How the Buddha Got His Face ~ NYT

His image is so commonplace that you could believe it must always have existed — yet for six centuries after his death, he was never once depicted in human form.

Credit…Buddha, circa 200-300, sandstone, Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, India, Asian Art Museum, the Avery Brundage Collection, photo © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco



WE FLEW THROUGH the thin, light-suffused mist of a December afternoon in north India before landing among open fields outside the paramount site of Hindu pilgrimage: Varanasi, a temple town that curls around the Ganges, the equivalent of Rome or Jerusalem in the Hindu imagination. But the pilgrims on my flight from South Korea had an altogether different purpose. It was here, scarcely 15 miles from the airport, among fields now yellow with mustard flowers, that a renunciant prince had, upon gaining enlightenment some 25 centuries ago, given his first sermon, setting what Buddhists call the Wheel of Dharma into motion. At a deer park once called Isipatana, now Sarnath, a 35-year-old Gautama Buddha, hardly older than Christ when he climbed the hill of Calvary, revealed the eightfold path to liberation from suffering, his four noble truths and the doctrine of the impermanence of everything, including the Self. It was to the remains of the monastery and shrine at Sarnath that the pilgrims from East and Southeast Asia came, as pilgrims had for well over 1,500 years, along a subsidiary branch of the Great Silk Road, which ran through the high snowy mountains that girdle the Indian subcontinent into a riverine plain that stretches across what is today Pakistan and north India. The pilgrims took an exit off that highway of goods and ideas that ran from China to Rome in order to honor what may well have been the most influential doctrine to travel along its lines of transmission — the word of the Buddha, and the art made in his name.


FOR THE FIRST six centuries after his death, the Buddha was never depicted in human form. He was only ever represented aniconically by a sacred synecdoche — his footprints, for example; or a parasol, an auspicious mark of kingship and spirituality; or the Wisdom Tree, also known as the Bodhi Tree, under which he gained enlightenment. How did the image of the Buddha enter the world of men? How does one give a human face to god, especially to he who was never meant to be a god nor ever said one word about god? How, in rendering such a man in human form, does one counterintuitively end up creating an object of deification? And what is the power of such an object?

These were the questions that were uppermost in my mind as I drove to Sarnath among green fields whose red brick boundary walls advertised educational courses and aphrodisiacs. To pass through open country in India, surrounded by signs of every religion except Buddhism, from temples and mosques to churches and Sikh gurdwaras, was to feel the ghostly imprint that Buddhism had left in the land of the Buddha. Gautama, believed to have been born in the fifth century B.C., had lived and taught the entire duration of his 80-year life within 200 miles of where I was. His doctrine, partly a reaction to the rigidity of Vedic religion, or Brahmanism — widely seen in India as an early form of Hinduism — had flourished here for more than a thousand years, patronized and disseminated by kings.

India’s oldest stone architecture was Buddhist. There had been viharas, or monasteries, that stretched across the Indian mainland, from Sarnath in the north to Nagapattinam, deep in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. There were the glorious painted caves at Ajanta, in western India, and, most intact and enchanting of all, there was the great stupa at Sanchi, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The hemispherical stupa, among the earliest and most distinctive of Buddhist monuments, is a reliquary mound. With its origins in pre-Buddhist burial mounds or sacred tumuli, it retains a cosmogonic power. “The act of making the stupa,” writes Richard Lannoy in his 2001 history “Benares: A World Within a World,” “was a rite in itself, on the analogy of creating the world ‘in the beginning,’ a symbolic re-enactment to get into the right relationship with the source of the Cosmic Order.”

Credit…Medicine Buddha (Thangka), circa 14th century, pigment on cloth, Tibet, Kate S. Buckingham Fund/Bridgeman Images



The remains of stupas and viharas are scattered all across India, including at Sarnath, but Buddhism, as a religion (though curiously not as a philosophical doctrine) left this land hundreds of years ago. “If Buddhist philosophy is alive anywhere, it is still in India,” P.K. Mukhopadhyay, a philosopher in Varanasi, told me as I was researching my 2019 book “The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges.” I had studied Buddhist writers, philosophers and poets as naturally as a student of Christianity would move between Old and New Testaments. But when it came to worship, it was an inarguable fact that just as the majority of those for whom Christ was the son of God lived outside the theater of his activities, the Holy Land, so too did the majority of those for whom the message of the Buddha was gospel live beyond the borders of India. This is the world’s fourth-largest religion, with over half a billion adherents — about 245 million of whom live in China alone — but of which only 1.8 percent still live in the land of the Buddha.

MANY EXPLANATIONS have been given for why Buddhism vanished from India. Some say its core teaching was absorbed into a resurgent Hindu faith — in one major branch of modern Hinduism, the Buddha is seen, somewhat controversially, as an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu — while others suggest that Buddhism grew too insulated and doctrinal. Mukhopadhyay gave me yet a different explanation: “Buddhism did not have the social support,” he said, suggesting that it was only ever a court religion, and “regal support and social support are not the same thing.” By the seventh century A.D., Buddhism had declined in India before the Islamic invasions of the 12th century dealt its universities and places of worship a devastating blow. The memory of the Buddha, however, lived on in the hearts and minds of Indians. They reacted to him as I imagine the residents of Memphis must react to those visitors to Graceland for whom Elvis is God — pleased that he was a local son but alarmed by the ardor of his followers.

That did not stop multitudes of peddlers, hawkers, hoteliers and day-trippers from chaffering about Sarnath, which was full to overflowing. I picked my way through the low-lying slabs of Buddhist foundations, their red brick now black with time. The fragments of ruins lay all around me, here a splendid amalaka (or notched capping stone from a votive shrine), there, peering out from behind a tangle of steel wire, the smooth unadorned remains of a Buddhist railing, the ancient stone balustrades that formed a perimeter around the stupa, breathtakingly modern in the simplicity of their lines. Ahead, set among manicured hedges and neat flower beds, were the eroded remains of the Dhamek stupa.

We know from two highly detailed accounts by the Chinese monks Faxian and Xuanzang, who visited Sarnath in the beginning of the fifth century A.D. and the middle of the seventh, respectively, that this had once been a vast monastery complex composed of hundreds of sacred monuments, where, according to Xuanzang, no fewer than 3,000 monks lived and taught. Opposite the stupa, he had seen a mighty column “of blue color, bright as a mirror.” The base of the stupa today, 93 feet in diameter, still conveyed solidity and strength, but its top half was worn down to a brick drum, hardly more impressive than the kilns that dotted the countryside in these parts.

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s