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Art (kalā) is the use of imagination to beautify things, or to represent ideas and feelings in painting, drawing and sculpture. The Buddha had little to say on the subject of art, but he obviously saw its value because he said Monks and Nuns could beautify their Monasteries by painting them different colours and decorating them with various geometrical and floral designs (Vin.II,117). A passage from the Sarvāstivādin Vinaya shows that by the 1st century CE, Monasteries could be elaborately painted. ‘At the main entrance you should have a painting of a Spirit (Yakkha) holding a club; in the veranda representations of the great Miracle, the realms of existence, the Wheel of birth and Death and Jātakas; at the door of the main shrine a Spirit holding a garland; in the hall you should have Monks and elders teaching the Dhamma; in the dining room a Spirit holding Food and at the door or the storeroom a Spirit holding an iron hook. At the well you should have paintings of Dragons (Nāga) with water pots; in the bathroom scenes from the purgatorial realms; in the dispensary the Tathāgātha nursing the sick; in the toilet depictions of the horrors of the Charnel ground and in the Sleeping quarters a skeleton, bones and a skull.’ In the Mahāvastu there is a debate in the Form of a story about which is the greatest – Power, art, intelligence, physical Beauty or Merit. At the conclusion of the story, it is decided that Merit is the greatest of the five. As Buddhism spread in the centuries after The Buddha’s passing, his teachings gave an impetus to all the arts – painting, sculpture, Poetry, drama and to a lesser degree Music, and inspired artistic works of significant and enduring value. In the last few centuries, the creativity of Buddhist artists seems to have stagnated and much of their best work is little more than a good copy of earlier forms.

Buddhist Art and Architecture, R.E. Fisher, 1993.

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