understanding of universal suffering, spiritual knowledge, and liberation from earthly desires, he eventually abandoned his life in the royal palace to follow a path of meditation, prayer, and solitude.
Prince Siddhartha believed the cycle of suffering affected all people, and the only escape was through a life of detachment that separated one’s inner-state from worldly suffering or desire. After achieving enlightenment, he proceeded to travel and teach others about the path to enlightenment.
Siddhartha is also often referred to as the Buddha Shakyamuni [SHAH-kyuh-moo-nee]. The Buddha was born into the Sakya clan, and the name Shakyamuni may mean “glory of the Sakya" or “sage of the Sakya."
Representations of the Buddha in Thailand
Representations of the historical or Shakyamuni Buddha and the events of his life make up a large portion of Thailand’s artistic production. Several key characteristics such as distended earlobes and the top-knot hairstyle (ushnisha) identify the Shakyamuni Buddha. Though he sometimes wears monastic robes draped across one shoulder, the DMA’s Buddha Shakyamuni is shown in princely attire and ornamented with lavish materials and decoration. This display seems counterintuitive to Buddhism’s central principles that emphasize the renunciation of worldly desires and material possessions and to the story of the historical Buddha attaining enlightenment as a wandering ascetic. However, these materials are representations of spiritual merit rather than material wealth, and gilt sculptures such as this are used by Buddhist practitioners during meditation.
Sculptures of the Buddha appear in the chapels or image halls of Thai Buddhist monasteries that are used for group worship and monastic ceremonies. Most of these spaces contain a central, colossal Buddha that is surrounded by smaller Buddha images. Buddha figures represent “the triple gem”: the Buddha himself, dharma (Buddhist doctrine or law) and the monkhood (sangha). Thus, worshipers visiting Buddhist monasteries and temples face the Buddha image and touch their foreheads to the floor three times in honor of these three aspects.
Visual Elements of the Buddha
The Buddha is said to have possessed a supernatural body, with thirty-two major and eighty minor characteristics. Many of these traits reveal biological metaphors, such as ankles like rounded shells, legs like an antelope, chest like a lion, and eyelashes like a cow.
The Buddha’s hair appears as short curls and creates an ushnisha that protrudes from the top of the skull as top-knot. Some scholars consider the ushnisha to be merely the top-knot of the prince and others view it as an indication of an enlightened mind. The ushnisha is sometimes topped with a finial, a decorative “jewel” or flame.
The Buddha’s distended ear lobes reference his former life as a prince, when he would have worn heavy earrings and other impressive ornamentation. The eyes of this Buddha are inlaid with stones, providing a life-like appearance. The urna, or “third eye”, appears in low relief between the eyes of the Buddha. This mark signifies wisdom.
This figure is shown in royal garments and adorned with a crown and jewelry. He wears a long robe or sanghati that reveals the curvature of his torso and legs along with a jeweled belt and collar. This ornate decoration communicates sacred kingship and the concept of Buddha as prince of Buddhism.
In some artworks, the Buddha appears in the form of meditating monk. He is shown wearing monastic robes draped across one shoulder in addition to having the characteristic distended earlobes and the ushnisha.
The posture of the standing Buddha is called samapada, meaning “with feet even.”
Walking Buddhas, presented with the left foot forward and right slightly lifted, suggest the motion of walking. Images of the Buddha walking may emphasize his earthly aspects and represent him walking among followers of Buddhism.
The seated Buddha is typically shown in a state of meditation, which refers to Prince Siddhartha’s lengthy meditation under the Bodhi tree in his quest for enlightenment.
This posture commonly refers to parinibbana or the Buddha’s final state of enlightenment before his death. It also references the activities of rest and sleep.
Mudras are hand gestures characteristic of the Buddha that symbolize various meanings. They appear in Buddhist images and are also practiced during meditation.
The historical Buddha’s various mudras can refer to specific times in his life, activities, or characteristics. Identifying mudras and understanding their meanings allows the viewer to contextualize the works of art and assign the proper narrative.
It is important to note that the mudras of the Buddha found in Southeast Asian representations don’t always carry the same meaning as those in Indian art.
This mudra, in which the Buddha extends one or both of his palms forward, is a gesture of reassurance and blessing. It is meant to provide calm and dispel fear in the viewer. This is the gesture of the DMA’s Buddha Sakyamuni.
This mudra, in which the Buddha’s right hand is pointing down towards the earth, is also known as the earth-touching mudra. Here the Buddha is calling the earth to witness as he is tempted and threatened by Mara. This gesture initiates the Earth Goddess’ appearance and aid in the destruction of Mara and his armies.
In this particular mudra the Buddha’s hands are placed in his lap, palms up. This gesture indicates absolute balance and the Buddha’s meditative state.
The thumb and forefinger of the hand are brought together to create this gesture, which signifies discussion, teaching, and intellectual argument. The circle formed by the joining of the fingers represents the wheel of law (dharma).
In this common gesture, the Buddha intertwines both hands before his chest, joining thumbs and index fingers. This symbolizes the turning of the wheel of law (dharma) and his first sermon after achieving enlightenment.
It is believed Buddha figures predating the twentieth-century were produced using the direct lost-wax method, which creates a single unique image as opposed to one that is cast from a mold of an existing image.
Nearly all Buddha images made in Thailand are not formed of solid metal but are hollow. The core for the sculpture is created from a mixture of clay, sand and rice husks. Following its formation, the core is allowed to dry for several days. The decision to have a hollow core frees the maker from using large quantities of expensive metal and fuel. The completed core takes on the rough shape of the intended final image; however, the thinner the case of the final sculpture, the more exact the core must be.
Once the core is completely dry, sheets of wax are placed over it. The wax is comprised of a mixture of beeswax and tree resin, which is rolled into thin sheets. Then, the wax is warmed, making it malleable and sticky, and shaped over the core. The wax is sculpted to form every detail because every mark on it will register on the finished metal cast sculpture.
The wax image is then covered with an outer mold or investment, made of fine clay, cow dung, and water that is applied in increasingly thick layers.
The wax is then melted from the outer mold, and molten metal is poured into it. The heat used to melt the wax fires the investment and core, which become strong enough to receive the molten metal.
Sometimes during the making of these images, patrons and community members are allowed to place additional metal items, such as pieces of gold or silver jewelry, coins, etc., into the molten metal. This taints the bronze, an alloy made of copper and tin, creating a complex mixture.
Gold and the Gilding Process
Since the Buddhists consider gold the supreme color, it is customary to gild images. Bronzes are sometimes coated with another metal before gilding. Then, the sculpture is treated with acid and a mixture of gold and mercury applied in a thin coat. Next, the sculpture is heated and as the mercury evaporates, the gold adheres to the bronze. Finally, the sculpture is polished with a smooth stone. However, because gilding is such an expensive process, many artists simply “gold-coat” figures or only use gold on the faces. “Gold-coating” is much simpler than gilding and simply requires that a mixture of gold powder and gelatin is applied with a fine brush.
1. Describe this figure’s clothing and decoration. What do they say about who this figure is?
2. We know this figure is the Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical founder of Buddhism. How are important people portrayed in other instances (i.e. kings/queens, president, celebrities)? What do they wear? What materials are used to depict them?
3. The Buddha and bodhisattvas lived their life to help others attain enlightenment. Who else can you think of that lives a life helping others? A bodhisattva is someone who has achieved enlightenment, but foregoes nirvana to teach and save others.
4. If the Buddha and bodhisattvas lived a simple life why might they often be depicted in artworks as a king with expensive things? Consider your own ideas about both material and spiritual wealth.
1. The Shakyamuni Buddha would have appeared in a Buddhist temple alongside many other Buddhist statues. Research the types of materials and figures seen in sacred spaces of another religion (i.e. Islamic mosque, Hindu temple, Catholic cathedral, etc.). In an essay compare and contrast the materials and objects found in your research to those of the Shakyamuni Buddha and Buddhist temples in Thailand.
Consider other images of Buddha and bodhisattva figures at the DMA, such as Buddha Subduing Mara, Thinking Bodhisattva,
in comparison with the Shakyamuni Buddha
sculpture. Compare and contrast them in terms of materials, posture, gesture, attire, etc.
3. Gilded statues are popular in Buddhist art created in Thailand. Many cultures consider gold to be a precious material and utilize it to communicate power or wealth. Research the history of gold and its use in various cultures (i.e. amongst African peoples or ancient Mesoamerican and Greek cultures) and present a report to the class on your findings, providing plenty of artwork examples (hint: search gold in the DMA collections online).
4. Consider what it means to be wealthy in non-material ways. Write a short essay about this and draw what your own personal wealth looks like without including money or material possessions.
| Listen to curator Anne Bromberg discuss the story of Buddha.|
|Listen to curator Anne Bromberg discuss the spread of Buddhism.|
Boisselier, Jean. The Heritage of Thai Sculpture. New York: Weatherhill, 1975. 732.4 B636h.
Bowie, Theodore R. The Sculpture of Thailand. New York: Asia Society, 1972. 732.4 B679s.
Woodward, Hiram W., Jr. The Sacred Sculpture of Thailand: The Alexander B. Griswold Collection, The Walters Art Gallery. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
Books for Students:
Hawker, Frances. Phusomsai, Sunantha. Campbell, Bruce. Families and Their Faith: Buddhism in Thailand. Crabtree Publishing Company, 2009.
Landaw, Jonathan. Brooke, Janet. Prince Siddharta: The Story of Buddha. Wisdom Publications, 2011.
Learn the basic concepts of Buddhism.
This web site provides a summary and timeline of Buddhist religion, art, and culture.
This web site provides a summary of the Buddha’s life.
The story of the Buddha in pictures and video.
Secondary level lesson plans focused on reflection and comparison of world belief systems.
Access a pdf document full of teaching ideas for understanding South Asian Hindu and Buddhist art.
Access tips for recognizing Hindu and Buddhist gods.
Explore five facts helpful to teaching about Indian Art.
Concise and comparative presentations of world religions with connections to works of art.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”