Buddha, Sage of the Shakya Clan: Masterworks from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection
While the actual life events of Shakyamuni Buddha are not well documented, there are several legendary stories that contain significant moments of his life. In this exhibition, we focus on the “Eight Great Events.” This story of the Buddha’s life is depicted in scenes having origins from early Indian Buddhism, which became codified in a visual language by around 100 AD. Prior to that time, only aniconic images of these events existed: wheels, footprints, parasols, and riderless horses were used to symbolize the Buddha rather than figurative representations.
The scenes illustrated in Buddha, Sage of the Shakya Clan: Masterworks from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection began to appear by the second century in Mathura (in modern-day Uttar Pradesh) and within the Buddhist centers of the Gandharan Kingdom (areas in modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan). The sculptures and paintings on display depict some or all of the “Eight Great Events.”
The main sources of these events are ancient Indian Buddhist texts, which were originally transmitted orally and later written down. These texts include the Pali Canon, which is the primary scripture of Theravada Buddhism, composed in the Pali language, and the Buddhist texts of Mahayana Buddhism composed in the Sanskrit language. The Pali Canon texts (such as the Digha Nikaya, the Majjhima Nikaya, and the Vinaya Pitaka) describe the Buddha’s birth, his early life as a prince, his renunciation of the world, his enlightenment, and his teaching career. The Mahayana texts (such as the Lotus Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra, and the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra) also provide detailed accounts of the Buddha’s life, but they tend to include more mythological elements and supernatural events.
THE BUDDHA’S BIRTH
Prince Siddhartha Gautama of the Shakya clan was born to King Suddhodana and Queen Maya in the small kingdom of Magadha (in modern-day Bihar, India) sometime in the sixth century BCE. Prior to the prince’s birth, the queen had a dream in which a white elephant bearing six tusks entered her womb. The elephant made a prophecy that a divine being, who dwelled in Tushita Heaven, would be reborn in the human realm. The king appointed the esteemed sage, Asita, to analyze the dream, and Asita deemed it an auspicious sign that Queen Maya would bear a son destined to become either a divine spiritual leader (chakravartin) or an enlightened being who could save mankind from the suffering of perpetual rebirth.
After nearly ten months of pregnancy, Queen Maya travelled to her parents’ home to give birth. While resting in a beautiful garden in Lumbini (in modern-day Nepal) along the way, she went into labor while standing, holding the branch of a sala tree. The child emerged with feet marked with wheels (a circle with eight spokes, representing the Eightfold Path and the cycle of birth and death), webbed fingers and toes, and a tuft of hair between his eyebrows, which the sage Asita noted were among many other features of the prince that he considered marks of perfection (lakshanas). Siddhartha was immediately able to stand on his own and took seven steps beneath which lotuses instantly bloomed. Indra, the king of gods, and Brahma, the creator, arrived to bathe the special child.
THE BUDDHA’S AWAKENING
Knowing his child was prophesized to become a spiritual leader but wanting him to wear the crown, King Suddhodana designed a completely sheltered life for his son in order to hide him from the world’s sufferings. While confined within the palace walls in the capital of Kapilavastu, Prince Siddhartha received a formal education and excelled in writing, archery, and wrestling. At the age of sixteen, he competed to win the hand in marriage of his cousin the coveted Princess Yasoddhara. His extraordinary talents as a sportsman prevailed and the couple married.
Despite his life of extreme luxury and comfort, at the age of 29, the prince realized he was discontent, restless, and unfulfilled, so he decided to venture outside of the palace walls for the first time in his life. Just beyond the palace’s borders he encountered old age, sickness, and death. On his fourth trip outside, he encountered an ascetic who inspired him to renounce his luxurious life in pursuit of freedom from the inevitable inflictions that came with the infinite cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Siddhartha quickly resolved to do just that and left the palace once and for all while his wife and his many attendants were in an unnaturally deep sleep.
After six years of practicing austerities such as self-inflicted pain, meditating in charnel grounds, and fasting until his body was skeletal, Siddhartha remained inflicted with ignorance. Starving, he finally gave into his hunger and accepted food from a maiden named Sujata. Thereafter, Siddhartha felt nourished, bathed in the Neranjara River nearby, and followed the river to Bodhgaya, where he found a seat to meditate beneath the bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa).
After a period of meditation, the evil demon Mara began to conjure illusions and sent armies of demons and female temptresses to distract the Buddha and prevent him from becoming awakened. Aided by Indra, the King of Gods, Siddhartha was undeterred by these obstacles, and he reached his deepest point of meditation in which he realized how to circumvent the philosophical extremes of absolutism and nihilism. He directly perceived the impermanence (anitya) and interdependent nature of all things (pratityasamutpada), as well as the absence of self (anatman) and the Four Noble Truths: (1) all life is defined by suffering, (2) the source of all suffering is attachment, (3) suffering can be extinguished by ridding oneself of attachment, and (4) ridding oneself of attachment can be done by following the Eightfold Path. Awakened with this wisdom, he touched the ground beneath him with his right hand, and the earth shook in recognition of his incredible achievement. At this point, at the age of thirty-five, Siddhartha achieved Buddhahood.
THE FIRST TURNING OF THE WHEEL OF THE DHARMA AT SARNATH
Soon after achieving Buddhahood, Siddhartha, now referred to as the “Sage of the Shakya Clan” (Shakyamuni), delivered his first sermon at Sarnath (near Varanasi/Benares). It was during this first sermon or “turning of the wheel of dharma” that the Buddha spoke of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
The Four Noble Truths are understood as the ultimate and only unchanging truths in existence, and the Eightfold Path captures the most rudimentary framework for how to live a life according to the body of Buddhist teachings (dharma). The historical Buddha’s radical philosophy challenged the deeply ingrained caste system in India. Through his teachings, he reminds us that we are all the same; we will all succumb to the impermanence of the human condition; and any other perspective is a delusion upheld by ignorance, greed, and hatred.
THE MIRACLES AT SRAVASTI
On a path to accumulate followers, the Buddha was staying in a monastery in Sravasti (in modern-day Uttar Pradesh) when a group of six rival teachers, known as the Tirthikas, came to challenge him. These Tirthikas were known for their supernatural powers and claimed that their abilities were superior to his. Although the Buddha was initially reticent to accept their challenge, he began to perform a series of miraculous feats to demonstrate the unassailable power of his mind.
As the Tirthikas looked on, he multiplied himself into countless Buddhas, each atop a lotus flower and emitting rays of light. Among a series of other miracles, which vary in number and detail from source to source, he caused a great stream of water to flow out of his feet while emitting fire from his upper body. The Tirthikas were amazed by what they saw and, realizing they could not match the Buddha’s powers, became his followers and eventually were ordained as Buddhist monks.
THE MONKEY GIVING AN OFFERING OF HONEY
Having cultivated deep compassion for all sentient beings, the Buddha had strong connections to animals. Once, he was wandering in the forest near the city of Vaishali when he became tired and thirsty. He came across a group of monkeys playing in a tree and asked them if they knew where he could find some water to drink.
One of the monkeys offered to help and told the Buddha to follow him. The monkey led the Buddha to a beehive and showed him how to extract honey from it. The Buddha drank the honey and felt refreshed. When the monkey offered more, the Buddha declined. Because of his desire to serve the Buddha, the monkey insisted and offered him a piece of honeycomb. The Buddha accepted and thanked the monkey for his kindness. He then used the opportunity to teach the monkey about the importance of generosity and compassion. He told the monkey that the act of giving is not just about the gift itself, but also about the intention and the state of mind underlying the act of kindness.
THE TAMING OF THE MAD ELEPHANT NALAGIRI
The Buddha was staying in the city of Rajagaha when a fierce and angry elephant named Nalagiri was let loose in the city by Buddha’s jealous cousin. The elephant charged through the streets, trampling and injuring anyone who got in its way. The people of the city were terrified and fled in all directions.
When the Buddha heard about the situation, he went out into the streets to confront the elephant. As Nalagiri came charging towards him, the Buddha stood calmly, radiating a peaceful and loving energy that stopped the elephant in its tracks. When he reached out and touched Nalagiri’s forehead, the animal knelt down before him in a sign of submission and reverence.
The Buddha used the opportunity to teach the people of Rajagaha about the importance of kindness and compassion, even towards the most violent and dangerous of creatures. He also spoke about the need to overcome one's own inner demons and negative emotions, just as he had tamed Nalagiri through his own peaceful and loving presence.
THE DESCENT FROM THE TRAYASTRIMSHA HEAVEN AFTER PREACHING TO THE GODS
Trayastrimsha Heaven, or The Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods, can be found at the peak of Mount Meru, a multi-tiered mountain at the center of the Buddhist universe. It is the realm of particular gods and devas (seen as lesser than buddhas), or the second highest of six realms, according to Buddhist cosmology (beneath which are the realms of humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hells).
For three months the Buddha dwelled in Trayastrimsha Heaven to teach his mother, Queen Maya, who had been reborn there. He also shared the dharma with the lesser gods and devas dwelling there, including Sakra (Indra), Brahma, and the Guardians of the Four Directions.
After imparting his unmatched wisdom upon the gods and demigods of Trayastrimsha, the Buddha descended back to the human realm, having accumulated incredible merit and virtue in the heavenly abode.
THE BUDDHA'S DEATH, OR PARINIRVANA, IN KUSHINAGAR, INDIA
At an old age (often stated as 80 years-old), the Buddha delivered his last sermon before traveling to Kushinagar (in modern-day Uttar Pradesh), where he fell ill. While differing accounts describe his illness in varying ways, many believe that the Buddha had accepted a spoiled mushroom, out of compassion, from a blacksmith named Cunda and was inflicted with food poisoning as a result. The illness gradually worsened over months, but the Buddha continued to teach his followers until he no longer could. Finally, one day, with several of his disciples around him, he passed into a state of final liberation from continual samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth, into a state of parinirvana, or nirvana after death.
The Buddha was the first to demonstrate this incredible achievement in this eon—the complete cessation of suffering. Though extremely saddened by his departure, the Buddha’s disciples recognized the exceptional nature of their teacher’s spiritual achievement and set out to build a monastic institution (sangha) according to his wishes.
Watch a tour of the exhibition by Laura Weinstein, John H. Foster Associate Curator of Pre-modern Art, which first aired on Asia Society's Instagram account.