This gilt bronze sculpture from the Himalayas is an image of Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. Bodhisattvas are Buddhist saints who attain enlightenment but forego Nirvana to stay on earth and guide others on the path towards enlightenment. Manjusri frequently appears in Buddhist art and is seen here in a peaceful and meditative pose. The two lotus blossoms on either side of Manjusri’s shoulders hold a book of Buddhist scripture and a flaming sword that cuts ignorance, emphasizing Manjusri’s transcendent wisdom. Sculptures like this are placed inside of monastery or temple shrines and provide focus for worshippers during meditation and prayer.
Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, is considered the founder of the Buddhist tradition in Kathmandu, Nepal. The lotus flowers, flaming sword that cuts ignorance, and book of Buddhist scripture are attributes of Manjusri and identify him as the subject of this sculpture. Attributes are objects that carry special meaning or symbolism. They can be used to both identify a figure and gain insight into the figure’s purpose or character. The objects Manjusri holds symbolize the transcendent wisdom that leads to enlightenment.
Additionally, Manjusri’s hands express a gesture of teaching, known as the dharmacakra mudra. In this common gesture, the figure intertwines both hands before the chest, joining thumbs and index fingers. In Buddhist art, this symbolizes the turning of the wheel of law (dharma) and the Buddha’s first sermon after achieving enlightenment. The gesture emphasizes Manjusri’s role as teacher and bearer of wisdom.
The stylized halo of flames that surround Manjusri’s head represents the flames of wisdom that burn away ignorance. His crown and elaborate jewelry illustrate his spiritual merit. The five jewels on his crown represent the five wisdoms that constitute a fully enlightened mind. Manjusri sits on a double lotus throne, which is common in images of seated Buddha or bodhisattva figures, and the two lotus flowers represent wisdom and compassion, the two key elements needed to attain enlightenment. The upper lotus, representing wisdom, raises Manjusri off the ground, symbolizing a state of enlightenment that is free of earthly suffering and the endless cycle of rebirth (samsara) that Buddhists believe plagues all humans. The lower lotus, representing compassion, connects the figure to the earth, symbolizing the compassion required to forego Nirvana and remain on earth to guide others on the path to enlightenment.
Bodhisattvas are spiritual teachers in Buddhism who aid Buddhist followers along the path to enlightenment. They have achieved enlightenment but have chosen to forego Nirvana and remain on earth to serve as spiritual guides for others. There are many different bodhisattvas in the Buddhist tradition, and they are one of the most popular subjects in Buddhist art.
Manjusri, the Buddhist prince of wisdom, is a bodhisattva who swore, after achieving enlightenment, to assist those capable of achieving Buddhahood throughout the universe. In sculptures and wall hangings, he is often pictured sitting on a double lotus throne in a tranquil and self-reflective pose. However, some images of Manjusri show him as an aggressive figure holding a sword and riding a tiger. Regardless of his appearance, Manjusri protects the Buddhist law and strikes down ignorance.
The art of the Himalayas, centered in Tibet and Nepal, was largely influenced by the religious and artistic traditions of India and China. Himalayan art typically consists of gilded and non-gilded bronze sculptures and thangkas [thahng-kahz] or paintings on cloth.
Himalayan art is almost exclusively religious in nature and primarily consists of objects that serve ritual and spiritual purposes. Many of these works of art are objects of veneration that are placed in monasteries, and they serve as both visual aids for meditation and protective forces endowed with divine energy. These objects are believed to have religious power, imparted at consecration, and worshipers often visualize themselves possessing the strengths of the depicted deity.
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. Siddhartha is also often referred to as the Buddha Shakyamuni [SHAH-kyuh-moo-nee]. The Buddha was born into the Shakya clan, and the name Shakyamuni may mean “glory of the Shakya” or “sage of the Shakya.”
The Buddha taught that all life is suffering, but 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.
Tantric Buddhism evolved out of the earlier traditions of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism that originated in India. Tantric Buddhism is based on the Tantra, a 1500 year old set of Indian spiritual practices that emphasizes esoteric knowledge and practices to speed the path towards enlightenment. A key distinction between Tantric Buddhism and previous forms is the concept of a more rapid progression towards the achievement of enlightenment. Tantric Buddhists believe that Buddhahood can be attained in a lifetime rather than after many reincarnations. New deities inspired by Hinduism appeared as well, such as wrathful protectors, males and females in sensual embrace (representing the union of compassion and wisdom), and a myriad of bodhisattvas such as Manjusri.
Tantric Buddhism began in Nepal and spread to Tibet in the seventh century and Mongolia in the thirteenth century. Buddhism flourished side-by-side with Hinduism in Nepal, intimating influences between the two religions, and the Nepalese people continue to practice both Hinduism and Buddhism today. The integration of Hindu and Buddhist iconography in Nepal later infiltrated Tibet, and Tantric Buddhism was incorporated into the preexisting Tibetan tradition (Bön) as Buddhism spread.
Gilding Process and Materials
Since the Buddhists consider gold the supreme color, it is customary to gild sculptures. Bronzes are sometimes coated with another metal before gilding. The sculpture is then 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. Because gilding is such an expensive process, many artists simply “gold-coat” figures or only apply gold on the face. “Gold-coating” is much simpler than gilding and simply requires that a mixture of gold powder and gelatin is applied with a fine brush.
In addition to gilt bronze, this sculpture is inlaid with a number of semiprecious stones, including rubies, garnets, turquoise and coral, which decorate Manjusri’s crown and elaborate jewelry.
1. Sketch the forms and lines that you see in this sculpture. What words would you use to describe them?
2. What emotion is communicated by the face and posture of the figure in this sculpture? Explain your response.
3. Though the Buddha and Bodhisattvas are sometimes presented in art adorned with lavish and decorative material, they actually lived a stoic life removed from material wealth. Their main concentration on earth was aiding others in the attainment of enlightenment or absolute knowledge. Who else can you think of that lives a life helping others?
4. Why might the artist choose to include gold and jewels as materials for this object?
5. What is material wealth? What things provide us material wealth? Consider other types of wealth. What is spiritual wealth? What things besides money or objects make us wealthy (i.e. family, friends, education, love, happiness, health)? Consider phrases like “a wealth of knowledge” or “rich in friends.”
1. Research another bodhisattva and write an essay comparing and contrasting the ways it is popularly depicted with thissculpture of Manjusri.
2. This sculpture would have appeared in a Buddhist temple alongside many other Buddhist statues. In groups, research a particular religious or sacred structure from the list provided. Create a presentation with images that shows the types of materials, sculptures, and other artistic elements used throughout the space. Potential structures: The Hanging Church (Cairo), Notre Dame Cathedral (Paris), Hagia Sophia (Istanbul), Temple of Heaven (Beijing), Angkor Wat (Angkor), Dome of the Rock (Jerusalem). Compare and contrast your discoveries to Manjusri.
This sculpture is meant to create an atmosphere of peace and tranquility. Examine the DMA’s Monju Hanging
, which illustrates Manjusri as an aggressive warrior. Compare and contrast the two images of Manjusri, paying attention to expression, body language, and attributes included.
Gilded statues are popular in Buddhist art created in the Himalayas, but many other contexts, from Mesoamerica to Greece to contemporary hip-hop culture, place gold in a privileged position. In this podcast, a chemist gives his explanation for gold’s ubiquity and importance: http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2010/11/18/131430755/a-chemist-explains-why-gold-beat-out-lithium-osmium-einsteinium
. Listen to the podcast and write a personal history of gold. Is gold precious? Where does your attitude about gold come from? Is gold’s value purely in its monetary worth or does it hold some deeper value?
5. Divide into pairs and have your partner take the Manjusri’s pose in this sculpture while you complete a sketch of him/her. Then, switch roles and reflect on how each of you felt while sitting in the pose.
|Listen to Lama Dudjom Dorjee discuss Manjusri. (Part I)|
|Listen to Lama Dudjom Dorjee discuss Manjusri. (Part II)|
|Listen to Lama Dudjom Dorjee discuss Manjusri. (Part III)|
Béguin, Gilles. Buddhist Art: An Historical and Cultural Journey. Bangkok: River Books, 2009.
Olson, Carl. The Different Paths to Buddhism: A Narrative-Historical Introduction. Rutgers University Press, 2005.
Pal, Pratapaditya. Art of the Himalayas: Treasures from Nepal and Tibet. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1991.
Pal Pratapaditya. On the Path to the Void: Buddhist Art of the Tibetan Realm. Mumbai: Marg Publications, 1996.
Pal Pratapaditya. Tibet: Tradition and Change. Albuquerque, NM: Albuquerque Museum, 1997.
Thurman, Robert. The Jewel Tree of Tibet: The Enlightenment Engine of Tibetan Buddhism. Free Press, 2006.
Books for Students:
Dolphin, Laurie. Our Journey from Tibet. Dutton Juvenile, 1997.
Hyde-Chambers, Frederick. Hyde-Chambers, Audrey. Tibetan Folk Tales. Shambhala, 2001.
Levy, Patricia. Cultures of the world – Tibet. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2000.
Meeting the Buddhas: Our Closest Friends and Helpers. Tharpa Publications, 2010.
Newman, Bruce. A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism. Snow Lion Publications, 2004.
Spilsbury, Louise. Spilsbury, Richard. World Cultures: Living in the Himalayas. Heinemann-Raintree, 2007.
Wilkinson, Philip. Morgan, Peggy. Eyewitness Book – Buddhism. DK Children, 2003.
This resource packet from the Asian Art Museum discusses Hindu and Buddhist art.
This resource packet has information about Tibetan art.
On this website, the British Broadcasting System gives a lengthy description of Buddhism.
Learn more about Tibetan Buddhist art from the Metropolitan Museum’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
Learn more about Chinese Buddhist Sculpture from the Metropolitan Museum’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
Learn more about Nepalese Sculpture from the Metropolitan Museum’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
This is a short essay on Buddhism and Buddhist art.
This resource gives a short description of the life of the Buddha.
This short essay discusses ways that religious figures can be identified by their attributes.
On this site, you will find descriptions of several major world religions.
There are a number of resources on the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ Asia website.
On this podcast from NPR’s Planet Money, they discuss the reasons that gold is so important around the world.
This resource packet is a reference guide to Himalayan 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”