Asian Art Museum | Education

The best of Asian art at the tip of your fingers for use in the classroom or at home.

Sign up

In My Resources you can save the content you like all in one place. Get started by creating an account.

Create a new account

The Buddha Shakyamuni, 1700–1800

The Buddha Shakyamuni, 1700–1800

The Buddha Shakyamuni, 1700–1800. Mongolia. Gilt bronze. Gift of Betty and Jack Bogart, 1994.131.

Detail: The Buddha Shakyamuni, 1700–1800

Detail: The Buddha Shakyamuni, 1700–1800. Mongolia. Gilt bronze. Gift of Betty and Jack Bogart, 1994.131.

The Buddha Shakyamuni, 1700–1800
Detail: The Buddha Shakyamuni, 1700–1800

How do we recognize this figure as Shakyamuni Buddha?
This is the traditional representation of the Shakyamuni Buddha or the historical Buddha. The statue shows the moment of his enlightenment at a place called Bodh Gaya in India, which has become the most holy site visited by Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world. Representations of the Buddha have several physical characteristics that help us identify him. He is seated in the lotus position of meditation—legs crossed at the ankles with the soles upward—his back is completely straight, He wears a simple, thin monk’s robe that covers his left shoulder and arm and exposes the right. At the top of his head is a protuberance that is associated with his transcendent wisdom. His hair is shown as a mass of compact curls. His earlobes are elongated.

Who was Shakyamuni Buddha?
Shakyamuni Buddha is the founder of the Buddhist religion. He lived and taught in India in the sixth century BCE, a time of burgeoning religious and philosophical thought from Greece to China. Born as the crown prince of the great Shakya Kingdom, the young Siddhartha Gautama was groomed to be a king in accordance with the wishes of his royal father. However, when he was about 29 years old, he learned of the deep suffering experienced in life by people. He left his palace life, gave up his fine garments and jewelry in order to find the causes of this suffering and the means to overcome it. After about six years of study, self-deprivation, and deep meditation he finally realized his goal. He had become an enlightened one (a Buddha). After this, he is said to have walked to a deer park in Sarnath (Benares) on the outskirts of Varanasi in India. Here he gave his first sermon, an event which is called the turning of the wheel of Buddhist law (Dharmacakra). The wheel as a metaphor for Buddha’s teaching will become a prevalent symbol in Buddhist art.

What does this statute “say”?
Buddhist figures communicate with hand and body gestures. Shakyamuni’s right hand reaches down to touch the earth. This gesture represents the moment when he called the earth to witness his transcendence of the realm of Mara, the supreme God of the world (samsara), who had tried to distract him from his meditation. In response, the earth trembled and shook to acknowledge Shakyamuni’s attainment of Buddhahood. Shakyamuni’s left hand rests in his lap in the gesture of meditation, and holds his alms bowl.

How was this sculpture used?
This style is very similar to what would be found in Tibet as it was taught to Mongolian artists by Tibetan artists, and follows the strict and detailed standards of traditional Tibetan Buddhist iconography.Tibetan sacred art always serves a religious function. This sculpture, like most Tibetan art, may be used in meditation as an aid to visualize one’s own enlightenment, as well as that of all other beings. The sacred sculpture gives the practitioner direct access to the Buddha once it is ritually empowered as an embodiment of the Buddha. It may then receive the obeisance, offerings, confessions and prayers of every variety from the practitioner. These sacred images are invited to take a place of honor on a Buddhist altar, whether at home or in a monastery. There they become a focal point for meditation and ritual.

Who was the artists, Zanabazar?
Zanabazar (1635-1723) was an important religious leader and a famous artist from Mongolia who was a descendent of Chinggis (Gengis) Kahn, the great Mongol conqueror. He was Central Asia’s version of the “Renaissance Man.” He was a linguist (he invented a new Mongolian script), politician, theologian, architect, sculptor, and painter. Histories about him abound with miraculous feats, but there is no question of his artistic magic, which was recognized by Mongolians, Tibetans, and the Manchurian court in China. Although it is difficult to know which works he created, this piece is similar in style to other known works by Zanabazar. His students and their descendants followed his way of modeling and producing this style of sacred art, which has become known as the Zanabazar School.

The bottom of this sculpture is inscribed with English? Why?
A steel plate placed on top of the double thunderbolt design under the base is inscribed with the following: “ J. Johnson, Quarter Master, 99th Regiment, China Campaign, 1860.” Quarter Master Johnson was part of the Allied troops that occupied Beijing and destroyed the summer palace (Yuanming Yuan). There is no doubt this piece was taken at that time.

Discussion Points/Teaching Suggestions:

Examine maps showing terrain and cities of Asia to find Varanasi in India (near where the Buddha gave his first sermon). Discuss or research the following questions:
  1. How did Buddha’s teachings spread? Examine maps showing terrain and cities of Asia to find Varanasi in India (near where the Buddha gave his first sermon). Discuss or research the following questions:
  2. How was it possible that his words traveled over the high Himalayan mountains to Tibet?
  3. Where else did Buddhism travel to? (virtually all of Asia and, recently, the US and Europe)
  4. How did it get there? (discuss trade routes—overland and by sea, immigration, foreign occupation causing refugees to flee to other countries, pilgrimage, traveling monks inbound and outbound from India, the transmission of ideas through texts translated into many languages, the impact of the Buddhist arts that were traded in sharing of ideas, the popularity of Buddhism in contemporary western society, etc.
  5. What other kinds of things were exchanged through trade? (writing, technologies, silk, metals, language, etc.)
  6. Consider ways that trade and immigration in the US has changed American culture over the past 200 years.
  7. How has China’s invasion of Tibet changed Tibet and India (where a large exile community resides)?

Discussion Topic: To restore or preserve?
Oftentimes artworks are altered by people through time. For, example, oil paintings have been “touched up,” broken ceramics pieced back together using parts from newer, and less valuable pieces, inscriptions are added to Chinese scroll paintings. In this case, a metal plate was added more than 100 years after this sculpture was made. Conservators in museums work with the curators to decide how to treat works that have been altered. They might decide restore a work to its original condition, or they may decide to preserve it as it is. Restoring a work may involve filling in missing areas, or removing a coat of paint that was added by someone else. Preservation means the conservators will try to prevent any more changes happening to the object. Sometimes, they opt for a combination of both strategies. Should the museum remove this plate or leave it there? What are the reasons for keeping it, and reasons for removing it? Stage a debate on this issue.

Patricia Berger and Terese Tse Bartholomew, Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Kahn (San Francisco: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 1995): pp. 79-80 and 261-3.