Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Buddha's True Face II

In Buddhism Buddha statues are expressions of devotion of the artists who make them and aids to contemplation to those who worship them and therefore it is not correct to say that “Buddhists worship idols”. That this is not a new idea, a modern rationalization, is amply proved by the writings of Robert Knox who, in the 17th century, described the Kandyans attitude to Buddha statues thus: “As for these images, they say they do not own them to be gods themselves but only figures representing their Gods to their memories, and as such, they give them honor and worship”. Nonetheless, the Mahabodhi Image was sometimes worshipped as if it were the Buddha himself, food was offered to it and devotees would drape robes over it. The Chinese monk, I Tsing, who visited Bodh Gaya in the 7th century wrote. “Afterwards we came to the Mahabodhi Temple and worshipped the Image of the True Face of the Buddha. I took bolts of thick and fine silk which had been given to me by the monks and laymen of Shantung, made a robe to it the size of the Tathagata and myself offered it to the image. Many myriads of small canopies which were entrusted to me by the Vinaya master Huien of Pu’, I offered on his behalf. The meditation master teacher An Tao of Ts’ao asked me to worship the Image and I did this in his name. Then I prostrated myself completely on the ground with my mind undivided, sincere and respectful. Firstly, I wished that China might experience the four benefits and that those benefits might prevail throughout the whole universe. Then I expressed the desire to be reborn under the Naga tree so that as to meet Maitriya and practice the true Dhamma and realise the knowledge not subject to rebirth”. A Chinese inscription found to the north of the Temple written by the monk Ko Yun in 1022 says of the image, “The great hero Maitreya out of compassion for all beings left them the real likeness — The image is respected by the heterodox, cherished by the discerning and although 2000 years old its face remains new”. The inscription also tells us that Ko Yun and his companions draped the Image with a robe made of silk that they had bought with them all the way from China for the purpose. This practice of putting robes on the statue in the main shrine of the Mahabodhi Temple continues even today. As time went by the image was even believed to be able to speak perhaps such a belief should not surprise us too much. Many people in the theistic religions believe that their god talks to them in dreams or in prayer. In fact, one of the last references we have to the Mahabodhi Image mentions it speaking. In 1300, the Tibetan Tantric adept Man-luns-po travelled to Bodh Gaya and made a vow before the Mahabodhi Image to neither eat or drink until it spoke to him. After waiting eighteen days he got his wish when the statue said. “Oh son of noble family! Proceed to Mount Potala and there practice in the manner of Bodhisatvas in the presence of Avaloktesvara”. The details of Man-luns-po’s subsequent journey suggest that that he did actually go to the sacred mountain in Kerala.Being as it were the most lifelike symbol of the Buddha, the Mahabodhi Image attracted the attention of devoted Buddhists but also those who hated and wanted to destroy Buddhism. The most notorious of these was the fanatical Saivite Bengali king Sasanka. Early in the 7th century, his minions attacked Bodh Gaya with the intention of destroying the Mahabodhi Image. Hiuen Tsiang relates what happened. “King Sasanka wished to destroy this image but having seen its loving expression his mind had no rest or determination and he returned homeward with his retinue. On this way he said to one of his officers. ‘We must remove the statue of the Buddha and replace it with one of Mahesvara’. The officer having received this order was moved with fear and sighing said.’ ‘If destroy the statue of the Buddha I will reap misfortune for many kalpas. If on the other hand I disobey the king he will kill me and my family. I am doomed whether I obey or not. What then shall I do? "On this, he called to his presence a man who was a Buddhist to help him and sent him to build across the chamber and in front of the Buddha statue a wall of brick. Out of a feeling of shame at the darkness placed a burning lamp in with the statue and then on the wall drew the figure of Mahesvara. The work being finished he reported it to the king who was suddenly seized with terror. His body became covered with sores, his flesh rotted off and after a while he died. Then the officer quickly ordered the wall to be pulled down and although several days had elapsed the lamp was found to be still burning”. In the 13th century Bodh Gaya came under attack again, this time by Muslim invaders, and the monks used a similar strategy to save the Mahabodhi Image. Dharmasvamin tells us, “They blocked up the door in front of the Mahabodhi Image with bricks and plastered it, near it they places another image as a substitute. On its surface they drew an image of Mahesvara to protect it from the non-Buddhists”. Dharmasvamin was also told that formerly the Mahabodhi Image had two beautiful gems in its eyes that emitted a light so bright that it was possible to read by it. During a lightning raid a little before his visit a soldier had put a ladder against the image and prised the eyes out. As he was climbing down he slipped and fell, dropping the gems and smashing them, after which their light grew dim. The Tibetan historian Taranatha tells us a legend he heard about the origins of these gems. He relates that when the man who had built the Mahabodhi Temple had placed the statue in it, he happened to find a wondrous self-illuminating gem. When he expressed regret that he had nor not found the gem earlier two holes a suddenly appeared in the statue’s eyes. As he prepared to cut the gem in to two, so he could put it in the statue’s sockets, a second gem miraculously appeared.The Mahabodhi Image had a considerable influence on art in India other parts of Asia through copies of it which were taken to various Buddhist countries. Baladitya’s huge temple at Nalanda had a life size copy of the statue in as did the main temple at Vikramasila. When the Chinese pilgrim I Tsing returned home in 698 he brought with him a picture of the statue and presented it to the Fo Shou Chi Monastery. The Chinese envoy Wang Hiuen Ts’e made four separate trips to India, visiting Bodh Gaya during two of them. He returned from his last trip with a model of the Mahabodhi Image which he deposited in the Imperial Palace. He also found himself flooded with requests from people in the capital for copies of the statue. The Tibetan monks Chag Gar-com (1153-1216) is said to have made a copy of the statue and enshrined it in a temple especially built for the purpose. He first saw the original during a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya where each day he would buy flowers in the market and strew over the statue. A Buddha statue the same dimensions as the image was installed in the great stupa at Gyantse in Tibet in 1421. The measurements for this copy were obtained from Sariputra, the last abbot of Bodh Gaya, when he passed through Tibet on his way to China in 1413. This copy can still be seen in the topmost shrine on the east side of the great stupa of Gyantse. In the 19th century, a Buddha statue in the earth witnessing gesture was found near the Sri Mahabodhi in Anuradhapura, the only such statue from ancient Sri Lanka. Although I have no proof I suspect that this also was a copy of the Mahabodhi Image. Nor was sculpture the only art form influenced by this famous statue. The origin of one ancient India style of painting pictures of the Buddha was traced back to an impression made by smearing the Mahabodhi Image with yellow sandalwood paste and pressing a cotton cloth on it.When the Tibetan monk Dharmasvamin was in Bodh Gaya in 1234 he said the Mahabodhi Image was still attracting devotees. He wrote of it, “One is never satiated to behold such an image and has no desire to go and behold another. Even people of little faith when standing in front of the image feel it impossible not to shed tears”. The last reference to the Mahabodhi Image is an inscription from about the 15th century carved on a stone railing around the Mahabodhi Temple. It was written by a Buddhist pilgrim from “the mountainous country of Parvata” named Jinadasa and specifically mentions that he had come all the way from his home to gaze at the Mahabodhi Image. After that the statue was lost to the world, perhaps it was destroyed by Islamic iconoclasts although there is no record of this. For nearly 500 years the asana inside the Mahabodhi Temple stood empty. In 1877, the embassy sent by the king of Burma to repair the Mahabodhi Temple installed a statue inside it but this was a rather unattractive image made out of old bricks and plaster. Then in 1880, Joseph Beglar was commissioned by the Indian government to repair the Temple. His unofficial adviser in this task was the great archaeologist Alexander Cunningham. After work on the Temple was finished the two men felt that there was still something missing, a fitting statue in its main shrine. Numerous Buddha statues were lying all around Bodh Gaya but on examination they were all found to be unsuitable, either too small, damaged or of Bodhisattvas rather than of the Buddha himself. Finally a statue was located in a small shrine in the Mahant’s residence, the Hindu monk laid claim to own Bodh Gaya village and its temple. The statue was undamaged, with fine feature and just the right size, neither too small so as to look insignificant in the shrine or too large, so as to make it appear cluttered. The fragmentary inscription on the base of this statue says that it was commissioned by the Chhindha Purnabhadra in about the 12th century. When Cunnimgham asked the Mahant if he could have the statue he refused. But he was a resourceful man and he finally was able to pry it from the Mahants grip. What promises, flattery or threats he used we do not know. Today this statue sits in the Mahabodhi temple, its serene and being gaze looking down on those who come from all over the world to worship it.

1 comment:

aah-haa said...

“As for these images, they say they do not own them to be gods themselves but only figures representing their Gods to their memories, and as such, they give them honor and worship”. What Robert Knox said is also applicable to other religions except those who claimed they do not have any images for worship or devotion. Even this is not true as far as Islam is concerned. Muslims do have at least a very important object of worship. To me, it is all in human nature. We can't show respect, reverence, honor and love for a great leader, teacher, philosopher, my grandmother who are no longer alive without any form of image - picture, photo, statute, bust, symbol, rock carving, jewelries, etc. The Chinese ancestor worship requires making offerings and bowing to a photo of their ancestor. Surely, the photo is a representation of their ancestors in memories.
However, to deck the photo or statue with jewelries, encase it in gold or jade, enlarge it to outlandish proportion must surely be beyond the simply need to memorize a person however great or loving. It is also human nature to 'idolize' some 'great' people, for example Mao (China), Saddam (Iraq), Kim (N Korea) with giant statues and photos in very every square, street corner and building - while they are still alive! Is that memory or idolization?