Buddhist Art, Essay Example

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Essay

Buddhist art is defined by attention to detail not only in the work of art itself, but also in the practice of making art. This is common to all forms of art that take place in this context. For example, very specific rules of procedure for producing paintings and religious festivals are present in the Buddhist tradition. The reason behind such strict practices is potentially many. On the one hand, by following such rules the artist makes clear that he belongs to a clear tradition of Buddhist art. On the other hand, perhaps such rules tell us something fundamental about the Buddhist philosophy itself. The attention to order, ritual and custom is an attention to a tradition. The attention to such a tradition means that Buddhist art strives to reflect the importance of the teaching of this tradition.

For example, the Tibetan silk painting of the thangka has a very strict procedure for composition. Many of the points of this procedure, however, may not be determined by traditional views of Buddhist art. For example, the patron of the artist may ask for very specific content to be portrayed in the work. Jackson writes that “usually the patron had indicated to the painter precisely which deities he wanted depicted.” (1988, p. 25) In these cases, the artist can be thought of as a craftsman, who constructs a specific work of art according to the wishes of the employer. These wishes primarily concern issues of content and what is in the painting. However, the traditional process of the making of the thangka occurs in the techniques of composition which the painter used.

Thangka are often take the form of what is called rten. Rten tries to show “physical representations and embodiments of enlightened body, speech or mind.” (Jackson, 1988, p. 69) But rten paintings were not determined by the images of the picture. What makes a thangka classify as a rten is that “it had to be ceremonially imbued with the spirit of englightenment by means of a ritual consecration ceremony.” (Jackson, 1988, p. 69) This means that the work had to be given a religious significance by a ritual and religious figures. The images of the work are not enough to give the work its character of Buddhist art. The work of art therefore can not be separated from the strict religious ceremony. The painter is not an independent producer of religious works. The production of religious works must instead take place within the context of a religious ceremony. When paintings were not a part of a ritual ceremony, these are termed didactic paintings. (Jackson, 1988, p. 69) This implies that these paintings were teaching about Buddhist religion, but were themselves not full examples of Buddhist philosophy.

The content of the paintings themselves can vary, but they follow some type of order. Types of composition such as mandelas have a “complex symbolism.” (Jackson, 1988, p. 26) These mandelas tend to focus on the portrayal of a main figure. (Jackson, 1988, p. 26) A further variation of this form is the depiction of lineages. This shows “the whole lineage through which the tradition descended” (Jackson, 1988, p. 26) thus showing that the tradition of Budhist art and how knowledge is transmitted. This transmission follows a strict order. For example, assembly-field paintings clearly state where figures in the thangka should be placed. Jackson notes that the “main, central figure occupied the central pinnacle of a lotus seat, and he was surrounded by descending concentric rows of exalted beings.” (Jackson, 1988, p. 26) Once again, this shows the importance placed in Buddhist art to careful instances of structure. The fact that this structure is so emphasized itself can be called a ritual. For example, while thangka only becomes rten when it is made so by a ritual ceremony, the composition rules of Buddhist art suggest that the making of the thangka also reminds one of ritual, because of carefully defined steps that must be followed. There is a sense in which ritual and order and classification can be considered as fundamental themes of Buddhist art, no matter what the medium.

Such a thesis is shown in the example of the Buddhist festival of Mani Rimdu. Kohn describes this festival as a ritual. (2001, p. 3) There is a sense in which in Buddhism a close link exists between ritual and art. (Kohn, 2001, p. 3) Kohn notes that “Mani Rimdu has often been described as a dance-drama”, (2001, p. 55) which suggests that all forms of art in Buddhism contain this element of ritual. The instructions of the dance are highly structured. There are books written by Buddhists describing how to perform the dance, such as proper steps. (Kohn, 2001, p. 62) These books also tell “the dancer to simulate an emotion.” (Kohn, 2001, p. 62) This simulation of emotion helps us understand the strict structures of Buddhist art. Normally, when one thinks about an emotion, they think of something spontaneous and individual. Yet even emotions in the Buddhist dance ritual must be “simulated.” This means that they must be highly controlled by the performer. The performer can be said to try to lose their individuality in this performance. Even emotions are no longer their own possessions. The aim of Buddhist art seems to be to conform as closely as possible to the rules and practices that have been established by the religious tradition.

The structure of the Mani Rimdu festival is also highly organized. The seventeen days of the festival are carefully defined. Each date of the festival has specific activities that are to be performed. They include a variety of different activities, such as preparing effigies, making of mandalas, making of tormas, the arranging of ornaments, dance, and activities in which the public also participates. (Kohn, p. 70) All these different artistic activities take place within a very defined form. All artistic creation, therefore, from this perspective can only take place within an underlying idea of order. In Buddhist art, therefore, we can say that there is a clear connection between the artistic process and ideas of ritual and order. While in the West one may think of festivals as celebrations, in Buddhist art these celebrations take on a very ritualistic and ordered form.

What does this attention to order, detail and ritual tell us about Buddhist art? From the above examples, which range from painting to dance to the structure of religious festivals, this tells us that for Buddhist philosophy art and religion are closely tied together. For example, the fact that a good portion of the Mani Rimdu festival also includes the producing of works of art show that this art has a religious significance. This is because the main object of the festival is a religious celebration. This close relationship between art and religion is one of the defining characteristics of Buddhist life. This would suggest that Buddhist philosophy must be present in all forms of existence and human practice. In the West, art is many times thought of as the production of creative individuals. In modern Western art, ideas such as creativity and novelty are emphasized. In Buddhist art, the opposite seems to be true. The aim is rather to closely follow the rules of the tradition. The creative artistic experience is also a part of the ordered structures of religious life. This could be considered to be an example of a Buddhist concept of balance and harmony.

Furthermore, the relationship of art and religion shows us that some of the core principles of Buddhist philosophy address the issue of individuality and egoism. The creative act is an act of an individual. Yet in Buddhist art, it is precisely this individuality which is to a certain degree controlled by the strict adherence to rules. Buddhist art is therefore a practice that is an extension of the religious ideas of Buddhism. In order to fully understand Buddhist art, one must also attempt to understand the basic philosophical premises of Buddhism.

References

Jackson, D. & Jackson, J. (1988). Tibetan Thangka Painting. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publishing.

Kohn, R.J. (2001) Lord of the Dance: The Mani Rimdu Festival in Tibet and Nepal. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

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