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Published in D. Park, K. Wangmo, S. Cather, eds, Art of Merit: Studies in Buddhist Art and its Conservation,

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The primary focus of this paper is not on the architecture and iconography of the Buddha’s stupa and image, but rather on the portrayal of the Buddha’s mystical identity as embodied and reflected in the doctrinal, architectural, and iconographic permutations of his stupas and images. Stupas and images are the perceptible expressions and anchors of the Buddha’s mystical and ineffable presence in this world, and indeed of the presence of Buddhism. They also epitomise Buddhist beliefs and aspirations, and serve as the focus of Buddhist devotion and practice. The stories of stupas and images depict the ineffable silhouette of the Buddha, and conversely the Buddha’s ineffable silhouette permeates and imbues his stupas and images with mystic life and power. Thus we are concerned here with the inner dynamics and permutations of the Buddha’s stupa and image, which are not usually perceptible with the naked eye.

Conceptually, the Buddhist notion of emptiness forms the visionary setting and landscape of this paper. The concept of emptiness is interpreted in different ways, but in this paper, it is treated as the common ground and source of all manifestations, both imperfect and perfect. This imperfect world of living beings arises from the defiled and deluded states of consciousness. On the other hand, the world of enlightened beings emerges from the refined and perfected states of the same consciousness. Both imperfect and perfect beings arise from emptiness and ultimately dissolve into it, but they leave behind their mundane traces and stories. This paper is concerned with the story of one enlightened being, the Buddha embodied in his stupa and image. Allegorically and philosophically, this exploratory journey begins with empty and imageless cosmic space. Next, that empty space is filled with the Buddha’s stupas and images. Finally, all imagery is dissolved into the same cosmic space and emptiness. No speculations are offered, but only a coherent and critical assessment of the relevant statements of the Buddha and the subsequently formulated beliefs, speculations, and doctrines as recorded in Buddhist sources.

The Buddha’s legacy

On a number of occasions, the Buddha tells his disciples that after his death he will cease to exist in this world. In one of his discourses he addresses his disciples and makes the following statement:

The body of the Tathagata continues to exist even though the roots productive of a new existence have been eradicated. As long as his body survives, so long the gods and men can see him. However, once his body is dissipated and his life is terminated, the gods and men will see him no more.

In another discourse the Buddha is asked whether there is any consciousness in the person possessed of omniscience and liberated from samsara, after being emancipated and becoming cold. In reply, he states that just as a flame agitated by the force of the wind dwindles and vanishes, so the Sage, once released from his psychophysical entity (ndma-rupa), becomes appeased and vanishes. No person can measure him or speak of him. When all phenomena are dissolved, all ways of speaking are also obliterated. Then again when the mendicant Vacchagotta asked whether the Tathagata exists or does not exist after death, the Buddha declines to give a categorically affirmative or negative answer. Instead he explains that it is a speculative question, and that it is not conducive to spiritual progress and the attainment of liberation. As such, the question about the Buddha’s state after his death appertains to a set of the so-called fourteen undetermined matters (avydkrtavastu), which are concerned with the finality and eternality of the physical world, the identity and difference between the life force (Jiva) and the body, and the existence of the Buddha after his death.

Essentially, prior to his demise, the Buddha clearly foretells the traceless dissolution of his human body and consciousness in conformity with his fundamental teaching: all conditioned phenomena are impermanent and painful, and all phenomena, both conditioned and unconditioned, are selfless. Ultimately there is no such thing as a being (sattva), a person (purusa) or a self (atmari), but merely an ephemeral flux of mental and physical phenomena or dharmas. The world of living beings is therefore no more than an evanescent flow of illusory appearances. In this context, the Buddha’s human form has no greater reality or durability than the bodily forms of all other beings. However, there is one tremendous difference between the Buddha and other beings. The Buddha has attained the supreme and perfect enlightenment, and the final and irrevocable emancipation from the bonds of samsara. As an enlightened being, he is beyond all forms of existence, and transcends this evanescent world of illusory experiences and appearances. In his ultimate or perfected state, he also transcends and defies the philosophical concepts of being and non-being. Thus he is not just another being, but a perfect Buddha who is facing his final death as a human being, and his final cessation (nirodha) as a Buddha.

At VaisalT, three months before his demise, the Buddha renounces the remainder of his life and announces his impending death, but he does not forsake his followers. Having reached Kusinagara, the place of his final dissolution, he instructs Ananda that his bodily remains should be disposed in the same way as the remains of a universal monarch (cakravarlin). He explains to Ananda that his bodily remains should be wrapped in five hundred pairs of fine cloth, placed on a funeral pyre and cremated. After the cremation a stupa should be erected for the Tathagata at the crossroads. Whoever places wreaths or perfumes before the stupa with devout thoughts, will gain much benefit and happiness. In another conversation with Ananda, the Buddha identifies four places the sight of which should evoke noble sentiments in his followers, namely the place of his birth (LumbinT), the place of his enlightenment (Bodhgaya), the place where he set in motion the Wheel of Dharma (Sarnath, Varanasi), and the place of his parinirvdna (Kusinagara). The faithful monks, nuns, and lay followers, should visit those places. Whoever dies while making a pilgrimage to these shrines with a devoted heart, will be reborn in a heavenly world. Finally, he tells Ananda two more momentous things:

Ananda, it may be that you will think: The Teacher’s dispensation has ceased, now we have no teacher any more. But it should not be seen like this, Ananda. Let the Dhamma and Vinaya, which I have taught and explained to you, be your teacher after my passing away? Whatever monk, nun, male or female lay follower abides properly practising the Dhamma, and fulfils the Dhamma way, he or she honours the Tathagata, reveres and esteems him, and pays him the supreme homage.

Having conveyed his legacy to his monastic Sangha and lay followers, the Buddha disappears from this world like the traceless flame of an expired lamp. After the cremation, his flesh perishes without leaving any ashes, but amazingly, he leaves behind his stainless relics (sanra). The Brahmin Drona divides the relics into eight shares, and not just one but eight relic stupas are constructed.

The final demise and the deposition of relics in eight stupas do not conclude the Buddha’s story in this world. On the contrary, they are the initial stage of reinventing and restating him into this world, not as the historical Buddha, but as the supreme and idealised Buddha, detached from history, time and space. The doctrinal and mystical silhouette of this ideal Buddha has been progressively moulded by successive generations of Buddhist believers and masterminds in India, and this is amply reflected in the interpretations of the innate and aesthetic permutations of the Buddha’s stupa and image.

The stupa’s lore and significance

Right from its origin, the stupa is not considered to be a burial place, but it is treated and venerated as an aniconic monument, symbolic and expressive of the Buddha’s consummate demise (nirupadhises a-nirvana), the final event of his life in this world. Initially, in the early sources, the stupa is perceived as being empty. It contains the Buddha’s relics, but since he is not present in any physical form, the relics do not denote his presence. However, step by step, the empty stupa becomes enlivened by being reinterpreted in two major ways, namely in terms of its architecture and its content, the relics.

The architectural structure of the first stupa is not fully known. In one late account the design of the stupa’s prototype is attributed to the Buddha himself. He folds his three monastic robes into squares and piles them up on the ground. Next, he takes his alms bowl and places it upside down on the top of his robes. Finally, he takes his mendicant staff and positions it vertically over the alms bowl. It is in conformity with this allegorical model that Trapusa and Bhallika, the first two lay converts, are said to have constructed their stupas after returning to their native Bactria. Perhaps this model epitomises the Buddha as a mendicant.

In actual fact, the above sketched stupa model does not represent the first stupa prototype. It is a later and retrospective formulation, which emulates and sanctions the already established tripartite structure of the early stupa: foundation, dome, and superstructure or spire. In the course of time, these three principal elements of the stupa were skilfully and imaginatively modified, and new decorative and architectural elements were incorporated into its overall structure. The shapes, sizes and proportions of the stupa elements were manipulated in a variety of configurations, and this is amply reflected in the architectural variations of the great number of stupas that grace the landscapes in the Buddhist countries of Asia.

In a number of Indian texts, the stupa’s architectural and decorative elements are coupled and identified with different tenets of Buddhist doctrines. One example is given here of the interpretation of the stupa’s primary elements. The width of the stupa’s foundation epitomises the purity of the thirty-two major marks of a superman (mahdpurusa), and its height denotes the twelve links of dependent origination. The dome epitomises the absolute body (dharmakdya), and the encompassing garland symbolises the six kinds of intuitive knowledge (abhijna). The square pavilion (harmikd) over the dome represents the purity of the three vehicles, and its girth is expressive of the four noble truths. The tapered spire of thirteen umbrella-discs epitomises the thirteen stages leading to the attainment of enlightenment and buddhahood. In some texts the stupa is invested with practically the entire lore of Buddhist teachings and Buddha attributes: the four noble truths, the thirty-seven limbs of enlightenment, emptiness and compassion, and Buddha qualities and powers. Thus, the stupa structure vibrates, symbolically and mystically, with the totality of Buddhist teachings, and the path to enlightenment, which culminates in emptiness and compassion, parinirvdna and enlightenment.

However, there are deeper dimensions to the above superimposition of the Dharma on the external structure of the stupa. As quoted above, before he died the Buddha told Ananda that the Dharma should be their teacher. In addition, in another of his statements the Buddha asserts: “He who sees the Dharma, he sees me. He who sees me, he sees the Dharma.” Taken together, these two statements affirm the Buddha’s identity with the Dharma, and his presence in the Dharma as its Teacher. Thus, the stupa’s outer structure is permeated with the totality of the Buddhist Dharma, and therefore with the Buddha himself as its discoverer, teacher, and embodiment.

In addition to the stupas built over the Buddha’s relics, at some later period the Buddhist tradition of India established the construction of eight great caityas (mahdcailya) to commemorate the Buddha’s life events. More specifically, these eight caityas were constructed to epitomise the four principal events of the Buddha’s life, and the four great miracles. In the relevant texts, these events and miracles are arranged in the following sequence: birth, enlightenment, first sermon, miracle at SravastT, descent from the heaven of the thirty-three gods at Samkasya, prolongation of life at VaisalT, reconciliation of the Sangha at Rajagrha, and parinirvdna at Kusinagara. The precise rationale and significance of these stupas cannot be explored here, but only one general observation is offered. It seems quite evident that the stupa’s function and symbolism have been expanded to epitomise not just the Buddha’s parinirvdna, but also other events and deeds of his lifetime.

The properties of the Buddha’s body and relics

As discussed above, the stupa’s outer structure is clad in the Dharma, but is the same Dharma also vibrating inside the stupa! This question is best answered by exploring the Buddhist interpretations of the Buddha’s body and relics, the content of the stupa. The identity of the Buddha’s relics is somewhat controversial and doctrinally enigmatic. Having passed into pari nirvana, the Buddha vanished from samsara, and since he is absent, his stupas and relics are lifeless and powerless. However, gradually there evolved fervent convictions and new doctrines, recorded in texts and inscriptions, which firmly assert that the Buddha is present in his relics, and that they are endowed with his attributes and powers.

During his lifetime, the Buddha as a man had a human body, but as a Buddha, he had no physical buddha-body. However, the concept or character of buddha-body becomes eventually formulated, and is encapsulated in the theory of metaphysical body {dharmakdya) and physical body {rupakdya). The Buddha’s dharmakdya is interpreted as his Dharma, as recorded in the Tripitaka and other scriptures, or as the ultimate and impersonal state of buddhahood. His physical body or rupakdya is perceived as his body endowed with the marks of a superman {mahdpurusa).

This distinction into two Buddha bodies led to the distinction of two kinds of relics: the actual relics as the relics of the Buddha’s physical or manifested body {rupakaya), and the books and dharanis as the relics of his metaphysical body {dharmakdya). So in this context, the stupa is perceived as containing the Buddha’s actual relics as the relics of his rupakdya, and the scriptures as the relics of his dharmakdya. Thus essentially it is not the historical Sakyamuni who is venerated in the stupa, but the idealised Sakyamuni clad in the ineffable dharmakdya and the perfected rupakdya, the two bodies that combine and epitomise the state of a perfect Buddha. This is perhaps the most powerful doctrinal argument for the Buddha’s presence in the stupa.

In his commentary on the Angutta, Buddhaghosa asserts the identity of the Buddha while alive with his bodily relics after death. Then again, in his commentary on the Dlghanikaya, he says that the monks’ failure to worship at the cetiya is equivalent to the negligence to attend upon the Buddha. It is said in the Mahavamsa (17.3) that when the Buddha’s relics are seen, the Buddha himself is seen. The same source (17.43-45) also records the twin miracle performed by the Buddha’s relics prior to being enshrined in the Thuparama Stupa at Anuradhapura.

The inscription on the Shinkot reliquary states that the Buddha’s relics are a living being “endowed with breath” {pranasameta). Similarly the inscriptions at Nagarjunikonda indicate, in Schopen’s words, “that their redactor did not think of the dhatu or relic as a piece or a part of the Buddha. He seems, in fact, to have thought of it as something that contained or enclosed the Buddha himself, something in which the Buddha was wholly present.”

Some sources assert that the relics can multiply and change their appearance, depending on the karmic condition of their observers. Since they are identified with the Buddha, the relics also possess his powers. They can become wish-granting jewels (cintamani) and fulfil all wishes, or they can change into rice which nourishes the poor. They can also preach the Dharma or make the Buddha appear. As such, the cult of the Buddha’s relics is considered as beneficial and equal to the adoration of the Buddha himself. Thus, while the outer structure of the stupa is permeated with the Dharma as Teacher, its inner precincts vibrate with the vitality of Sakyamuni’s buddha-bodies.

Mahayana developments

Some five hundred years after his parinirvdna, Sakyamuni Buddha reappears in this Saha world, and proclaims the Mahayana legacy.

The celebrated Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika') is in fact taught inside a miraculously emerged stupa. Sakyamuni sits inside it together with the Buddha Prabhutaratna, who had passed into nirvana aeons ago, but now comes to hear the Lotus Sutra. In this text, Sakyamuni tells his audience that the Lord Sakyamuni gained the supreme enlightenment at Bodhgaya, but the truth is that he gained it myriads of aeons ago. The Tathagata who became enlightened so long ago is infinite in the duration of his life, and is not extinct. Without passing into parinirvdna, the Tathagata displays prinirvana for the sake of those who need to be educated and converted (vaincya). He has not entered parinirvdna, but displays it for the sake of living beings. The Tathagata’s wisdom knows no limit, and the duration of his life is as long as an endless period of time. Thus the attainment of nirvana is merely displayed in order to mature living beings.

In the Sanskrit Mahdparinirvdna-siitra, the Buddha states that the Tathagata’s body is a diamond body (vajrakdya). which is indestructible and immutable for countless millions of aeons. It is not the body of a man or a god; it is not subject to fear; it is not mixed with food; it is not a body; it does not involve origination (utpdda) or cessation (nirodha)', it is infinite, formless, immovable, and unconditioned (asamskrta)?6

If Sakyamuni has never passed into parinirvdna, and if his body is a vajra-body, then how should one understand the nature of his relics enshrined in stupas! In the Prajnaparamita texts, Sakyamuni Buddha gives the following exposition of his relics. He states that the Tathagata does not acquire his name from his body, but from the acquisition of omniscience produced by the perfection of wisdom. However, his body is the foundation and support of his omniscience, and hence it is the shrine to be worshipped and venerated. Once gone into parinirvdna, his relics should be worshipped.

The Tathagata’s relics have emerged from the perfection of wisdom, and are saturated with the perfection of wisdom, and hence they must be respected and worshipped. The visions of the Tathagata and the perfection of wisdom are the same and of equal value. It is so because the Tathagata and the perfection of wisdom are not two different things. The perfection of wisdom is the source of the other five perfections and of supreme enlightenment. So long as the perfection of wisdom abides in this world, there is no disappearance of the triple Jewel: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Thus, since the Buddha is identical with the perfection of wisdom, he is present in his relics.

In order to grasp the Buddha’s exposition of his relics, it should be noted that the Lotus Sutra and other Mahayana discourses are taught by the Buddha in his rapture or glorified body (sambhogakaya). Thus when he speaks of his relics, he implies the relics of his earthly appearance in a manifested body (nirmanakaya), which is illusory and merely a display.

The Buddha in aniconic and iconic forms

After the Buddha’s human body and personality disappeared from this world, his followers did not produce his iconic or anthropomorphic representations for almost four centuries. It is generally agreed among Buddhist scholars and art historians that the first anthropomorphic images of the Buddha were doctrinally devised and concretely produced around the beginning of the Common Era.

Initially, in the early sculptures, the Buddha is not represented in iconic or human forms. Since his phenomenal body and existence were dissolved, the Buddha’s immediate followers deemed it unsuitable to depict him in a human form. The Buddha and the places of his deeds are empty spaces. However, in the early sculptures, these empty spaces are transmuted and made visible by the use of aniconic symbols.

Thus the Buddha’s nativity is symbolised by the goddess Laksml or by his mother, the queen Maya, leaning against a tree in the LumbinT grove. The attainment of enlightenment at Bodhgaya is articulated by the bodhi tree and the empty diamond seat (vajrasana) beneath the tree. The first sermon is indicated by a wheel (cakra), the emblem of a universal monarch (cakravartin), and the parinirvana is symbolised by the stupa. Finally the Buddha’s unequivocal presence is marked or indicated by his footprints.

The aniconic symbols are interpreted as being expressive of the highest truth realised by the Buddha, and as encapsulating his true nature and identity with the supreme truth, the Dharma. They signify distinctly spiritual dimensions, without any involvement of the Buddha in the sphere of samsara. It is not the Buddha’s human body or personality that preoccupied the minds of his immediate and later followers, but his enlightened and transcendent identity with the Dharma. As stated above, the Buddha identified himself with the Dharma: the one who sees the Dharma, sees the Buddha, and conversely the one who sees the Buddha, sees the Dharma.

The aniconic depictions basically epitomise the specific events or deeds, which the Buddha experienced or enacted during his lifetime. Thus all the symbolic depictions serve as abstract or imageless icons of the Buddha events and activities, and not the events of the human Buddha himself. In other words, they do not epitomise the Buddha as a person, but are expressive of the truths and deeds which he realised and enacted. In the Buddhist sources, the Buddha is treated and regarded both as man and as Buddha, but ultimately it is the idealised Buddha that is the focus of attention. The Buddha’s life events arranged into the twelve Buddha acts are not considered as human deeds, but as Buddha deeds. None of the symbols, which represent the Buddha’s life events, can be considered or identified as a single or exclusive, and universally valid symbol of his person or activities. Considered individually, each symbol encapsulates and depicts one specific event or deed. Considered together, they denote the Buddha’s doctrinal and mystical image, but do not project the Buddha’s image as a historical person, because his mundane body and personality are dissolved in parinirvdiia.,

Thus, since all or most of the symbolic representations are linked with the specific buddha-events and the places of such buddha-deeds, they denote the Buddha’s mystical dimensions, without taking into account his involvement in the sphere of samsdra. The Buddha lived and taught in this world, and for the sake of this world, but his early and later followers disregarded his mundane humanity, and transmuted him into the transcendent and timeless ideal. They had no interest in his mundane or human personality, but they consistently and persistently strove to formulate, enrich and perfect the buddha-ideal beyond and above history and time, and detached from embodied reality in any historical and biographical sense.

When around the beginning of the Common Era, the Buddha’s followers decided to depict him in anthropomorphic forms, they did not seek after the bodily features of the historical Buddha. Instead they set their hearts and eyes on the image of the idealised or superhuman Buddha, drawing on two distinctly different sources of inspiration. As widely accepted, the first Buddha images were produced in Gandhara and Mathura.

The Gandhara sculptures are described by art experts as being inspired or influenced by Hellenistic perceptions and depictions of the Olympian gods, or perhaps of Greek heroes. Briefly stated, in the Gandhara sculptures, the Buddha is not represented as a mendicant as depicted in Buddhist scriptures, but as a royal and divine figure divested of his human qualities. His body is enveloped in a lavish cloak, which markedly resembles the himation or garment of the ancient Greeks, or the toga of the ancient Romans. His hair is arranged in wavy strands knotted together on the top of the head. This graceful mound of hair is reminiscent of the hairstyle of Greek gods. He also often wears a masterly groomed moustache and beard. The overall appearance is realistic, but at the same time projects itself as a superhuman and super-divine figure worthy of respect and devotion.

The Mathura school largely derived its inspiration from the literary sources, which portray the Buddha as the Lord (bhapavdn), universal monarch (cakravartiri), and great being or superman (mahdpurusa). In the relevant texts, the body of the great being is described as being endowed with thirty-two major marks (laksana) and eighty minor marks (anuvyanjana) of distinction. In Mathura sculptures, the Buddha’s head is covered with clusters of short hair curling to the right. He has elongated ear-lobes, almond-like eyes, and perfect facial features. He is cloaked in buddha-robes, and when seated, he sits on a lion throne (simhasana'). Once again, the overall appearance projects a majestic and superhuman figure, radiating tranquillity, supremacy, and transcendent aloofness.

While the production of the Gandhara style images was eventually discontinued, the Mathura style images continued and inspired the subsequent generations of Buddha images in India and beyond.

In summary, the images of the Buddha do not reflect the person of the historical Buddha as a human being, but they project the idealised and abstract embodiment of buddhahood. Is there such a thing as the Buddha’s ultimate icon?

Essentially, just as in the case of aniconic or symbolic representations, there is no single image or icon of the Buddha, which could be identified and treated as the ultimate icon. Instead there is a whole range of images, which epitomise the Buddha events and activities: birth, enlightenment, first sermon, and so on. The Buddha in samadhi is perhaps the favoured image, but it is not exclusive or universally recognised as the ultimate icon.

Although Sakyamuni is the most renowned among Buddha manifestations, he is not the only Buddha. Buddhism recognises the existence of other Buddhas in addition to Sakyamuni Buddha. Thus there are the images of the Buddhas of the three times: DTpankara, Sakyamuni and Maitreya. Then there are the images of the six and twenty four past Buddhas, and the Buddhas described in Mahayana texts, such as Amitabha, Aksobhya, and Bhaisajyaguru. Moreover there is the group of one thousand Buddhas, and the countless Buddhas abiding in their Buddha-lands dispersed into the ten cosmic directions.

Then again, in the tantras, there emerges a new generation of Buddhas, depicted in human and animal forms, and having peaceful and wrathful dispositions. Among the individual or single manifestations, Guhyasamaja, Hevajra, Cakrasamvara, and Vajrabhairava are considered to be the most powerful. Then among the grouped manifestations of buddhahood, the most dominant set is represented by the five cosmic Buddhas, Vairocana and the other four Buddhas. This pentad embodies the five aspects of Buddhahood, but ultimately it is subsumed or superimposed with the primordial Buddha manifestations, such as Vajradhara, Mahavairocana, or Vajrasattva. Moreover, in the tantras there are also collective icons or manifestations of buddhahood arranged in mandalas. As diagrams, the mandalas epitomise ideal and perfected universes, which are replete with Buddhas and attendant deities, who individually symbolise particular aspects of buddha-qualities and activities, and collectively encapsulate the totality of buddhahood.

Finally, according to Mahayana teachings, the potentiality of buddhahood is immanent in all beings. In this context, all beings, however imperfect, can be seen as different degrees or forms of Buddha images.

Thus, in Buddhism, there are single and multiple icons, but it is impossible to identify one specific icon as the ultimate icon expressive of incarnate budhahood, or to narrow down to one all-encompassing image of Sakyamuni Buddha as a manifestation of buddhahood. Relationship between the stiipa and the image.

In relation to the Buddha’s images, the relic stupa has always commanded, and continues to command the position and status of primacy and pre-eminence. No doubt the stupa’s superiority derives from the fact that it was sanctioned by the Buddha himself and contains his relics. Right from the very beginning, the Buddhist way of life and devotion are centred on the worship of the relics. These are tangibly reminiscent of the Buddha as the ideal of human perfection, although significantly shifted into the realm of idealised abstraction.

Although considered to be doctrinally subordinate, the images functioned, and continue to function as tangible depictions of the Buddha as a mahdpurusa, and as the focus of devotion and veneration directed towards the idealised state of buddhahood. However, at some stage the Buddha’s relics began to be deposited inside his images, in order to enhance their status and to endow them with mystical potency. These reliquary images are treated as the most powerful images, and are equal in status to the reliquary stupas. Thus it can be said that the mystic potency of the Buddha’s relics merges his stupa and image, and imbues them with sacredness and vitality.

Initially, the stupas did not contain images. However, at some stage after the introduction of the Buddha’s images, niches or chapels were excavated or constructed on the four sides of some stupas, and images of the cosmic Buddhas were installed inside them. In this configuration, the Buddha’s stupa and image are co-efficiently expressive of the Buddha’s dharmakdya and riipakdya. The stupa containing the dharmakdya relics in the form of scriptures, is the aniconic representation of the transcendent and impersonal dharmakdya. In turn, the Buddha’s relics as his rupakdya are transmuted into visible forms as images endowed with the mahdpurusa marks. Thus in this configuration, the stupa and the image can be seen as a combined icon, epitomising the Buddha’s manifest and transcendent permutations. However, if the imagery must be reduced to one or zero, then perhaps the relics should be identified and configured as the ultimate aniconic icon of the Buddha in this world. Ultimately, it is the mystical sacredness and potency of the Buddha’s relics that empower and fuse his stiipa and image.

The stiipa as a reliquary, with images positioned towards the four cardinal directions, and the tapered spire piercing the sky, can be possibly understood as a mystical universe. Inside the stupa, the Buddha abides in his absolute body (dharmakdya), which permeates all phenomena and all beings. He is physically present in his relics, which transmute and appear in his images gazing towards the cardinal directions.

Dissolution into emptiness

In the end this magnificent and vibrant array of stupas and images as epitomes of the idealised Buddha and buddhahood must be dissolved in emptiness. In concrete terms, when one looks at the prophesies about the final fate of the Buddha, his Dharma and Sangha, one learns that like all phenomena in this world, and indeed this entire world, they are doomed to disappear into emptiness and make room for the appearance of the next cycle of Buddhism in this world.

According to some sources the Buddha’s nirvana is threefold. At Bodhgaya he gained the first nirvana understood as enlightenment, and interpreted as the victory over defilements and ignorance. At Kusinagara he gained the nirvana without any residues (nirupadisesa nirvana), namely the dissolution of his five aggregates (skandha). The third nirvana is anticipated to take place at the end of this cosmic aeon. On that occasion the Buddha’s relics will reassemble at Bodhgaya, assume the bodily form of the Buddha, his final icon in this world, and then the Buddha will burst into flames and utterly disappear from this world. The overall idea is that so long as the Buddha’s relics remain in the world, his parinirvana is incomplete, and thus much merit can be gained from worshipping the relics as the Buddha himself.

According to the perfection of wisdom (prajhaparamitd), from the perspective of conventional truth, there are beings, mendicants, holy people, arhats, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. However, from the perspective of the ultimate truth, there are no living beings, no arhats, no Bodhisattvas, and no Buddhas. Thus ultimately, all mundane and transcendent images of any kind arise from emptiness, but in order to gain their true apperceptions one must dissolve them in emptiness, the ultimate imageless reality of all imagined and illusory phenomena, beings and icons.

The renowned Nagarjuna asserted that there is not the slightest difference between samsara and nirvana. What does this mean? As such, emptiness as emptiness cannot be differentiated into polarities such as being and non-being, existence and non­existence, mundane and transcendent icons, or samsara and nirvana. As stated at the beginning of this paper, emptiness is the common ground of all manifestations. However, once all manifestations subside and are dissolved in emptiness as the non- conceptual reality, they cannot be differentiated in emptiness as emptiness. Ultimately, in the state of supreme enlightenment, all mundane and transcendent manifestations must be dissolved in emptiness, the formless and mindless reality of all existence, and the supreme and ultimate but conceptually imageless icon of Sakyamuni Buddha’s buddhahood as emptiness.


AA Artibus Asiae
AB The Art Bulletin
AJ Art Journal
AO Ars Orientalis
BEFEO Bulletin de l’Ecole Fraicaise d’Extreme Orient
EB Eastern Buddhist
EFEO Ecole Fraicaise d Extreme Orient
HR History of Religions
JBRS Journal of the Bihar Research Society
UHP University of Hawaii Press
WWUP Western Washington University Press
PEW Philosophy East and West
PUP Princeton University Press
CUP Cambridge University Press

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