The Nature of a Buddha

Tue., Aug. 19th, 09:00-17:00

Discussant: Sharf, Robert (University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, USA)



Where is the Buddha Located? Buddhist Deities and Their Avatars in the Form of ‘Auspicious Statues’

Anderl, Christoph (Ruhr Univ. Bochum, Bochum, GER)

This paper will investigate textual and iconographic narratives attached to ruìxiàng or ‘Auspicious Statues’, which became very popular from mid-Táng times onwards in the Khotan region and the cave paintings of Dūnhuáng. Not only Śākyamuni was ‘reproduced’ in this way, but also a number of other bodhisattvas and deities. The popularity and veneration of these images and the narratives attached to them entail several interesting questions: What role did they play in the transmission of Buddhism and the historiographical projections on these processes? Why is there such a great emphasis on their mobility and their ability of fast movement through the air? What function does the veneration of these images fulfill, as opposed, for example, to relics or ‘regular’ Buddha icons.

There are also a number of questions concerning the ‘identity’ of the Buddha arising: Supposedly created face-to-face with the Buddha or deity, the statues incorporate on the one hand the supernatural powers and the dharma of the ‘original’, and at the same time manifest individual will-power and the ability of decision making (e.g., the decision to move and transfer the dharma to another location), and develop specific features in local contexts.


Sanctifying a Country, Disuniting Believers: The Buddha’s Physical Presence as a Contested Property

Bretfeld, Sven (Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Bochum, GER)

In many Buddhist cultures, the significance of the (or a) Buddha is not reduced to his function as a source of teachings. A large number of studies has been devoted to the important function of his physical presence as “embodied” in relics, bodily descriptions and depictions, and narratives of the Buddha’s visits to other countries.

Relics and Buddha visits play a special role in fashioning collective religious identities in countries regarding themselves as remote from, or even peripheral to, the genuine centers of Buddhism. “Where the Buddha trod”, thus, extends the narrow territory of North-Eastern India and turns to a potentially global space sanctified by his bodily presence. By bridging time and space, the moving and traveling Buddha—alive or dead and in pieces—helps to “emplace” his Teaching on a new territory and to form “excentric identities.”

This also has a negative side. Matter—even the powerful material of the Buddha’s bones—is by nature exposed to destruction, theft (bone-napping), and exclusive property claims. For example, the LTTE bomb attack on the Daḷadā Māḷigāva (Temple of Tooth) in Kandy 1998 demonstrates the relationship between the vulnerability of religio-national feelings and the destructibility of religious objects. Assaults and disappropriation of religious objects and narratives have been successful demoralizing strategies in political and religious contests throughout history. Places empowered by a visiting Buddha have become a focal point of competing religious authority claims. This paper will explore some of these events in Sri Lankan religious history and draw conclusions on the vulnerable and contested aspects of the “objectified” nature of the Buddha.

Images of the Buddha’s Omniscience in the Pali Commentaries

Heim, Maria (Amherst College, Amherst, USA)

This paper explores images of the Buddha’s omniscience advanced by the Pali commentators, Buddhaghosa and Dhammapāla. I argue that the commentators attempt to assert and depict the Buddha’s omniscience by demonstrating how it worked in practice; rather than offering a theory or definition of it, they sought to show where and how it found expression. I explore two sites in which the commentators saw the Buddha’s omniscience expressed and performed: the nidānas (the opening contexts of suttas), and the Abhidhamma. I argue that they interpret his omniscience as both knowledge of particular facts (the singular histories and circumstances of his audiences) and as modes of knowing universal truths (the workings of causal interrelations of the Abhidhamma).

Surprisingly, very little work has been done on the Pali tradition’s conception of the Buddha’s omniscience. My paper will explore how central this theme was for the commentators and how it was developed through concrete images that explore a traditional conception of both the miraculous and wondrous nature of the Buddha’s achievement, as well as the extraordinary potential for (and constraints of) human knowledge.


“The Buddha does not live here, does he?” The Significance of Buddha Statues as Religious Objects

Krüger, Madlen (CERES-Center for Religious Studies, Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany, Bochum, GER)

Buddha statues are an integral part of different Buddhist traditions and are important objects within the Buddhist symbol-system. Their usage and meaning as religious objects have faced certain transformations during recent centuries, especially during the process of globalisation and in the different conceptions of Buddhism that have emerged. In this paper I would like to present diverse views of the purpose that Buddha statues serve in Sri Lanka. As important religious objects the function of these statues are a much-discussed topic. With the case study of the so-called “Akon incident” I would like to show how different concepts of Buddhism in contemporary Sri Lanka provoke discussion of the utilization and significance of Buddha statues. These discussions include in particular the impact of the “Western” perception of Buddhism and the usage of Buddha statues as ornaments. The “Akon incident” took place in March 2010. The American rapper Akon was refused permission to perform a concert in Colombo because of his music video “Sexy Bitch” in which two bikini-clad girls were dancing in front of a Buddha statue. The original announcement that the concert would take place provoked demonstrations that ended in mobs attacking the MTV head office in Colombo and the rejection of Akon's visa application. The music video was seen as vilification of Buddhism. This presentation highlights some aspects of the discussion in which laity and monks debate the “true” understanding of the Buddha’s teaching, the impact of “Western” Buddhism and the meaning of Buddha statues.


Pleasing the Female Buddhas

Meinert, Carmen (Universität Bochum, Bochum, GER)

A main feature of Tantric Buddhist ritual practice is the evocation of Buddha icons through a process of visualisation. In fact, the representation of such an evoked deity is not regarded simply as an external presence, but as an internal reality. It is approached with respect and might even be seen as a close friend accompanying the adept on her or his spiritual journey. The intimacy of the relationship between Tantric practitioner and the deity may be seen in ritual manuals dedicated to pleasing those deities and in their visual representations indicating a certain degree of individualisation.

As Tantric Buddhism spread throughout Eastern Central Asia around and after the turn of the first millennium, Tantric ritual texts were translated into various languages. Textual and visual evidence which hints to a strong presence of Tantric communities in the Tangut Empire (982-1226) are among the findings from Khara Khoto. Several Chinese Khara Khoto manuscripts dedicated to the female deity Vajravārāhī also include offering rituals to the female Buddha, e.g. including details of feeding processes and multiple internal presences of the divine icon.

Moreover a number of visual representations of Vajravārāhī in thangkas and cave sites further enable us to fathom the outer ritual space which literally created a home for the deity. Internal and external dwelling places may demonstrate the reality (and not just the external presence) of the deity.

The paper aims to contribute to the discourse on Buddha images, its potency and reality.


The Buddha in Light of Upaniṣadic Metaphysics

Shulman, Eviatar (Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, ISR)

Buddhism, as it exists and existed in South Asia, is a specimen of Indian religion and many of its practices are reminiscent of the ones popular in the religions we call Hinduism. Although the Buddha is technically not defined as a god, he effectively functions as one, serving as an object of devotion, a grantor of blessing and a possessor of the power to alter reality at will. Yet although the deep relation between the Buddha – as the focal point of the Buddhist religion - and his Indian setting is widely acknowledged, the Buddhist understanding of the Buddha is commonly discussed mainly on the basis of conceptualizations developed within the Buddhist tradition, which hinge on “the logic of the empty” or define him positively as a form of awareness. These approaches focus on the nature of the Buddha's attainment and provide no metaphysical framework for understanding his omniscience and omnipotence.

This paper will argue that there is good reason to understand the metaphysics behind the figure of the Buddha in light of non-Buddhist, primarily Upaniṣadic, thought. For example, the cosmogonies of the Upaniṣads explain the evolution of the universe as a process that is generated by the primordial movements of an original, purified, conscious substance; they place such a perfected consciousness at the heart of the universe and see physical reality as its external expression. This original being is the knowledge and power that remains at the pole of existence. Such a metaphysical paradigm can be seen to underlie the approach to the Buddha's presence in diverse Buddhist texts and contexts, which suggest that the Buddha is understood as an ontological principle, thoroughly purified and aware, while his personal existence is only an exemplification of this deeper, more essential type of being. The Buddha is first and foremost a purified conscious presence, and his potency derives from the ontological priority attributed to consciousness over the more material and externalized aspects of reality. Reading the Buddha in light of Upaniṣadic metaphysics may thus inform us about the way the Buddha was understood in classical India and help us bridge the gap between Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist religion.


IABS 2014 | Universitätsring 1  | 1010 Wien