Is it Possible to Speak of "art" Within Buddhism?
Art as it’s understand in the West seems to contradict the very precepts of Buddhism.
The notion of art is not exclusively Western. But we are widely accustomed to considering it as such. The idea is one of a creative expression that recreates the senses, and one which grew out of a subjectivity but which bridges with others in the sense that it is subject to a historical context. This is true even if we can speak of other arts with luxurious or purely ornamental purposes. All of this, which we associate with art in the Western worldview, seems to conflict with other values and purposes, for example, those of Buddhism, in the light of which all the efforts of art seem both banal and superfluous. But is this so? Or is it just a misunderstanding of both concepts, both of art and of Buddhism? If it’s so, why then are there so many Buddhist artistic expressions, and so many so old?
Buddhist art, in fact, dates back to the moment when Siddhartha Gautama died and his remains were divided and placed into beautiful coffers, each carved with ornate delicacy. Such craft had not existed within Buddhism, it’s true, but somehow this inclination was believed to be purely human in its desire to honor (as Claude Levi-Strauss and other anthropologists have pointed out; honoring the dead is one of the fundamental civilizing practices of humankind). This is also believed to be part of the origins of art.
Over time, around the first century of our own era, this trend led to iconic art (visual representations of the Buddha). Certain principles and concepts such as “Wheel of Dharma” the “four noble truths” found their own graphic expressions. In Tibet, the “mandala,” which is even today considered an intrinsic visual symbol of Buddhism, emerged, in this context, originally as a geometric translation of the “divine temple.” It was used, as a technical aid, to strengthen concentration during meditation. But Tibetan mandalas are perhaps the only such expressions that can be considered art. This is, granted, true only from an external point of view, because in context they are just that: the practice of meditation and concentration. The practice is completed along with the mandalas which are then never preserved.
Temples, paintings, sculptures, illustrations: those things created in the Buddhist context might well qualify as art, but is this naturally so? Could one create a gallery, on impulse perhaps, a museum attended by Buddhist monks? It sounds a bit contradictory.
The mere enumeration of these expressions give the impression that they’re inseparable from the doctrine that gives them sustenance, but it’s here wherein lies their authenticity.
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