Perhaps in theory, Buddhists have no concern for or have transcended aesthetic beauty. But on the ground, there is nothing more inspiring and nothing more moving than well-made Buddhist art and the beautifying of a temple or monastery. A single sculpture can be enough to convert an individual or deserve a considerable donation. Indeed, it is in beauty that Buddhism is encountered, and the enjoyment of art that has been a Buddhist concern for more than two millennia.
All Buddhist art, be it contemporary, Chinese, Tibetan, Nepalese, Japanese, or Cambodian is beautiful and are windows to the One who loves all beings. My favourite art comes from the Gandharan School of Buddhist sculpture, handicrafts, busts, and friezes: Greco-Buddhist art. Its style is hybrid-Hellenistic, with Greek elements as well as Iranian or Persian and lovely folk influences from the Central Asian region. From the Buddha’s life events to majestic bodhisattvas and Hercules as a protector of the Lord, it is impossible to find other realms of art that so naturally blend Hellenistic expertise with a Buddhist purpose.
Ancient Buddhism – and indeed ancient Indian history – has only two absolutely datable events (all other events, including the Vedic period and the death of the Buddha, centre on these two events). The first is the invasion of Alexander the Great, which marked the beginning of history keeping (the Greeks, like the Chinese, love their records). The second is the coronation of the Mauryan overlord emperor A?oka the Great, who mentions his Buddhist overtures to the Greeks in his pillar edicts (and Greek sources similarly corroborate A?oka’s embassies). The rest is, as they say – history. The interaction between Indian Buddhists and the Greek settlements in Bactria (particularly in north Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan) led to the commissioning of Greek artisans by wealthy monks to build art for the glory and beauty of Buddhist monasteries.
The Greeks in ancient India were perhaps missing home, because it is apparent that their sculptures of the Lord somewhat resemble the gods of Olympus, except the features of the face, which exhibit the compassionate serenity that is the very nature of a Tath?gata. The tranquil countenances of ??kyamuni and the slight, moustached smiles of the Bodhisattva (and of others in the pantheon like Maitreya) display thorough familiarity with the sensibilities of Buddhist aesthetics (perhaps the artisans were grilled by the monks about it). Considerable attention was given to the regalia and ornamentation of the Bodhisattvas, who share Persian and Indian elements (particularly in regard to their headdresses). Their garments, while Buddhist, also resemble the Greek garb of the himation. And that is the style of Gandharan art: in the events detailing the Buddha’s life, there is a myriad of details involving Greek and Iranian-inspired themes and aesthetics. A frieze of the Buddha’s Parinirvana shows mourners with extraordinarily expressive faces that evoke the poignancy of the Greek tragedies, even as the elite monks (Aryasangha) beside the Lord’s deathbed join their palms, utterly composed and at ease with the impermanence of all things. Yet Gandharan art does not end the story there, for hope is always present even if the Dharma is obscured. Maitreya, who awaits the end of the current cosmic age to descend from Heaven and inaugurate a new era, is a popular figure in Gandharan art. This is perhaps natural given the intermingling of cultures in the region, from Buddhist beliefs to Near Eastern saviour cults that influenced the Greeks in Egypt and Persia.
In Chinese art, Vajrapani (the defender of Dharma) resembles a valiant Han warrior. In Tibet, he is a wrathful deity who tramples enemies of religion. But in Gandharan art, he becomes Hercules (Herakles)! As such he is a very popular figure. In a recent article Anna Filigenzi notes with great insight how Hercules, as the frequent attendant of the Buddha in Gandharan art, becomes the “presence” of Ananda. Indeed, Ananda, like Hercules, suffers from grave faults: he is not particularly intelligent (he attains sainthood only in old age while big guns like ??riputra were enlightened after one short discourse), has an infamous attachment to and affection for women, and ultimately, has learned little about non-attachment when he weeps in regret at the Buddha’s deathbed. Yet it is this weak, defective, sometimes incompetent man that the Buddha consciously chooses to keep by his side, to encourage him in his grief, and to remind him of his own kindness and human warmth, and therefore his potential for liberation. Filigenzi notes that Hercules is also touched by considerable weaknesses and flaws. Prone to arrogance and delusion which cost him his wife and ultimately his honour, Hercules would resemble Oedipus Rex were it not for the powerful message of human possibility that he represents; not so much in his twelve great tasks but in his spirit and potential for redemption. Together then, at once strong and weak, the figure of Hercules and the spirit of Ananda stand in vigilance beside their master the Buddha in Gandharan art.
Gandharan art points very keenly toward transcendence yet can almost be painfully human. It represents the enjoyment of beauty for the Presence. I can only find something more inspiring than such aesthetics, and that is music.
*”Ananda and Vajrapani: An Inexplicable Absence and a Mysterious Presence in Gandharan Art”, in Broncaccio, Behrendt (eds.). Gandharan Buddhism: Archaeology, Art, Texts. University of British Columbia, 2007