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Buddhist Art Explained

Buddhist Art

Understanding Buddhist Art

Buddhist Art is the artistic practices that are influenced by Buddhism. Buddhist art originated on the Indian subcontinent following the historical life of Siddhartha Gautama, 6th to 5th century BCE. After the Buddha, it evolved by contact and interactions with other cultures and artistic traditions as it spread throughout Asia and the world.

Buddhist Art includes the depiction of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other notable Buddhist figures, both historical and mythical.  Buddhist Art also includes narrative scenes from the lives of Buddhist figures; mandalas and other graphic aids for the practice of Buddhism; as well as objects used in the Buddhist traditions, such as vajras, bells, stupas and Buddhist temple architecture.

Anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha – The Greek Influence

Anthropomorphic images of the Buddha started to emerge in the 1st century from regions with Greco-Buddhism under the Indo-Greeks. Greco-Buddhism is the cultural combination of Hellenistic culture and Buddhism, which developed between the 4th century BC and the 5th century AD in Bactria and the Indian subcontinent. It was a cultural consequence of a long history of interactions that begin with Greek forays into India from the time of Alexander the Great. The Indo-Greek Kingdoms were Hellenistic kingdoms covering various parts of Afghanistan and the northwest regions of the Indian subcontinent during the last two centuries BC.

Explore Buddhist Art in Museums

As Buddhism expanded outside of India from the 1st century CE, its original forms blended with other artistic influences, leading to a progressive differentiation among the countries adopting the faith. Northern Buddhist Art was influenced by a northern route which was established from the 1st century CE through Central Asia, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, where Mahayana Buddhism prevailed. Southern Buddhist Art was influenced by a  southern route, where Theravada Buddhism dominated and went through Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.

Buddhist Art spread and adapted and evolved in each new host country. Before the spread of Islam and the modern era, Buddhist Art became common in the following areas.

Northern Buddhist Art

  • In India, where Buddhist art flourished, it co-developed with Hindu and Jain art.
  • In Northern India, Anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha, influenced by Hellenistic Greek Art, started to emerge from the 1st century CE.
  • In Afghanistan or old Bactria, Buddhist Art persisted for several centuries until the spread of Islam in the 7th century.
  • In Central Asia, the meeting place between China, India, and Persia.
  • Buddhism arrived in China around the 1st century CE and introduced new types of art into China.
  • Korean Buddhist art generally reflects an interaction between other Buddhist influences and the strongly indigenous Korean culture.
  • Japan received Buddhism through Korea, China, Central Asia, and eventually India.
  • In Tibet and Bhutan, Tantric Buddhism started as a movement in eastern India around the 5th or the 6th century.
  • Vietnam has been strongly influenced by Chinese Buddhist art, between the 1st and 9th centuries.

Southern Buddhist Art

  • Southern Buddhism became the practice in Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.
  • Buddhism was introduced in Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BCE by Indian missionaries.
  • The eastern part of Indian Buddhism strongly influenced Myanmar (Burma).
  • In Cambodia, the cultural influence came directly from India.
  • Buddhist art in Thailand was first influenced by direct contact with Indian traders, from the 1st to the 7th centuries.
  • Indonesia seems to have been most strongly influenced by India from the 1st century CE.

Buddhist Values

The Basic Teachings of Buddha which are core to Buddhism, in a highly simplified form are:

  • The Three Universal Truths
  • The Four Noble Truths
  • The Noble Eightfold Path

The Three Universal Truths are:

  • Nothing is lost in the universe
  • Everything Changes
  • The Law of Cause and Effect

The Four Noble Truths explore human suffering.

  • Suffering exists. Life is suffering.
  • There is a cause of suffering. Suffering is due to attachment.
  • There is an end to suffering. Attachment can be overcome.
  • To end suffering, you must follow the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path consists of Wisdom, Morality, and Meditation.

  • Morality:
    • Right speech: Not lying, criticism, condemning, gossip, harsh language.
    • Right conduct. Abstaining from harmful behaviors, such as killing, stealing, and careless sex.
    • Right livelihood: Support yourself without harming others.
  • Meditation:
    • Right Effort. Promote good thoughts; conquer evil thoughts.
    • Right Mindfulness. Become aware of your body, mind, and feelings.
    • Right Concentration. Meditate to progressively realize a true understanding of imperfection, impermanence, and non-separateness
  • Wisdom:
    • Right Understanding of the Four Noble Truths.
    • Right thinking and following the right path in life.

Buddha Quotes

“Do not dwell in the past; do not dream of the future; concentrate the mind on the present moment.”


“Give, even if you only have a little.”


“Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship.”


“There is no fear for one whose mind is not filled with desires.”


“Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, humans cannot live without a spiritual life.”


“Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely.”


“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can, and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”


“Irrigators channel waters; carpenters bend wood; the wise master themselves.”


“To keep the body in good health is a duty… otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.”


“Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good.”


“It is better to travel well than to arrive.”


“Better than a thousand hollow words is one word that brings peace.”


“If you knew what I know about the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing it in some way.”


“The root of suffering is attachment.”


“To be idle is a short road to death, and to be diligent is a way of life; foolish people are idle, wise people are diligent.”


“Even as a solid rock is unshaken by the wind, so are the wise unshaken by praise or blame.’


Explore and Expand your Understanding


“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle,
and the life of the candle will not be shortened.
Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

– Buddha


Photo Credit: JOM

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