Last year, in preparation for the exhibition Tibet and India: Buddhist Traditions and Transformations (on view through June 8), I traveled to India to see about a dozen major museum collections. (In 2010 I conducted a similar survey in Tibet, which will be the subject of my next post.) While I was in India I also had the opportunity to study many of the major tenth- to twelfth-century Buddhist sites in the northern part of the country—sites made sacred by the actions of the Buddha. I spent most of my time in Bihar, but I also visited Buddhist centers in Odisha on the east coast.
One of my personal favorites is the great complex of Nalanda, a monastic university that thrived from the seventh to twelfth centuries, though the foundation of this center must be much earlier. This site is interesting as so much survives; rectangular monasteries lined with residential cells, huge temples that contained massive images, relic stupas as well as more than four hundred bronze and stone sculptures.
The sculpture produced at Nalanda is of the highest quality. In the Tibet and India: Buddhist Traditions and Transformations exhibition we are fortunate to be able to show a Buddha from Nalanda, who is presented at the moment of his enlightenment, with his right hand reaching down to touch the Earth, bearing witness to the past actions that brought him to this point of ultimate realization. This gesture, called the bhumisparsha mudra, marks the culmination of his refined and meritorious religious acts, including those in countless past lives. The Buddha sits in a yogic posture, deep in meditation.
Nalanda is known from the accounts of various foreign pilgrims who came here to study and translate texts. Xuanzang, a Chinese monk of the early seventh century, tells of rigorous entrance exams and a wide curriculum of available courses—a description that could almost refer to a university today. Famous throughout the Buddhist world was the Nalanda's library, the Shilabhadra (Treasury of Good Law), which would have contained texts written on prepared palm leaves like this beautifully illuminated page from an Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript. Monks coming down from Tibet studied and translated such texts, and brought many back to Tibet where—fortunately—they survived in the cold, dry climate on this high plateau. The illuminations likely were an important source for the Tibetan tangka painting tradition that was emerging at this time.
Another important monastery was Vikramashila, outside the modern village of Antichak in eastern Bihar. As with Nalanda, monks came to study at this center, which was particularly acclaimed for its teachers versed in the tantric texts that provide the foundation for Vajrayana Buddhism. In Taranatha's history of Tibet, in one instance a monk named Riripa "made big offerings to Chakrasamvara," a powerful Buddhist protective deity, when Vikramashila was attacked, thereby repelling the invading army and killing its chief and many soldiers. In this light Vajrayana rituals not only provided a fast path to enlightenment, but they were also understood to have tangible value for solving problems in this world, and through supplications to a deity like Chakrasamvara they could be put to pragmatic effect.
One of the most famous teachers from Vikramashila was its abbot Atisha. In 1042 Atisha traveled to Tibet at the invitation of the western Tibetan king Yeshe 'Od, where he taught until his death in 1054.
The temple at the center of monastic complex has shrines facing the four directions, each of which originally contained a massive Buddha.
Conceptually, each of these celestial Buddhas presided over one of the directional pure lands. Perhaps the best known today is Amitabha, who presides over the western paradise.
While little remains of these massive Buddhas, images like the one above perhaps give us an idea of what they may have looked like. The interpretation of such crowned Buddhas is much debated, and various Buddhist communities interpreted them in different ways. The Yoga Tantra, a popular Vajrayana text that emerged at this time, says that at the moment of enlightenment the Buddha Shakyamuni left his physical body and was conducted to the highest heaven in his "mind-made body" (manomayakaya). Buddhas of the ten directions then bestowed upon him the five stages of perfect enlightenment, as marked by five "formulas of self-consecration." This complex cosmological sequence of events is described in terms that relate to a coronation, hence the crown iconography. The Yoga Tantra then describes how Shakyamuni became the perfected Buddha Vairochana (who sits at the cosmic center), and only after having taught the Yoga Tantra to a host of celestial beings on the summit of Mount Meru did he descend to Earth and resume his physical body under the Bodhi tree. Within this esoteric interpretation, the Museum's sculpture could be understood as simultaneously showing the celestial crowned Buddha Vairochana in heaven and Shakyamuni in his physical, relic-producing form reaching enlightenment at Bodhgaya, a dualism characteristic of Buddhist iconography during this period.
The Bodhi tree under which the Buddha reached enlightenment was a major place of pilgrimage in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as it is today. The tree itself is seen as charged with the enlightened presence of the Buddha. In fact, as this species of tree can be grown from a cutting, the current tree is understood to be the very same one that stood here in the time of the Buddha.
By the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Mahabodhi temple had come to be equated with this place made sacred by the actions of the Buddha.
We know from small models produced at this time that the Bodhi tree was placed behind the tower on the second story, suggesting that it was the temple and the image it contained that took precedence.
Works such as the massive relief shown above—which now sits in a small temple in the village of Jagdishpur, not far from Nalanda—show the Buddha touching the Earth at the moment of his enlightenment. Such images contextualize this moment of ultimate realization by showing other events in the life of the Buddha in the panel that frames the main image. The locations for each of these events—his birth, enlightenment, first sermon, and others—had become major centers for pilgrimage by the time this relief was created.
After Bodhgaya, the most important of these pilgrimage centers was Sarnath, shown above, where the Buddha revealed the path to enlightenment (the dharma) to his first five monks.
Some of these pilgrimage sites come to be associated with seemingly minor life events, but were nonetheless important for a larger pilgrimage itinerary. A good example is Vaishali, which, based on the presence of an Ashokan pillar that dates to the third century B.C., had a long history as an active Buddhist center. It is here that a monkey offered the Buddha honey and as a result was able to be reborn as a human, a necessary step to attain enlightenment.
This board features works related to the exhibition and photographs taken by Curator Kurt Behrendt on his research trips to the region.
Friday Focus—Reimagining the Indian and Tibetan Buddhist Traditions: A Conversation
Friday, March 7, 4:00–5:00 p.m.
Free with Museum admission