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Date: 15th century
Geographic Location: Thailand
Dimensions: Overall: 35 3/4 x 28 1/2 x 16 in. (90.81 x 72.39 x 40.64 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, gift of David T. Owsley via the Alvin and Lucy Owsley Foundation
Object Number: 1998.65
This bronze cast figure, sitting with legs crossed and eyes closed, represents the historical Buddha Shakyamuni [SHAH-kyuh-moo-nee], born Prince Siddhartha [sid-DAHR-thah] Gautama [go-ta-ma], in a state of meditation as he pursues enlightenment. He wears monk’s robes as a symbol of his austere lifestyle and sits on a lotus throne. His distended earlobes refer to his former princely existence, when he would have worn heavy earrings and other impressive ornaments. He abandoned this royal lifestyle to follow the path of enlightenment.
The placement of the Buddha’s hands, the left resting in his lap while the right extends palm down with fingers pointing towards the earth, is known as the earth-touching mudra. This gesture recalls a specific event in the life of the Buddha when he was taunted and threatened by Mara, the demon of desire and death. The Buddha’s face and body remain impassive during this moment, and the Buddha simply touches his right hand to the earth, calling it to witness his steadfastness and enlightened state.
The historical Buddha Shakyamuni [SHAH-kyuh-moo-nee] was born in India in 567 B.C. as a prince named Siddhartha [sid-DAHR-thah] Gautama [go-ta-ma]. At birth, he was presented to an oracle who predicted that he would either become a great king or religious leader. His father, afraid that contact with the realities of life would lead Siddhartha to seek a life of renunciation as a religious leader, kept him from the suffering of the outside world. As a prince, Siddhartha had everything he could ever want, including abundant wealth and possessions. At the age of twenty-nine, he ventured outside the walls of the palace and was confronted for the first time with universal suffering through the form of an old person, a sick person, and a corpse. On a successive trip outside the palace, Siddhartha saw a wandering holy man and was inspired to gain understanding of universal suffering, spiritual knowledge, and liberation from earthly desires by abandoning his life in the royal palace to follow a similar 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.
Buddhism originated in India and is based on the teachings the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, or Enlightened One. He taught that all life is suffering. Only by renouncing earthly desires and attachment can one obtain a state of enlightenment beyond both suffering and existence. Over time, diverse interpretations of the Buddha's teachings led to a variety of sects. Although no longer widely practiced in India, through trade and missionary activity Buddhism has spread through South and Central Asia and as far as Japan. 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.
A large portion of Thailand’s artistic production represents the historical Buddha Shakyamuni [SHAH-kyuh-moo-nee] and the events of his life. Sculptures of the Buddha appear in the chapels or image halls of Thai Buddhist monasteries that are used for congressional worship and monastic ceremonies. Most of these spaces contain a central, colossal Buddha surrounded by smaller Buddha images. Buddha figures represent “the triple gem”: the Buddha himself, Buddhist doctrine or law (dharma), and the monkhood (sangha). Thus, worshippers visiting Buddhist monasteries and temples face the Buddha image and touch their foreheads to the floor three times in honor of these three aspects.
The earth-touching (bhumisparsha) mudra seen in this sculpture recalls the Maravijaya or the historical Buddha Shakyamuni’s victory over the demon Mara. This specific event is the most frequently depicted episode in the life of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni and is said to account for two-thirds of the representations of the Buddha in Thai sculpture. In the story of Buddha subduing Mara, the demon of desire and death, Mara, taunts the Buddha as he meditates under the Bodhi tree. Mara, representing ignorance and unable to understand enlightenment, sneers at the Buddha and questions his enlightenment. When his taunting failed to remove the Buddha from his meditative state, Mara resorted to threats and summoned his army. Prince Siddhartha at this moment performed the bhumisparsha mudra, extending his right arm to touch the earth, calling it as witness to his steadfastness and enlightened state.
At this moment, the earth goddess emerged from the ground with her long hair streaming water. As she wrung out her hair, Mara and his army were swept away by the waters. The abundance of the waters represents historical Buddha Shakyamuni’s infinite merit, evoking the Indian tradition of pouring water upon the ground every time one makes a donation. The water from the hair of the earth goddess serves as testament to the number of good deeds performed by the Buddha in previous lives.
Within the larger Buddhist tradition, Mara and his army symbolize obstacles to greater understanding, such as ignorance and earthly desire. Prince Siddhartha’s journey, as well as any Buddhist follower’s, towards enlightenment directly threatens Mara’s power, since anyone who reaches enlightenment withdraws from the realms of desire.
The historical Buddha Shakyamuni 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, a chest like a lion, and eyelashes like a cow.
The Buddha’s hair appears as short curls and creates an ushnisha [oosh-NEE-shah] that protrudes from the top of the skull as a 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 that would have stretched his ear lobes.
This historical Buddha is often pictured as either a meditating monk or ascetic, as seen in this sculpture, or as a princely bodhisattva [bo-dee-SAHT-vah], or one who has attained enlightenment but foregone Nirvana to stay on earth and guide others on the path towards enlightenment.
When the Buddha takes the form of meditating monk or ascetic, he is shown wearing monastic robes, draped across one shoulder in addition to having the characteristic distended earlobes and the ushnisha.
Other Thai Buddha figures are shown in princely attire and adorned with crowns and jewelry. This ornate decoration communicates sacred kingship, spiritual wealth, and the concept of the Buddha as prince of Buddhism.
The seated Buddha is typically shown in a state of meditation, producing the bhumisparsha (earth-touching) or dhyana (meditation) mudras. These meditating Buddhas, of which Seated Buddha Subduing Mara is an example, refer to Prince Siddhartha’s lengthy meditation under the Bodhi tree in his quest for enlightenment.
Walking Buddhas, presented with the left foot forward and right slightly lifted, suggest the motion of walking. The image of the walking Buddha references the daily activities of Buddhism’s followers and the humanity of Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha’s last incarnation.
The reclining 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 Shakyamuni’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 do not always carry the same meaning as those in Indian art.
The bhumisparsha 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 the dhyana 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 the vitarka mudra, which signifies discussion, teaching, and intellectual argument. The circle formed by the joining of the fingers represents the wheel of law (dharma).
In the common dharmacakra 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.
The abhaya mudra, in which the Buddha extends one or both of his palms forward, is a gesture of reassurance and blessing.
It is believed that Buddha figures predating the twentieth-century were produced using the direct lost-wax method, which results in 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.
|Listen to curator Anne Bromberg discussing the story of Buddha.|
|Listen to curator Anne Bromberg discuss Seated Buddha Subduing Mara.|
|Listen to curator Anne Bromberg describe the spread of Buddhism.|
Boisselier, Jean. The Heritage of Thai Sculpture. New York: Weatherhill, 1975. 732.4 B636h
Bowie, Theodore Robert, ed. The Sculpture of Thailand. New York: The Asia Society, 1972.
Indian and Southeast Asian Art. New York: Sotheby’s, March 26, 1998. Lot 207, pages 182-183.
Jansen, Eva Rudy. The Book of Buddhas: Ritual Symbolism used on Buddhist Statuary and Ritual Objects. Diever, Holland: Binkey Kok Publications, 1994.
Leidy, Denise. The Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its History and Meaning. Boston: Shambhala, 2008.
Tingley, Nancy. Buddhas. Petaluma, CA: Pomegranate Communications, Inc., 2009.
Woodward, Hiram W. The Sacred Sculpture of Thailand: The Alexander B. Griswold Collection The Walters Art Gallery. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1997.
Books for Students:
Chatterjee, Manini. Eyewitness Books: India. New York: DK Children, 2002
Ernst, Judith. The Golden Goose King: A Tale Told by the Buddha. Chapel Hill, NC: Parvardigar Press, 1995.
Ries, Julian. The Many Faces of Buddhism. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.
Watson, Francis. A Concise History of India. Southampton: Camelot Press Ltd., 1979.
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.
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.