The Buddhist conception of art is, at least in certain respects, not remote from the Christian: like Christian art, Buddhist art is centered on the image of the Superman, bearer of the Revelation, though it differs from the Christian perspective in its non-theism, which brings everything back to the impersonal; if man is logically at the center of the cosmos, this is, for Buddhism, “by accident” and not from theological necessity as in the case of Christianity; persons are “ideas” rather than individuals. Buddhist art evolves round the sacramental image of the Buddha, given, according to one tradition, in the lifetime of the Blessed One in different forms, both sculptural and pictorial. The situation is the opposite of that of Christian art, for in Buddhism statuary is more important than painting, although the latter is nonetheless strictly canonical and not “discretionary” like Christian statuary. In the realm of architecture, we may mention the stupa of Piprava built immediately after the death of Shakyamuni; apart from this, elements of Hindu and Chinese art were transmuted into a new art of which there were a number of variants both in the Theravada and the Mahayana schools. From a doctrinal point of view this art is founded on the idea of the saving virtue emanating from the superhuman beauty of the Buddhas: the images of the Blessed One, of other Buddhas and of Bodhisattvas are sacramental crystallizations of this virtue, which is also manifested in cult objects, “abstract” as to their form but “concrete” in their nature. This principle furnishes a conclusive argument against profane religious art as practiced in the West, for the celestial beauty of the Man-God extends to the whole of traditional art, whatever the particular style required by a given collectivity; to deny traditional art—and here we have Christianity chiefly in mind—is to deny the saving beauty of the Word made flesh; it is to be ignorant of the fact that in true Christian art there is something of Christ and something of the Virgin. Profane art replaces the soul of the Man-God, or of the deified man, by that of the artist and of his human model.
In Buddhism, the sensible sacred has its basis above all in the images—especially the statues—of the Buddha, and by projection, of the Bodhisattvas,the Taras,and other quasi-divine realities; this art attained summits of perfection and interiorizing expressivity with the Tibeto-Mongols on the one hand and the Japanese on the other hand. The extinction of form in the Essence requires as counterpart the manifestation of the Essence in form: whether through the image as in Buddhism, or through the theomorphic human body as in Hinduism, or again through the eucharistic liturgy—including the icon—in Christianity.
It could be said that Buddhism extracted from Hinduism its yogic sap, not through a borrowing of course, but through a divinely inspired remanifestation; it imparted to this substance an expression that was simplified in certain respects, but at the same time fresh and powerfully original. This is demonstrated in a dazzling way by Buddhist art, the prototypes of which are doubtless found in the sacred art of India and in the yogic postures, or again in sacred dance which, for its part, is like an intermediary between yoga and temple statuary; Buddhist art—and here one is thinking chiefly of images of the Buddha—seems to have extracted from Hindu art, not such and such a particular symbolism, but its contemplative essence. The plastic arts of India evolve in the last analysis around the human body in its postures of recollection; in Buddhism the image of this body and this visage has become a symbol of extraordinary fecundity and a means of grace of unsurpassable power and nobility;1 and it is this artistic crystallization that most visibly exteriorizes what Buddhism comprises of absoluteness and therefore also of universality. The sacred image transmits a message of serenity: the Buddhist Dharma is not a passionate struggle against passion, it dissolves passion from within, through contemplation. The lotus, supporting the Buddha, is the nature of things, the calm and pure fatality of existence, of its illusion, its disappearance; but it is also the luminous center of Maya whence arises Nirvana become man.
Our first encounter—intense and unforgettable—with Buddhism and the Far East took place in our childhood before a great Japanese Buddha of gilded wood [see ill. 177],2 flanked by two images of Kwannon.3 Suddenly faced with this vision of majesty and mystery, we might well have paraphrased Caesar by exclaiming “veni, vidi, victus sum” (“I came, saw, and was conquered”). We mention the above reminiscence because of the light it throws on this overwhelming embodiment of an infinite victory of the Spirit—on this amazing condensation of the Message in the image of the Messenger—represented by the sacramental statue of the Buddha, and represented likewise and by reverberation in the images of Bodhisattvas and other spiritual personifications, such as those Kwannons who seem to have emerged from a celestial river of golden light, silence, and mercy.
The canonical figure of the Buddha shows us “That which is” and that which we “should be,” or even that which we “are” in our eternal reality: for the visible Buddha is what his invisible essence is, he is in conformity with the nature of things.
He who says peace says beauty; the image of the Tathagata—together with his metaphysical and cosmic derivatives and concomitants—shows that beauty, in its root or essence, is compounded of serenity and mercy; formal harmony appeals to us because it bespeaks profound goodness and inexhaustible wealth, appeasement, and plenitude.
Like a magnet, the beauty of the Buddha draws all the contradictions of the world and transmutes them into radiant silence; beauty is like the sun: it acts without detours, without dialectical intermediaries, its ways are free, direct, incalculable; like love, to which it is closely connected, it can heal, unloose, appease, unite, or deliver through its simple radiance. The image of the Buddha is like a drop of the nectar of immortality fallen into the world of forms and crystallized into a human form, a form accessible to men; or like the sound of that celestial music which could charm a rose tree into flowering amid the snow. Such was Shakyamuni—for it is said that the Buddhas bring salvation not only through their teaching but also through their superhuman beauty—and such is his sacramental image. The image of the Messenger is also that of the Message; there is no essential difference between the Buddha, Buddhism, and universal Buddhanature. Thus, the image indicates the way, or more exactly its goal, or the human setting for that goal, that is, it displays to us that “holy sleep” which is watchfulness and clarity within; by its profound and wondrous presence it suggests “the stilling of mental agitation and the supreme appeasement,” to quote the words of Shankara.
The greatest of all miracles is theophany, or to put it in other words, there is in reality only one miracle from which all others derive—and that is the contact between the finite and the Infinite, or the unfolding of the Infinite in the bosom of the finite. The Divine image is a sacramental crystallization of this miraculous meeting, whence its lightning-like evidence, resembling that of the Inward Miracle.*
1 The genius of the yellow race has added to the Hindu prototypes something of a new dimension; new, not from the point of view of symbolism as such, but from that of expression. The image of the Buddha, after going through the Hellenistic aberration of Gandhara—providentially no doubt, for it is a question of the transmission of some secondary formal elements—reached an unheard of expansion among the yellow peoples: it is as if the “soul” of the Divinity, the nirvanic Beatitude, had entered into the symbol. The Chitralakshana, an Indo-Tibetan canon of pictorial art, attributes the origin of painting to the Buddha himself; tradition also speaks of a sandalwood statue which King Prasenajit of Shravasti (or Udayana of Kaushambi) had made during the very lifetime of the Buddha, and of which the Greek statues of Gandhara may have been stylized copies.
2 In an ethnographical museum. Such masterpieces—to say the least—certainly do not belong in a museum of this kind; but what can be said of the thousands of specimens of Buddhist art scattered among and profaned by antique collectors and galleries? There is nothing more arbitrary than the criticism of art with absurd and, in many cases, iconoclastic classifications.
3 Kwan Yin, in Chinese; Avalokiteshvara, in Sanskrit.
* Editor’s Note: Meaning, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17: 21).