During my recent travels, I had an opportunity to see two of my favourite Buddha statues. The first one is in the Humboldt Forum, Museum for Asian Art, Berlin.
It has been crafted in Gandhara, an ancient Kingdom located in what is now north-west Pakistan, with it's core in the Peshawar valley and Swat valley. The Sāsanā and Buddhist culture and art flourished there from about 3rd century BCE to about 4th centrury CE.
Takkasila (also Sanskrit 'Takshashila' or Greek 'Taxila') was one of it's main cities, and was already known as a centre for learning various arts, science and medicine in the Buddha's time.
Peshawar (Pali: Purusapura) was the second chief city and major cultural centre of Gandhāra. There, the Kushan emperor Kanishka erected the monumental 'Kanishka Stupa' (named after him) in the 2nd century CE. Described in contemporary accounts by several Chinese pilgrims as being at least 170 meters high (1), this was the highest stucture in the ancient world, higher than the pyramids or anything built in ancient Greece or Rome, and higher than any other Buddhist stupa in India or Sri Lanka. The first building in known history to exceed 170 m is actually the Eiffel Tower in Paris, built in 1889!
We can imagine the economic wealth required to build monuments of such height in Gandhāra. And indeed, at the junction of traderoutes connecting the ancient Chinese, Indian, Persian, Central Asian and Roman empires, Gandhāra was famous for it's prosperous economy and highly developed art, that produced artworks of such timeless beauty as this Buddha statue.
After Gandhāra was conquered by Alexander (generally called 'the Great', though personally I can't see much greatness in the numerous slaughters and atrocities he committed) in 326 BCE, it became an area of strong Greek influence within a mostly Indian culture and population. The Theravada scripture 'Milindapañha' records a long series of dialogs of the Greek King of Gandhāra, Menander I Soter (called Milinda in Pali), and the revered Buddhist monk Ven Nāgasena in the second centrury BCE, culminating in the King taking refuge and declaring himself a lay follower of the Triple Gem.
Even after the Greeks lost control, the influence of their culture and art continued for centuries, leading to a unique fusion of Western Hellinistic and Eastern Indian features in the artworks produced there. This is particular relevant for us today, with Buddhism coming to the West, and similarly developing it's own artistic expression as a combination of traditional Buddhist and modern Western culture.
Ancient greek art excelled in realistically representing the external beauty of the human form. Indian Buddhist art, on the other hand, was foremost concerned with expressing internal spiritual qualities, like wisdom, compassion and release. For example, in the aniconic period for several centuries after the Buddha, he would never be represented in a realistic human form at all.
In any given scene the Buddha's presence would only be indicated by symbols like:
The Dhammacakka (Dhamma-Wheel),
The Bodhi Tree
The Buddhapāda (Footprint of the Buddha)
The Vajirāsanā (Diamond Throne of Enlightenment)
A parasol held above the space where the Buddha would be
The fusion of Greek and Indian culture in Gandhāra led to the first depictions of the Buddha in realistic and externally beautiful human form (Greek influence), which at the same time express his superior internal qualities of wisdom, calm, compassion, restraint and awareness (Indian influence).
Pakistan, Gandhara, Takht-i-Bahi;
2nd - 3rd century CE; schist.
"A deep sense of peace pervades the face of this standing Buddha.
His eyes are lowered, and the facial features are completely smooth, free from any passion.
The left hand hangs down, clasping a small loop of his robe, and the right arm is raised.
The missing hand was probably raised in the gesture of protection (abhaya mudra)."
The second favourite I was able to see is a bust from the Gupta period, created at Sarnath in the 5th century CE.
It's located in the Indian Museum, New Delhi, which now has a dedicated building complex for Buddhist art. The very ancient Buddha relics found at Piprahwa are located in another room close by. They are unique due to their very ancient origin. It is convincingly documented by archeological evidence that they constitute the original share of the Sakyans, when the Buddha's relics were devided into 8 parts right after Parinibbāna.
The Gupta period in the 4th and 5th centuries CE is considered the peak of Indian sculpture, with the leading artistic centres located at Sarnath and Mathura. In particular the Sarnath school, mostly working with yellowish sandstone from Chunar, developed the representation of the Buddha that was followed in eastern India and South-East Asia for many centuries.
We can clearly see that this exceptional masterpiece is not aiming at a realistic representation of the human form. Instead, it's focussed on communicating a transcendent spiritual beauty. Its objective is to indicate the unique internal qualities of the Buddha. The artist succeeds in bringing to life the stone he's working with, evoking finesse and the most lofty qualities out of a material as hard, heavy and 'earthly' as sandstone.
We can perceive the extraordinary combination of sublime refinement and great inner strength in this statue's features. We can see the confluence of wisdom and compassion, the synthesis of internal focus of attention with simultaneous outwards emenation of an energy of peace, calm and tranquility.
For example, the eyebrows and eye ridges are indicated simply by one sharp, chiseled line. This is not a realistic representation how eyebrows and eye ridges look in a human being. However, it's excecuted in such beauty that we don't even notice it's not realistic: It appears complety natural, blending in perfectly with the refined overall appearance.
The same could be said about:
The transition of the upper eyelid to the eye socket;
The hair coils (always turning to the right, one of the 32 special features of a Buddha);
The very elongated ear lobes (caused by the heavy jewellery the Bodhisatta used to wear in lay life);
The neck that is completely smooth except for three parallel horizontal lines.
and so on...
Nothing of all that are realistic looks for a human being, but it nevertheless comes across totally uncontrived due to the artists skill in merging all features together in one convincing gestalt of grace, dignity and beauty.
Buddha Head, Gupta, 5th Century CE
Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh.
26.6 cm high, 16.2 cm wide, 21 cm deep.
Indian National Museum, New Delhi.
"The sculpture is made in Chunar sandstone in the Gupta aesthetics.
The Buddha head is marked by graceful features."
Finally, I like to introduce you to the ancient Indian Buddhist symbol called 'Tiratana' (or Sanskrit: Triratna) meant to represent the Triple Gem of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha:
The amazing thing is that I had never before heard of this symbol, although it was considered so sacred by ancient Indian Buddhists that they would place it directly on top (the most revered and exhaulted position) of the monumental gateway ('Torāna') of Sanchi Stupa.
However, when staying at Amaravati Monastery near London, Ajahn Vimalo introduced me to his current art project of creating copies of reliefs found on the ancient Indian Amaravati stupa. He pointed out the Tiratana symbol to me, as he had just finished a copy of one. I liked it on first sight, and was surprised that I had never heard of it before.
Then, just a week later, I saw a Tiratana again on the new reproduction of the Sanchi Stupa Gateway next to the Humboldt Forum in Berlin:
It's encouraging to find a faithful reproduction of an ancient Indian Buddhist monument located in such a prominent location, right in the very heart of the German capital city Berlin, where countless locals and tourists see it every single day 😊
We need such upfiting symbols in our materialist society, to remind us that there is more to life than economic growth and sensual indulgence.
The door to the deathless is still open, but we will not enter it if we are lost in the contless distractions
available to us 24/7, that pull our senses in the opposite direction all the time.
Any sign, hint or clue to induce mindfulness and invite us to turn around against the stream of craving and follow the Noble Eightfold Path to the end of all suffering, is of great value. We can't have too many of them.
One such symbol widespread in ancient India, during the early period in the first centuries after the Buddha, when the 'Saddhamma' (real, unadulterated Dhamma) was flourishing, is the Tiratana.
Tiratanas appear regularly at ancient stupas like Sanchi, Bharhut and Amaravati, and were commonly depicted as one of the sacred and auspicious symbols within a Buddha Footprint.
They originated in the 'aniconic period', the first couple of centuries after the Buddha, when he was never depicted in human form, and his presence was only indicated by symbols.
The Tiratana is a composite symbol, incorporating motifs from ancient Indian mythology, and reinterpreting and merging them with Buddhist iconography to form a new gestalt that resonates deeply within subconscious layers of our mind.
A Tiratana typically consists of three parts:
(1) - Trisula on Top
The 'W' shaped structure on top of the Tiratana is called the 'Trisula' (Trident) representing the Triple Gem of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. From its central spine, the heart of the Triple Gem, which is flanked by the two wings of the 'W', two lotus flowers emenate bending downwards to the left and right.
(2) - Vajira horizontally in Centre
Below the 'W' shaped trident is a Vajira (Sanskrit: Vajra), 'Diamond Rod', lying horizontally between the Trident and the Dhamma Wheel below it. Vajira means both 'Diamond' and 'Thunderbolt'. Indian mythology conceived it as a powerful weapon wielded by Indra, Kind of the Gods. In Buddhism, it became a symbol for wisdom and insight.
A diamond is harder than any other material, meaning it can't be cut by anything, but is itself capable of cutting any other stone or metal. Similarly, once the faculty of wisdom has been fully developed, it becomes more powerful than any opposing force, and so sharp that it can even cut the kilesas (mental defilements) of greed, hatred and delusion, which have dominated our heart for countless lifetimes. Like a thunderbolt can split even a gigantic tree, or a huge bolder, with one strike of lightning, so can insight split asunder ingnorance (avijjā) to free our heart from saṃsāra and suffering.
(The Vajira is not that clearly visible in the Tiratana on the photo. It's mearly indicated by its two conically shaped ends sticking out to the left and right, just above the Dhamma Wheel)
(3) Dhammacakka at Bottom
The lower part of the Tiratana is formed by a Dhamma Wheel (Dhammacakka), surrounding either a rotund lotus flower as a symbol of purity (as in the photo above), or the spokes of the Dhamma Wheel, or both together in combination.
I find it difficult to explain how much I like this symbol. I just feel good looking at it 😊
We shouldn't underestimate the effect symbols have on our mind and general well being. In fact, I recently came accross a study by two Chinese scholars, who examined the effect of Buddhist symbols on happiness. In this case, they studied the effects of simply seeing traditional gestures ('mudra') of Buddha statues. They came to the conclusion:
"First, results showed that the aesthetic effects of the Buddhist symbol have a significant total effect on happiness"...
I feel immediately reminded of the Buddha's teaching on sense restraint (indriya saṃvaro) and wise attention (yoniso manasikāro)
We have to guard the doors of our senses from all the negative symbols which pervade our world nowadays, whether advertising, designer brand labels, fashion trends, corporate logos, or just the everyday hideousness of a lot of contemporary achitecture and design.
We're not paying attention to any of that, and instead we wisely direct our attention to forms, artwork and symbols that uplift our heart, and inspire us to develop the same wholesome qualities in ourselves.
(1) Sources differ regarding the height of Kanishka stupa. The best easily accessible academic source I have come accross is: "The Stupa of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka the Great, with Comments on the Azes Era and Kushan Chronology"; Hans Loescher, Sino-Platonic Papers, 227 (July 2012)
Loescher provides two quotes confirming height of 700 Chi (Chinese foot), and that a more than 700 chi long banner was hung from top and just reached the ground. The Chinese foot 'Chi' varied in length at different periods, but even with the lowest possible size 700 chi equals around 170 m, and assuming the larger versions of chi, it's even more than 200 m.
On the other hand, I can not find any decent source for the claim that 'modern scholars estimate the height at 120 m' (120 m is also the height used in Wikipedia's list of highest buildings before 20th century).
Therefore, I regard Kanishka Stupa as the highest structure erected by humans ever, until the building of the Eiffel Tower, unless anyone can provide convincing evidence for the claim that it was only 120 m high.