" />


Introduction to Buddhism Resource

Understanding Buddhism

Buddhism is one of the world’s great religions, and has deeply influenced the character and evolution of Asian civilization over the past 2,500 years. It is based on the teachings of a historical figure, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived around the fifth century B.C.E. As it moved across Asia, Buddhism absorbed indigenous beliefs and incorporated a wide range of imagery, both local and foreign, into its art and religious practices. Buddhism continues to evolve as a religion in many parts of the world.

Buddhism is a complex subject, a philosophy that has evolved in many different ways and various regions of Asia, and is still a living faith today. Providing simple definitions for the beliefs and art historical developments of Buddhism is therefore difficult, because so many variations occur. The student of Buddhism should be aware of these variations and points of view. Here we provide a very general overview as a foundation for looking at historical Buddhist arts, focused on the art of India.

buddhism1  Introduction to Buddhism Resource buddhism1

Who was the historical Buddha?

The historical Buddha-to-be, Siddhartha Gautama, was born around the 6th century B.C.E. into royalty at Kapilavastu, which lay in the foothills of the Himalayas near the present day Nepalese-Indian border. For most of his youth, the prince led a sheltered existence within the palace, where he enjoyed court life, married a princess, and had a son. Venturing forth from the palace, he finally witnessed disturbing sights he had never before experienced: sickness, old age, death, and a mendicant ascetic. Deeply unsettled by what he had seen, the prince finally renounced his worldy life, and set out on a quest for truth, to confront human suffering and the continuous cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara). Along with other thinkers who lived during this era, the Buddha was also troubled by the caste system, which denied many the possibility of salvation, as well as by the exclusivity and abuses of the brahman priestly caste who controlled religious practices at that time.

What did the historical Buddha preach?

The Buddha sought to find an end to human suffering. He first engaged in extreme austerities as practiced by mendicants and ascetics of his time. After several years of these practices, Siddhartha concluded that this extreme path was not the correct route to perfect understanding (enlightenment). Rather, he proposed that a middle way between extreme austerity and extreme indulgence was the path to wisdom and freedom from suffering. The Buddha declared that he would meditate under a banyan tree until he achieved enlightenment. This phenomenal event occurred at Bodh Gaya in the contemporary state of Bihar, which is one of Buddhism’s great pilgrimage sites.

As a result of his attainment of enlightenment, the prince Siddhartha Gautama was now truly the Buddha, the Enlightened One. He was also commonly referred to as Shakyamuni, the sage of the Shakya clan. The Buddha distilled the principles of enlightenment into a doctrine known as The Four Noble Truths. These are:

  • Life is suffering.
  • Suffering is caused by desire, and by clinging to the notion of self.
  • It is possible to end suffering. To end the suffering caused by desire and ego, one must eliminate the cause.
  • Suffering can be ended by following the Noble Eightfold Path, a set of resolutions characterized by aconcern for morality, concentration, moderation, positive action, and wisdom.

Though it evades easy definition, and it varies according to the particular branch of Buddhism, the ultimate goal of most Buddhists is to reach nirvana, a state of bliss in which human desire, ego, and suffering are extinguished.

How did Buddhism begin?

As a collective faith, Buddhism first developed in northeastern India with the historical Buddha’s own followers, who formed a community of monks and laypersons during his lifetime. Those wishing to join the monastic order renounced family and worldly ties, and proclaimed their faith in the “three jewels”: the Buddha, the doctrine (dharma), and the monastic community (sangha).

After the Buddha’s death, concerns arose regarding the interpretation and survival of the order and doctrine. A first council established a set of beliefs on the basis of those surviving monks who could remember what the Buddha had said. Subsequent councils added to these sayings. Debates arose over the apparent contradiction between no-self and rebirth (how could one be reborn if there was no self?), and over the questions of who could be enlightened and whether enlightenment was gradual or spontaneous. By the beginning of first millennium, there were approximately eighteen different schools of Buddhism in India.

The main branches of Buddhism

Hide tutorial navigation

Enlarge this image. Stele of the Buddha Maitreya, 687 C.E., China; Tang dynasty (618–906). Limestone.Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S36+. Over the centuries, two main branches of Buddhism emerged: a transmission that traveled to Southeast Asia, and a transmission that evolved in East Asia. A further offshoot of the northern transmission also developed. All three branches began in India, and developed further as they moved across Asia.

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada is believed to be the oldest form of Buddhism. The term itself comes into use later, but the Theravada tradition upholds the monastic path and adheres to the oldest surviving recorded sayings of the Buddha, collectively called the Pali canon. These original texts were set down in the Pali language by monks in Sri Lanka in the first century C.E. Prior to this codification, teachings had been transmitted orally, and concern arose that original texts must be preserved in light of the growing heterodoxy that was developing in India.

Theravada recognizes the primacy and humanity of the historical Buddha. The Buddha was an exemplary figure. Enlightenment is an arduous task, available only to monks who explicitly pursue the path of Shakyamuni himself. Theravada is the dominant form of Buddhism today in Sri Lanka as well as Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. The subject matter of Buddhist art from these traditions focuses on life events of the Buddha.

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana is a philosophical movement that proclaimed the possibility of universal salvation, offering assistance to practitioners in the form of compassionate beings called bodhisattvas. The goal was to open up the possibility of buddhahood (becoming a Buddha) to all sentient beings. The Buddha ceased to be simply a historical figure, but rather was interpreted as a transcendent figure who all could aspire to become.

New sutras (texts) were added to the Buddhist canon, causing rifts among the various sects. Reformers called themselves the “greater vehicle” (Mahayana), and they labeled the traditionalists the “lesser vehicle” (Theravada). The bodhisattva developed as an enlightened being who postpones his own salvation in order to help others. Initially understood as companions to the Buddha, bodhisattvas are spiritual beings who compassionately vow to achieve buddhahood, but have deferred this aspiration in order to liberate all creatures in the universe from suffering. The most popular bodhisattvas appearing in sculpture and painting include Avalokiteshvara (bodhisattva of mercy and compassion), Maitreya (the future Buddha), and Manjushri (bodhisattva of wisdom).

Mahayana also spread to Southeast Asia, however its greatest impact is felt in the East Asian nations of China, Korea, and Japan. As Mahayana evolved, it continued to expand a vast pantheon of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other divine and semi-divine beings, drawing from and assimilating regional and local traditions.

buddhism2  Introduction to Buddhism Resource buddhism2

Tantric Buddhism: a further evolution of Mahayana Buddhism

Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism, sometimes called Vajrayana (the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt), developed about 500–600 C.E. in India. An offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism, the origins of Tantric Buddhism can be traced to ancient Hindu and Vedic practices as well, including esoteric ritual texts designed to achieve physical, mental, and spiritual breakthroughs. Tantric Buddhism is sometimes described as offering a shortcut to enlightenment. Because some practices subverted mainstream Buddhism and Hinduism, engaging in acts otherwise considered taboo, its practitioners were secretive. Initiates worked closely with a spiritual guide or guru.

Vajrayana Buddhism is most closely identified with Tibetan Buddhism, however, it also influenced parts of Southeast Asia and East Asia. Buddhism thrived in India for more than a millennium, reaching an expansive culmination in the Pala period in eastern India. By the 1100s C.E., Buddhism had declined mainly as a result of Muslim incursions.

Before this time, however, Buddhist doctrine had been transmitted to Sri Lanka, which became a further point of reference for the spread of Buddhism to Southeast Asia. Travelers and missionaries carried the message of Buddhism by sea and land routes through Central Asia into China by the first century C.E., Buddhism flourished in China between 300 and 900 C.E. and provided a point of reference for Buddhism as it developed in Korea and Japan. Chinese translations of Indian texts contributed to the development of printing.

Buddhism is still strong today in Bhutan, Cambodia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Burma, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, and Vietnam. Throughout its history and transmission, Buddhism has been very adaptable to local beliefs and customs, and the combination of these local forms with imported beliefs and symbols is a characteristic of Buddhist art throughout Asia.



The earliest surviving representations of the Buddha date from hundreds of years after his death, so they are not portraits in the usual sense. Buddha images vary greatly from place to place and period to period, but they almost always show these conventional features:

  • Symbols of radiance. Among these may be a halo around the head or whole body, a flame at the top of the head, or a gold-covered surface.
  • Superhuman physical characteristics such as very large size, a lump on the top of the head sometimes said to indicate extraordinary wisdom, fingers all the same length, or special markings on the palms and on the soles of the feet.
  • Long earlobes, stretched during the years when the Buddha-to-be, as a prince, wore heavy earrings.
  • Monk’s robes. Monks wore a sarong-like lower garment and one or two upper garments, each made of a sheet of cloth wrapped around the upper body, sometimes leaving the right shoulder bare.

Special positions and gestures

The most common position is seated with the legs crossed or interlocked. Common hand positions are:

  • right hand over right knee (symbolizing the Buddha’s calling the Earth as a witness during his victory over negative forces)
  • right hand held up with palm out (symbolizing giving reassurance)
  • hands held at chest with fingers turning invisible wheel (symbolizing setting in motion the “wheel of the doctrine”—that is, preaching)



There is significant debate concerning the development of the Buddha image—where it first occurred, why, and when. Broadly speaking, the image of the Buddha emerged during the first few centuries C.E. in two major centers of Indian art during the Kushana period. One center of artistic production was the ancient region of Gandhara, an area that includes northwestern India as well as parts of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. Gandharan images have a style that is reminiscent of Hellenistic sculpture, and artists in the region were certainly influenced by the presence of Hellenistic colonies, and the large-scale trade and exchange that occurred in this cultural crossroads.

A second area of artistic production is associated with Mathura, a city that still stands to the south of Delhi. Here, artists developed a style that can be characterized as more indigenous, less concerned with naturalistic realism in the human form, and more with the symbolic qualities of the spiritual figure. Mathura artists created other kinds of religious imagery as well. It is probable that Buddhist imagery was influenced by the development of Hindu and Jain figures, and that various communities were developing images of devotional figures simultaneously.

A very significant gap of several centuries exists between the lifetime of the historical Buddha, and the creation of the first surviving images of the Buddha in stone or any other medium. The first surviving Buddhist art in stone was actually created prior to images of the Buddha himself. During the Maurya period, in the reign of emperor Ashoka (272–231 B.C.E.), significant monuments and other artworks in stone were commissioned, apparently for the first time. Although stone sculpture, such as large columns surmounted by images of lions and wheels, expressed Buddhist symbolism and motifs, there are no Buddha images from this period. Many scholars have speculated that an aniconic (without idols) period existed in Buddhist art, where there was a prohibition against depicting the actual Buddha, and various symbols substituted for an explicit anthropomorphic representation. Some scholars have interpreted narrative reliefs at early Buddhist monuments to illustrate early Buddhist processions or festivals, where aniconic symbols, rather than anthropomorphic symbols, repre sented the Buddha.

Not all scholars accept these theories, however. It seems likely that various kinds of religious imagery, in the Buddhist, Hindu, and other contexts, were created in ephemeral materials before being created in stone. Indeed the great sophistication and high level of sculptural expertise expressed in Maurya stone sculpture implies that the sculptural tradition was already highly developed by this time. The imperial might and Buddhist inclinations of the emperor Ashoka may have been the first great instigators of a transition to large-scale stone sculpture in India. More than three hundred years later, in the Kushana era, a strong imperial ruler bringing various outside artistic and stylistic influences to the realm, seems to have contributed to further artistic developments and a hitherto unseen profusion of sculpture created in stone.

We are not entirely sure how all Buddhist figures were used in ritual and worship. Buddhist images and sculptures originally adorned the complexes of stupas (sacred mounds containing relics) as well as monastic structures. Early Buddhist sites also incorporated indigenous imagery such as loving couples and fertility figures. Caves were hewn from rock in parts of India, creating spaces for worship rituals and community meetings, as well as monastic dwelling quarters. These rock-cut cave complexes became increasingly elaborate in terms of imagery and iconography, which was created in painting as well as carved from stone in situ. Laypersons contributed to small- and large-scale constructions as a means of acquiring merit. Votive images also developed for private use, and as souvenirs for pilgrims to sacred sites.

The figure of the Buddha and attendant bodhisattvas, and other divine and semi-divine beings, became the objects of devotion themselves. As these divine personages expanded in number and complexity, they required larger stupa and temple structures to house them. Over time, the proliferation of great numbers of Buddhist images, in some cases explicitly created through mass production techniques, reflected beliefs in the meritorious repetition of various names and phrases.

In Buddhist art, the image of the historical Buddha is often labeled “Shakyamuni” (sage of the Shakya clan). This distinguishes the image of the historical Buddha, the Buddha who lived on earth during this present period, from past, future, or cosmic buddhas, bodhisattvas, or other divine beings.

Skip to toolbar