The Victoria and Albert Museum is the world’s largest museum of applied arts, decorative arts and design. It’s in the current building since 1909. But, I’m not going to write about the history of this museum. To learn more, you can visit its web site.
However, I want to say that it’s a truly spectacular museum, with an enormous collection. I don’t think that it’s possible to see everything properly during one visit. If you live in London, you can go back as many times as you want, the entrance is free. But, it’s different if you are coming from abroad. Perhaps, you can try to see as much as possible. The issue is that with so much to see, after several hours, you become saturated with impressions.
Thus, in this and the next posts, I’ll present snippets of this museum that I found particularly interesting. Otherwise, it’s impossible and unnecessary to present everything. To see the whole collection, you simply have to visit the museum.
So, I’ll start with Buddhism and images of Buddha in Asia.
IMAGES OF BUDDHA IN ASIA
The Buddha lived in northern India between about 485 and 405 BC. His followers believe that he achieved enlightenment, the ultimate state of awareness. This gave him a unique insight into the causes of human suffering and how to overcome them.
After his death, the Buddha was first represented by symbols like footprints or an empty throne. Human images of Buddha appeared later in the 1st century AD. Monks and merchants spread those images, together with Buddhist teachings, to the rest of Asia.
Despite stylistic differences between Asian countries, all Buddha images follow a similar visual pattern, established in the 1st century.
The first Buddha images drew on the ancient concept of the Mahapurusha or the “Great Being”. He was described as having 32 lakshanas – special features that signify noble or spiritual characteristics. They include ushnisha or the “wisdom bump”, on top of the head. It symbolises the Buddha’s divine wisdom.
BUDDHA’S IMAGE IN CHINA
This Buddha has an ornate halo decorated with flowers and an inner ring of lotus petals. Traces of paint show that the figure was once brightly coloured. The style of the decoration and drapery suggests that the figure probably came from the cave temple complex at Xiangtangshan in northern China.
These features, together with the delicately carved rounded face, show a masterful Chinese interpretation of the Indian Gupta dynasty style.
The Buddha, in the photo below, is shown just before his enlightenment when he lowers his right hand to the ground, to call the earth goddess to witness his worthiness to attain liberation.
An inscription in Tibetan around the base explains that the representative of Tibetan Buddhism at the Chinse Qing dynasty court and spiritual guide of the Emperor Qianlong commissioned this Buddha.
The image may have been made at one of the several Tibetan temples in Beijing.
BUDDHA’S IMAGE IN PAKISTAN
The ancient region of Gandhara, in present day Pakistan and Afghanistan, was a source of early Buddha images.
Below, the meditating Buddha sits cross-legged, in the gesture of meditation or dhyana mudra.
The facial features and robes show the influence of classical sculpture. Alexander the Great conquered parts of Central Asia and established settlements in the 4th century BC. The Greek influence in the region lasted for many centuries.
The rounded facial features of the next Buddha and its flower decorated halo show that it was made during the Gupta dynasty of India.
The similarities between this figure and the Chinese Buddha Shakyamuni show how Buddhist teachings and art styles passed from India to China during these centuries.
This statue comes from an ancient Buddhist archaeological site Kahu-Jo-Daro, near Mirphur Khas in Pakistan.
BUDDHA’S IMAGE IN THAILAND
The Buddha stands with his right hand raised in the gesture of granting freedom from abhaya mudra or fear.
It symbolises divine protection given to the worshipper. The lotus on which he stands represents his purity and that of his teachings.
The figure was made in the former capital Ayutthaya, at the height of the Thai kingdom’s power and prosperity. It represents the beauty of the images created at that time.
LIFE OF THE BUDDHA
The Buddha was born around 485 BC in Lumbini, Nepal. Although raised in luxury as a prince, he became deeply affected by the reality of human suffering. Determined to find the reason for this suffering, he renounced his wealth, palace and family, to seek spiritual understanding.
Eventually, the Buddha achieved enlightenment through deep meditation, seated under a tree in Bodhgaya. Enlightenment is a state beyond thoughts or words that brings profound wisdom and compassion. The Buddha realised that the sufferings, integral to human life, are directly caused by desire, which traps us in a cycle of rebirth. He saw that, by overcoming desire, it is possible to reach nirvana – a state of freedom beyond rebirth.
He spent the next 45 years teaching throughout northern India. The Buddha died around 405 BC in Kusinagara and passed into the final state of nirvana, called mahaparinirvana.
His teachings are the basis of Buddhism, practiced in many different forms across the world.
BIRTH OF THE BUDDHA
Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, emerges from his mother Queen Maya’s side. She stands under a shala tree. The god Indra receives the child while, behind him, the god Brahma approaches respectfully.
The infant Buddha is also below Indra. He takes seven steps in the four directions, thus establishing his spiritual authority over the world.
GREAT DEPARTURE OF THE BUDDHA
Prince Siddhartha Gautama secretly departs from his father’s city, Kapilavastu. He rides his horse Kanthaka.
The gods hold Kanthaka’s hooves in the air, to prevent them from making any noise. The bearded figure of the guardian Vajrapani follows the pair, holding a large vajra or thunderbolt.
This is the Buddha Shakyamuni at the moment of his enlightenment. He wears the crown and ornaments of a king, together with the simple robes of a monk.
This combination represents his spiritual authority. The Buddha touches the ground to ask the earth goddess Prithvi if he is worthy of becoming a Buddha. She confirms by making the earth shake.
DECENT OF THE BUDDHA FROM THE TRAYASTRIMSHA HEAVEN
The Buddha is shown descending to Earth from the Heaven of the 33 gods, Trayastrimsha.
He had visited heaven to preach to his mother and the gods. He makes his way down a celestial stairway, followed at each of the three stages of descent by the turbaned god Indra on the right and Brahma on the left.
DEATH OF THE BUDDHA
This is the moment of the Buddha’s death as he passes into mahaparinirvana, the final release from the cycle of rebirth.
Behind his bed are local princes, with grief on their faces. A senior disciple with a staff, Mahakashyapa, stands at the foot of the bed.
Subhadra, a recent convert, sits meditating immediately below the Buddha.
BODHISATTVA PATH – THE GREAT WAY
Originally, the word bodhisattva described the Buddha before he reached enlightenment. However, as new teachings evolved from the 1st century BC onwards, the term took on a deeper and wider meaning.
It began to be used for those who aim to reach enlightenment, the highest spiritual state, for the sake of the others. Bodhisattvas do this to help people escape from suffering and achieve enlightenment for themselves.
This selfless way contrasts with earlier teachings where enlightenment was seen as more of a personal release from the cycle of rebirth. It became known as Mahayana or the “Great Way”, offering a new spiritual path to Buddhists.
Over the first millennium, Mahayana teachings spread throughout Asia, with the bodhisattva concept at their core.
SCENE FROM THE GANDAVYUHA SUTRA
The Gandavyuha Sutra is a Buddhist Mahayana text. It tells how a pilgrim, Prince Sudhana, achieved enlightenment with the help of several bodhisattvas.
In the relief below, Sudhana appears twice. On the left, he receives instructions from the bodhisattva Samantabhadra (the large seated figure). In the centre, he is with his palms together in reverence.
This is a plaster cast of the original relief from Borobudur in Java.
AVALOKITESHVARA SEATED ON MOUNT POTALA
The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara sits in his heaven on Mount Patala. The figures of other bodhisattvas are carved alongside with the rocky landscape of this mountain paradise.
Antelopes, elephants, lions, monkeys and a stag are also in between trees and flowers. The area at the sculpture’s base represents the human world and contains rows of devotees, children and musicians.
The artefact comes from the ancient Vikrampura region in Bangladesh.
The name Tara means “female saviour”. She is a bodhisattva widely worshipped for her protective powers and compassionate nature.
Tara holds a lotus in one hand and makes the gesture of granting varada mudra or wishes with the other.
The composition of the relief, with Tara standing against an elaborate throne, suggests that it was once a miniature shrine.
The sculpture comes from Bihar, in North-East India.
Purneshvari is an important goddess of healing. Both, Buddhist and Hindus worshipped her. She sits on a lotus throne with the Hindu god Ganesha to her right.
The figure comes from Jaynagar in North-East India.
TANTRIC PATH – RAPID ENLIGHTENMENT
Between 600 and 1100 AD, a new form of teaching evolved in India, known as Vajrayna Buddhism or the Tantric (Diamond) Path.
It drew on existing practices in yoga, like breath control and reciting mantras, to create a rapid path to enlightenment. All Buddhists consider enlightenment to be the highest spiritual state a human being can reach.
However, followers of the Tantric Path believe that it’s possible to achieve enlightenment even within one’s lifetime.
During the first millennium, tantra spread from India to other Asian countries. Tantric teachings were originally communicated in secret. They encouraged practices usually forbidden in Buddhism, like using ritualised sexual encounters to experience higher states of awareness. Over time, celibate monks reinterpreted these teachings.
A key aspect of tantra involves imagining deities while meditating, to identify with their enlightened qualities. The image below represents and contains the energy of such deities.
This four-armed bodhisattva holds prayer beads in his lower left hand. In his upper left hand he grasps a vishvavajra, a double thunderbolt sceptre that symbolises the unshakable nature of Buddhahood.
The vishvavajra is a symbol of Tantric Buddhism, established in Sumatra and central Java between 700 and 1000 AD.
Buddhism is fascinating, but perhaps we can say the same for all other major world religions.
I would certainly like to go back to Thailand, but also to other countries in south-east Asia. For sure, it would be the best way for me to learn more about this religion.