The first images of the Buddha appeared hundreds of years after his death. This early phase of Buddhist art did not depict the historical Buddha as a physical being but rather hinted at his presence through symbols and objects – such as a set of footprints, stupas, a vacant throne, or an empty seat beneath a parasol. Theories differ on why the Buddha was reflected aniconically. Historically, divine imagery for many religions has or is still aniconic, and it is believed that the early Buddhist schools most likely prohibited the image of a physical Buddha. The earliest depictions of the iconic Buddha, as we know today, took root in narrative tales of his life portrayed through stone friezes around the first century BCE.

It is believed much of early Buddhist art would have been created in perishable material such as wood so that we have an incomplete picture of this early history. Gandhara, Amaravati, and Mathura are regarded as the regions where the first iconic image of the Buddha was created.

Gandhara was a crossroad of cultures, and sculpture from this region exhibited affinities with classical Roman and Greek statues. Although the iconography of Buddha remained sternly Indian, details such as the heavy drapery of his robe mirrored the Roman toga and it was this type of stylistic consideration that propagated the theory that the first Buddha image was inspired by Hellenistic art. Both Mathura and Gandhara influenced each other and it is debatable whether the anthropomorphic images of the Buddha were a natural progression of art in Mathura or the mixing of Greek and Buddhist ideas in Gandhara. Southern India approached the Buddha image in a more graphic an imposing way, with a robe that spanned over one shoulder, and this popular style spread across the Southeast region of Asia.

Undisputedly, one of the more intriguing subcategories of Buddhist art is the tantric movement. Tantric Buddhism had humble origins in medieval Eastern India as a small cult following before the movement grew and infiltrated Central Asia, experiencing huge expansion. By the eighth century, the Tantric school had become the leading sect in Tibet, and the artwork that developed in this region also inspired the artisans of India, Nepal, and China. Tantra is a Western term that was coined in the 1970s when tantric works were discovered by missionaries in India, an umbrella description for a very vast subject of different religious traditions. Tantric Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana uses art for teaching, healing, and meditation. In tantrism, art is seen as a powerful instrument for aiding spiritual development through rituals. Paintings of deities are used as a tool to evoke the subject or in some cases make contact directly.

Tantric Buddhist art grew from a number of inspirations including Brahmanic rituals – mandala art, for example, is a significant aid to Buddhist practice and forms an intrinsic role within the tantric (Vajrayana) tradition. In Tibetan Buddhism, external objects and artistic symbolism are used to embody important attributes necessary for assisting ritual. Method and wisdom are personified by the physical representations of the vajra and bell which serve as the most important ritual tools.

Northern India from the fourth to the sixth centuries during the Gupta period is noted as the “Golden age” of Buddhist art due to the creation of an “idealistic” image of the Buddha. This Buddha can be distinguished by an ornate and ethereal quality that wasn’t present in previous representations. A signature floral-patterned nimbus and elegant diaphanous robes established an aesthetic for the Buddha that spread and persisted throughout Southeast Asia.

Buddhism spread to Central Asia along the Silk Road before reaching Korea and Japan. Buddhist missionaries who travelled through the Silk Road were believed in part to be responsible for the artistic secretions between the Kushan Empire and China. This creative style is known as Serindian art, which is a mixture of Gandharan, Indian, Chinese, and Western ideals. China started to make sculptures in the round (to be seen from all angles) from the fourth century and many design elements were inspired by India where the first round sculptures originated. Chinese customs were portrayed through slender bodies and thicker robes as opposed to the Indian equivalents, which had larger proportions and sheerer clothing. These sculptures, which were also brightly painted, were made of materials like sandstone, limestone, wood, earthenware, gilded bronze, and copper alloy.

The Northern Dynasties of China developed a formal-looking Buddha created with heavy geometric structure. This image, from the fifth to sixth centuries, was less personal and more abstract compared to earlier renditions. This approach softened towards the Tang dynasty, which saw a shift to a more sensuous and natural-looking Buddha. The Qing dynasty showed particular support of Tibetan art; the Emperor Changxi claimed to be a human embodiment of the bodhisattva Manjushri and practised Tibetan Buddhism. The second Qing dynasty emperor, Shunzhi, chose to follow Chan Buddhism, and the third Qing ruler, who was responsible for the largest commission of Buddhist art, favoured the Tibetan style of artistry.

Japan encountered Buddhism through Korea, China, and Central Asia before India. The Buddhist art of Japan can be traced back to the sixth century when Buddhist missionaries travelled to the islands and left a cultural exchange in their wake. Japan played a critical role in preserving facets of Buddhism when its popularity was waning in India and being suppressed in Central Asia. Japanese Buddhist art has a unique quality that was inspired by the amalgamation of cultures that had come before. Japan is perhaps most recognised for the Zen art movement which began in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries following the transmission of the faith by the Japanese Buddhist priest Eisai after journeying from China. The most important parts of Zen art are original paintings and poetry which form an intrinsic part of the Zen practice. Some art forms of Zen, in particular painting and calligraphy, can be seen as a meditation in order to see the true reality of existence through spontaneous and non-dualistic representations.

Art played an integral part in the early dissemination of Buddhist philosophy across Asia, painting and sculpture paradoxically being the best advert for a faith that does not encourage the practice of proselytisation. The role of art in Buddhism is intrinsically connected to the practice, functioning as a practical aid to assist the practitioner with the ultimate goal of gaining insight and wisdom.

Leaving an impression on the mind, whether through meditation or visualisation, Buddhist art was created to be particularly visually stimulating. The image of the Buddha has had such success throughout history, that today, thousands of years after the inception of Buddhism in India, the iconography of the meditative Buddha is recognised as an international symbol of peace and wisdom.

Categorising the broad subject of Buddhist art could be a limitless endeavour in terms of sect, date, style, and region. The subjects of this book serve as a general overview of the past 2,000 years, including artefacts from Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, China, Korea, and Japan. Buddhism has changed the artistic landscape of all of these countries or what is commonly cited as Asia where the stylistic expression of Buddhism varied with culture and traditions. Tibetans primarily engaged with tantric art, strengthening their meditation upon buddhas and bodhisattvas in a ritualised way. Thus, most examples are highly abstract and symbolic in essence. Gandhara, which is an ancient region in what is now northwestern Pakistan, on the other hand, focused on the historical Buddha and the documentation of events of his life via friezes and sculpture.

It is also necessary to consider the numerous buddhas, bodhisattvas, deities, and historical figures – their role within the faith and the legends that surround them to understand the nature of the artwork and why it was created. This book is intended to be an introduction into the world of painting, sculpture, and ritual objects employed within the Buddhist faith, the function of which was for veneration, historical documentation, and instruments of enlightenment.

Excerpted with permission from Buddhism: A Journey Through Art, RM Woodward, Roli Books.