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Episode 41 - Seated Buddha from Gandhara

Seated Buddha (made between 100 and 300 AD). Stone statue; from Gandhara, Pakistan

It's morning in Battersea Park in London, and I'm standing near the river, next to the Peace Pagoda. Every day, watched by four gilded Buddha statues, a Japanese Buddhist monk drums his way over the grass. His name is the Reverend Gyoro Nagase, and he knows these gilded Buddhas very well. But then so, in a sense, do we all: here, looking out over the Thames, is the Buddha sitting cross-legged, his hands touching in front of his chest. I hardly need to describe the figure any further, because the seated Buddha is one of the most familiar and most enduring images in world religion.

Today you can find statues of the Buddha - seated and serene - all over the world, but it hasn't always been like this. The Buddha has not always been there for us to contemplate. For centuries he was represented only through a set of symbols. The story of how this changed, and how the Buddha came to be shown in human form, begins in Pakistan around 1,800 years ago.

"The presence of the image of the Buddha creates a very interesting and deep spiritual and calm ambiance, on the site where you have it." (Thupten Jinpa)

"It's really the need for worshipping visually, for 'seeing' the gods, for having them visible, and not only thinking of the Buddha as a man who lived four, five hundred years before, and who has initiated a new way of looking at life." (Claudine Bautze-Pictron)

This week in our history we're with the gods or, in this case, as near to the gods as it's possible for humans to get. All religions have to confront the key question - how can the infinite, the boundless, be apprehended? How can we, humans, draw near to the other, God? Some aim to achieve it through chanting, some through words alone, but most faiths have found images useful to focus human attention on the divine. In this week's programmes, I'll be looking at how, a little under two thousand years ago, great religions used the visual as a route to prayer. Is it more than an extraordinary coincidence that at about the same moment Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism all start showing Christ, Hindu gods and the Buddha in human form? Coincidence or not, all three religions established then artistic conventions which are still very much alive today.

Around 1,800 years ago, Buddhism had already been in existence for centuries. The historical Buddha was a prince of the Ganges region in North India in the fifth century BC, who abandoned his royal life to become a wandering ascetic, wanting to comprehend and therefore to overcome the roots of human suffering. After many experiences he finally sat under a pipal tree and meditated without moving for 49 days until, at last, he achieved enlightenment - freedom from greed, hate, and delusion. At this moment, he became the Buddha - the "Enlightened" or the "Awakened One". He passed on his dharma (his way, his teaching) to monks and to missionaries who eventually travelled across the vast expanses of Asia. As the Buddhist message spread north, it passed into the region known as Gandhara, the area in what is now north-eastern Pakistan, around Peshawar, in the foothills of the Himalayas.

From the 1850s onwards it was in Gandhara that vast numbers of Buddhist shrines and sculptures were discovered and investigated, in fact more Buddhist sculpture and architecture comes from Gandhara than from any other part of ancient India. And here, in the British Museum, we have a Buddha sculpture that perfectly matches the pose of the one in Battersea Park. But this one isn't gold - it's carved from grey schist, a rock that contains fragments of crystal which make the stone glint and gleam in the light. The Buddha's hands and face are more-or-less life-size, but the body is smaller, and he sits cross-legged in the lotus position with his hands raised in front of him. On both shoulders he wears an over-robe, and the folds of the drapery form thick rounded ridges and terraces. This drapery hides most of his feet, except for a couple of the toes on the upturned right foot, which you can just see. He looks serenely into the distance, his eyelids lowered. And his hair is gathered up into what seems to be a bun, but which is in fact a symbol of the Buddha's wisdom and enlightened state. Rising from the top of his shoulders, surrounding his head, is what looks like a large grey dinner-plate - but of course is, in fact, his halo.

This virtually life-sized and lifelike figure must have been a startling sight for any Buddhist 1,800 years ago. Until shortly before then, the Buddha had been represented only by sets of symbols - the tree under which he achieved enlightenment, a pair of footprints, and so on. To give him human form was entirely new. The move towards representing Buddha as a man is described by the historian Claudine Bautze-Pichron:

"There is a movement going towards the representation of, I would say in brackets, 'gods and goddesses', because the Buddha was in fact a real historical character, so he was not a god. And so there was this movement two thousand years ago when they started representing these various deities and human wise-men, who had lived a few hundred years before. The first evocation of the Buddha's presence is carved around the circular monuments which are called stupas. There the Buddha is referred to through the tree below which he sat, where he became awakened, which is the meaning of Buddha in fact - to be awakened.

"The worship of footprints are a major element in India still today, they refer to a person who is no more there, but who has left their traces on earth. This will develop towards even a more elaborated structure, where you can have, in place of the tree, a flaming pillar, which means that out of the Buddha emerges light. So there were symbols which were creeping in to the artistic world, and which really opened the way to the physical image of the Buddha."

It's still not entirely clear just why the bodily image appears at this time. Our sculpture, one of the earliest known, probably dates to the third century AD, when Gandhara was ruled by the Kushan kings of northern India, whose empire stretched from Kabul to Islamabad. It was a wealthy region, thanks to its position on the Silk Road - the trade routes linking China, India and the Mediterranean. From Gandhara the main route ran west through Iran to Alexandria in Egypt. Gandhara's prosperity and political stability allowed the construction of a great landscape of Buddhist shrines, monuments and sculpture, and further missionary expansion. It's something that will be a recurring feature through this week - the religions that survive today are the ones that were spread and sustained by trade and power. It's profoundly paradoxical: Buddhism, the religion founded by an ascetic who spurned all comfort and riches, flourished thanks to the international trade in luxury goods. With the luxury goods like silk went the monks and the missionaries, and with them went the Buddha, in human form, perhaps because such an image helps when you're teaching across a language barrier.

There are four standard poses for the Buddha that we know today. He can be shown lying, sitting, standing and walking; and each pose reflects a particular aspect of his life and activity, rather than a moment or an event. Our sculpture shows him in his enlightened state. He's robed as a monk, as might be expected, but unlike a monk his head is not shaved. He's dispensed with finery and removed his princely jewellery. His ears are no longer weighted down with gold - but the elongated lobes still have the empty holes that show that this man was once a prince. He's seated cross-legged in the lotus position, a pose used for meditation and, as here, for teaching.

But this statue - and the thousands made later that look so like it - has a purpose. Tibetan Thupten Jinpa, a former monk and interpreter to the Dalai Lama, explains how you use an image like this one as a help on your journey towards enlightenment:

"What the religious practitioners do is to bring the image of the Buddha - by first looking at the image, and then bringing that image of the Buddha within oneself - in a sort of a mental image. And then reflect upon the qualities of the Buddha - Buddha's body, speech and mind. The image of the Buddha plays a role of recalling in the mind of the devotee, the historical teacher, the Buddha, and his experience of awakening, and also the key events in his life. There are different images, forms of the Buddha, that actually kind of symbolise those events. For example, there is a very famous posture of the Buddha, which is seated but with his hand in a gesture of preaching. Technically, this hand gesture is referred to as the gesture of turning the wheel of dharma, Dharmachakra.

And this is the hand gesture of our seated Buddha. The Dharmachakra, or Wheel of Law, is a symbol that represents the path to enlightenment, and it's one of the oldest known Buddhist symbols found in Indian art. In the sculpture Buddha's fingers stand in for the spokes of the wheel, and he's setting in motion the Wheel of Law to his followers, who will eventually be able to renounce the material states of illusion, suffering and individuality for the immaterial state of the highest happiness: nirvana. Here's an old Buddhist teaching:

"It is only the fool who is deceived by the outward show of beauty; for where is the beauty when the decorations of the person are taken away, the jewels removed, the gaudy dress laid aside, the flowers and chaplets withered and dead? The wise man, seeing the vanity of all such fictitious charms, regards them as a dream, a mirage, a fantasy."

All Buddhist art aims to detach the faithful from the physical world, even if it uses a physical image like our statue to do so. In the next programme, we have a religion that believes in the delights of material abundance, and it has a profusion of gods covered in decorations, flowers and garlands - it's Hinduism.

But for the moment, let's end with this statue of the Buddha, the thing which leads us to no thing, nothing . . . and to the greatest sound of all . . . silence.

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