Life of the Buddha: The Birth of the Buddha

Period: Muromachi period (1392–1573)

Date: early 15th century

Culture: Japan

Medium: Section of a wall panel mounted as a hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on silk

Dimensions: 29 1/2 x 43 7/8 in. (75 x 111.5 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Gift of Alvin Friedman-Kien, 1993

Accession Number: 1993.478.1


In keeping with his extraordinary destiny, the Buddha was miraculously conceived, said to have entered his mother's side in the form of a bodhisattva riding a white, six-tusked elephant. As depicted here, nine months later his mother, Queen Maya, grasped a tree branch while walking through the Lumbini gardens and the baby emerged from her side. Heavenly musicians played music and threw flowers in celebration as the newborn immediately took seven steps marked by lotus flowers and, raising his right hand, declared, "Among all divine beings, only I am lord, most holy and victorious. The three realms are all sorrowful. I have come here through immeasurable births and deaths for the benefit of men and gods." He was then given his first bath, a heavenly lustration by dragons.
The nativity, with its symbolism of cosmic renewal, is one of the most important events in the story of the Buddha's life and is celebrated as an annual rite on the Buddhist ritual calendar. A reenactment of the first bath, where a small icon of the standing child with arm raised in the gesture of proclamation is placed in a basin and purified with water, is a significant part of this celebration. This rare and unusual fourteenth-century painting most likely decorated a temple hall as part of a complete cycle of events from the Buddha's life used to instruct worshippers.