The Artistic Aspects of Buddhist Education – The Art of Buddhism

Today, the quality of Buddhist music has deteriorated. We are short of talented people, not only Buddhist artists with creative talents. Therefore, a Buddhist artist has to be profoundly learned for only then can he or she truly teach others and convey truth, goodness, beauty and wisdom. Ancient masters with high spiritual achievements composed Buddhist musical lyrics, but because the minds of todays people who chant them are not pure, their expression of them is also not pure. Spiritually, they have yet to achieve a state of awakening and are thus unable to move us. The artistic decline is caused by the lack of talented practitioners, it does not mean that Buddhism lacks artistic substance.

Anyone who has been to China and visited the Dunhuang murals or the Yungang grottoes, or the stone sutra texts found in Fangshan County, Beijing, knows how magnificent Chinese Buddhist artworks can be. The stone sutras were found in the years after the Cultural Revolution and are more extensive than the Great Buddhist Canon. Some of the sutras were translated at a later time than those in the Great Buddhist Canon. Fortunately, they survived in the Fangshan site. The stone slabs are carved on both sides with each beautiful character the size of a thumb. The entire project took four hundred years to complete, equal in scale to the building of the Great Wall. This recently discovered collection includes tens of thousands of stone slabs stored in seven caves. At present, only two of the caves are open to the public. We were filled with awe and admiration when we saw these stone sutras and could not help but admire our ancestors for having preserved such a legacy for us.

Today, schools and museums are separated. However, the system of Buddhist universities is similar to a combination of school and museum, for the art forms are educational, not just artistic. They exhibit inspiration and wisdom not discernable by average people. For example, when people see the many images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, they conclude that Buddhists worship many deities and therefore Buddhism is a religion and on of low standards at that.

Most people believe that an advanced religion worships only one god. They do not understand that Buddhism is not a religion, that we do not worship the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas but rather we regard them as teachings aids, which help us to understand the different methods of cultivation. One single image or methods is insufficient to represent all phenomena in our world, so Buddhism uses many kinds of artistic works to represent them. Once we have understood the educational significance of Buddhist artistry, we will naturally give rise to admiration and appreciation.

All Buddhas symbolize our virtuous nature. All Bodhisattvas and Arhats symbolize the virtue of practice. Without the virtue of practice, the innate virtuous nature cannot be revealed. This complimentary relationship is why the Buddha Table includes both Buddha and Bodhisattva images. The Buddhas represent original nature and the Bodhisattvas represent the application of this nature. This original nature is empty, as it has no set form. All creations or form arise from this original nature and once there is form, there is application. The Buddha represents the original nature and the Bodhisattvas represent form and application. This is why in the Flower Adornment Sutra, the Buddhas does not comment on the teachings, for the original nature that is empty has nothing to say. But the Bodhisattvas do have something to say since they apply the principles. Not only is the original nature unexplained but also no thoughts arises from it. The saying that “Whenever I open my mouth I blunder; whenever I have an idea I am wrong.” is said in terms of original nature represented by one Buddha. Why are there two Bodhisattvas to represent application? The infinite and innumerable form and application are divided into two categories; wisdom and practice or understanding and behavior. Practice corresponds with understanding. Understanding is the principle and practice is the application.

When we see the images of Buddha Shakyamuni, usually Ananda and Kasyapa, two great Arhats are on either side of him. Buddha Shakyamuni represents our original nature. Ananda, who is foremost in hearing, represents understanding and wisdom. Kasyapa, who is foremost in asceticism, represents practice. We may also see Buddha Vairocana, the wisdom body of Buddha Shakyamuni, with Manjushri Bodhisattva and Universal Worthy Bodhisattva on either side of him. Manjushri Bodhisattva represents understanding; Universal Worthy Bodhisattva represents practice.

Pure Land Buddhism regards Buddha Amitabha as the original nature with Guan Yin Bodhisattva representing compassion and practice, and Great Strength Bodhisattva representing wisdom and understanding. Due to these profound meanings, there cannot be two or more Buddhas and three or more Bodhisattvas.

Each Buddha represents a part of the virtuous nature. Every part of it is perfect so “One is all, all is one.” Each name illustrates the virtues. For example, “Shakya” means kindness, teachings us that we need to treat others with kindness and compassion. “Muni” means stillness and purity. The whole meaning of Shakyamuni teaches us to behave toward others with kindness and compassion, to strive for purity of mind for ourselves. This is the meaning of Shakyamuni and is innate to our original nature. Amituofo is a Sanskrit transliteration. “Amituo” means infinite. “Fo” means Buddha. What is infinite? Everything, infinite wisdom, ability, long life, etc. But of all infinities, infinite life is the most important for without it all infinities are useless. With it, we can enjoy all other infinities.

How can we gain these infinities? Infinity is none other than our self-nature, our original true nature. The Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Master Hui-neng said, “Self -nature is innate; from self-nature arises all phenomena in the universe.” In other words, it means infinity. What method do we use to obtain this infinity? We practice the teachings of Guan Yin Bodhisattva and Great Strength Bodhisattva. The former teaches us to be compassionate; the latter teaches us the single-minded concentration of Buddha Amitabha. Great Strength Bodhisattva taught us “Concentrate solely on Buddha Amitabha, without ceasing, without intermingling with other methods, and in this way we will surely attain wisdom and enlightenment.”

Adding to this is the compassionate way of Guan Yin Bodhisattva. Behaving towards others with compassion and chanting only “Namo Amituofo” will enable us to enjoy infinite life. In this way we will develop our virtuous nature and uncover our infinite merits and virtues. Thus, when we pay respect to the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, we need to understand that each is representative of a way of cultivation and of the truth of the universe.