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Curator's Note:

Across two and a half millennia, the life of the Buddha has been depicted in art rich in beauty and complexity. Most paintings and sculptures focus on key episodes in his spiritual journey: his birth and childhood, his renunciation of worldly life, his enlightenment, his first teaching, his life as a teacher, and his death.


But Buddhist traditions vary. Ways of illustrating the Buddha's life story are often distinctive, depending on the culture and period of production. We have brought together examples of how different cultures have represented two key chapters of the Buddha's life: his career as a teacher and the moment of his death.


--David Grubin, Filmmaker, The Buddha

The Buddha rebroadcasts on December 22 (check local listings).

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Exhibition Playlist

Art: The Death of the Buddha

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The moment of the Buddha’s death illustrated by three different Buddhist traditions.

Image 1: Death of the Buddha – Japan

This scroll painting from fourteenth century Japan depicts the Buddha at the moment of his death, surrounded by mourners: monks, deities, animals, and even the long dead Buddha’s mother descending from the heavens on the upper right. His followers are weeping – a very human reaction to the death of their beloved master. In contrast, the deities, identifiable by their princely raiment, have calm expressions. 

The presence of the Buddha’s mother is a good example of what happened to Buddhism as it spread from India to other countries. When Buddhism crossed into China, there was some synthesis with traditional Chinese ideas of Confucian filial piety.  This Confucian slant came along with Buddhist tradition as it was transmitted from China to Japan. It is represented in this Japanese painting by the presence of the Buddha’s mother. 

Attribution: “Death of the Historical Buddha (Nehan-zu)”/ The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY

Image 2: Death of the Buddha – Thailand

This nineteenth century statue from the Wat Bowonniwet temple in Bangkok, Thailand has the bright golden gilding and slim body typical of Thai depictions of the Buddha. The Buddha's mourning disciples are painted on the wall behind him.

The ancient texts say that the Buddha could be recognized by 32 physical signs, some of which artists have traditionally used in representing him.  The turban-like knot, or crown-like protrusion on top of the Buddha's head is one of them.  In the Thai tradition, the knot is depicted as coming to a point, resembling an elongated flame.

Attribution: Wat Bowornniwet Vihara Rajaworavihara, Bangkok, Thailand/ Photograph by Luca Tettoni

Image 3: Death of the Buddha – Tibet 

This painting from eighteenth century Tibet is called a tangka, a scroll painting often used in teaching or as inspiration for meditation. Popular with monks who found them easy to roll up and carry from monastery to monastery, tangkas can be found displayed on monastery walls, hung on family altars, or carried in Buddhist ceremonies. Tangkas traditionally adhere to a specified formulaic design painted by a single artist. 

A part of a larger tangka illustrating various episodes in the life of the Buddha, this detail depicts the Buddha according to tradition, lying on his right side looking west and surrounded by his followers as he speaks to them for the last time.

Attribution: Parinirvana, from 'The Life of Buddha Sakyamuni',Tibetan School (18th century) / Musee Guimet, Paris, France / Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library


These images appear in the feature length documentary film "The Buddha" from director David Grubin. The film can be viewed in its entirety on the web at "The Buddha" on PBS Video. It will also be rebroadcast on PBS on December 22nd (check local listings).



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