Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Maya's Dream and Buddha's birth

Maya’s dream and the birth of Buddha
Iconographic and psychologic interpretation of some Buddhist events
By Vittorio Roveda @ (Copyright text and pictures)

Buddhist iconography; the need of images (icons); the origin of early Buddhist art in India and its evolution from indexical (aniconic) to figurative and narrative
(Several examples).
Examples and religious and psychological interpretation of a few selected events (Dream of Maya, the Birth and the Seven Steps, the Tonsure or Cutting of the hair and the Enlightenment); in-depth psychological analysis of the ways and meanings of the visual manifestation of the sacred. This type of enquire may seem blasphemous to some orthodox Buddhist reader. I apologize in advance, remanding that I accept new techniques

Modern Iconography has borrowed interpretative tools from other disciplines: semiology, psychoanalysis, ethnography and social studies a. It has evolved from the study of simple identification of images ( Buddha or Bodhisattva), into a tool for generate meaning in images (why not a Bodhisattva and in which context he is depicted).
Meaning is an active process implying to negotiate meaning from- and to- images, give and take between the observer and the image/s. Meaning is the dynamic interaction  between the sign, the interpretant (or signified, the mental concept) and the object (signifier, the external reality);the meaning is historically related and may change in time. I have taken 4 Buddhist examples to show my interpretation’s skill.
  1. The conception (Dream of Maya)  and the birth
  2. The First 7 Steps
  3. The tonsure or Cutting of the air
  4. The Parinirvana
( In this paper I illustrate only Number 1 and 2, the conception birth and The Seven steps. The next two will be illustrated Late) 

1) Maya’s dream and the birth
When still in the Tusita heavens, the chosen bodhisattva asked his friends on which guise he will enter his mother womb. One of the divine friends closed the discussion stating “in the form of a white elephant having six tusks”, surprising everybody, but justified by the knowledge that in India the white elephant was one of the 7 treasures of the Universal Sovereign. About the six tusks, there is probably a connection with an episode of a previous life of the Buddha when he was mortally wounded by a hunter that donated him 6 tusks.
However, amongst various incredible elements of the miracle, the descent of the Bodhisattva in elephantine form was nothing more than a dream of Maya.
In iconography Maya should recline on her left side because it is written that the Bodhisattva entered and exited from her right side. However, artists (from the medallion of Amaravati onwards) represented Maya’s position freely to fit their design layout.
The premonitory dream of the white elephant descent was the symbol of Conception (corresponding to the Catholic ‘Annunciation’?) became a genuine episode in Shakyamuni’s life in all scriptures.
Maya, during one of her usual outings in the pleasure gardens was overtaken by the labor pains. She gave birth standing (very unusual, unnatural), grasping a branch of a tree with her right arm (an ashoka or sala tree?); Siddhartha was born coming forth from his mother’s flank, not in the usual way.
Psychologically, this is very interesting.
Maya is always represented alone, her husband absent, either at the moment of the conception and or of the birth, demanding that the birth of the future Buddha must be physically and morally pure; it was a subject to be treated with delicacy.
This is further supported by the legend (more common in Thailand) that the baby was sheltered in a tabernacle of precious stones where he lived for 10 lunar months in his mother womb, sitting in cross-legged position, having the size of a 6 months old child and the 32 marks characterizing a ‘Great Man’. Apparently during the time, the child spent his time preparing for preaching his doctrine and the Law to 36 times 1000 millions of souls (36 trillions of souls?). The legend wants that baby was nourished by Brahma with a super-concentrate sap produced by a gigantic lotus.
The miraculous event is emphasized by the fact that:
1) The father had nothing to do with conception
2) There were little or nothing physical contact with his mother because the child entered her body already complete with full intellectual and moral attributes.
3) To make sure that Sakyamuni was the only child, Maya died 7 days after giving birth.
 So we can to ask why he had to go through such complex gestation rather than being born directly on a marvelous lotus, the same that produced the powerful elixir for Brahma ?
Why the legend forced the Bodhisattva to go through a sort of human birth rather than making it purely divine?
The texts give the answer: he came on earth trough the womb of a woman because of his commiseration with the human race; if he had descended as a god, we humans could not imitate him and compare with him. He wanted to be a man to encourage us to follow his example in the practice all his virtues.
He was miraculously born from the side of his mother to follow the example of the god Indra (mentioned in the Rgveda); the non-intervention of a father and a mother is a superhuman fact. In a western context the conception and the Buddha’s birth was ‘immaculate’, one of the Great Miracles.

2) The 7 steps of the Buddha
 In the various texts there is controversy on the first events after birth. A set of texts speak of a bath, ether by natural jets of water sprinkling from nature, or poured by two famous snakes (Nanda and Upananda) or by the gods Indra and Brahma that had acted as midwives.  All texts agree in saying the water was cold and hot.
The episode of the 7 steps, whether preceded or followed by that of the bath, is important because the just-born Siddhartha, after his 7 steps with his face turned to the North, without touching the ground (feet on a lotus), with a strong voice pronounced his first words:
“I am the highest in the world [1], I am the best [2], the first-born in the world [3]; this is my last rebirth [4], there will not be further existences”.
[1] The Buddha is the highest, at the top of the cosmic world and of the 7 heavens, he is the first and the last [3-4], meaning that he is beyond time and space, he is transcendental, and has put an end to the cycle of reincarnation, samsara, by stating there were no further existences. He walked over the soil without touching the ground, eliminating the third dimension.
Notice the depth of the first worlds of this young Siddhartha.
This extreme symbolism of “the highest in the world” existed before, in Vedic Hinduism when, during a sacrifice, the man was elevated to the sky, climbing the steps of an ideal ladder and becoming immortal. The staircase of the sacrifice will become a very important symbol in Buddhism (ascent-to and descent-from Tavatimsa).
The New-born transcended this dirty and decayed world to climb to the top of the 7 heavens and the 7 planets, at the very top of the cosmos, The Pole.
The symbolism of “…I am….the first born” [1], means that He is contemporaneous (of the same time) of the beginning of the world. He has abolished time and creation, born at the same instant of the cosmos. In Buddhism, going back to the cosmic time is done through remembering all previous lives.
Other texts (Later versions) narrate that he did not walk only facing the North, but also in the direction of the other cardinal points(4, 6, 10)  in any case always with the feet lying on a blossoming lotus flower (or on the self-levelling ground). The ground was pure, smooth, uncontaminated, under his feet. The symbolism of the transcendence is evidenced by the steps without touching the ground, without direct contacts with the ground.
Life is suffering, and suffering continues in time according the law of karma that implies endless reincarnations, returns to life and to suffering. The free oneself from the karmic law, destroy maya (illusion), corresponds to healing. The Buddha becomes the ‘king of healers’, the doctor of a new medicine, meant to heal man from the existence in time. By burning any chance of a future life, one destroys the karmic cycle and frees himself from time.
A means to burn the karmic residues is the technique of going back and be aware of previous lives. It means, at a precise (present) instant, going through time backwards to reach the instant when time did not exist because nothing was manifested.  Re-live one own previous lives means to understand them and burn the sins done under the influence of ignorance, accumulated into own karma.  Furthermore we reach the beginning of time or the Non-time, the eternal present, eternity.


Mircea Iliade, Le Sacré et le profane,  Paris, Gallimard, « Idées », 1965 ; reprint « Folio essais », 1987 
Rachet Guy, Lalitâvistara, Paris, Editions sand, 1996

Fig.1 – Bodhisattvas assemble in the Tusita Heaven preparing themselves for the final existence. They had to determine the most propitious time, place of birth, the lineage, and the mother who will bear one of them.


Fig.2 - The dream of Maya, The oneiric qualities of the dream are clearly illustrated. The dream of a white elephant feconding her is part of Buddhist mythology. Wat Botum, Phnom Penh, Late 20th century.

Fig.3 - The birth. Maja holds firmly her right arm while giving birth from her thigh to a mature baby boy who walk away from her, making seven steps. A lotus grows under each step. Wat Bo Krom (Siem Reap). Modern painting.

Fig.4 - The birth. This is a typical Thai mural showing Indra receiving the baby Buddha in a precious tabernacle where he was during gestation. Brahma is offering a golden parasol. Devas (celestial being) are present as well as lay people and trumpet players. Maya is not to be seven in this detail of this mural. Wat Sutat (Bangkok). Probably 19th century

Fig.5 – Maya giving birth. This is a naturalistic vision of a local painter showing Maya assisted by two matrons, and the baby Buddha cuddled in an amok as done normally in Southeast Asia. Wat Pak Khlong, Bangkok. 20th century.

The Seven Steps

Fig.6, 7 – The birth and the seven steps. Barely visible behind the chicken-net to protect the original frescoes of Maya giving birth. In Fig.4, the net was destroyed where the young Siddhartha had stopped to talk. The boy Siddhartha is barely visible behind a hole in the net as a pink tiny figure, destroyed by people touching as a sign of fun or superstition. Early 20th century, Wat Damrei Sor, Battambong (my Photograph 2002).

Fig.7a, 7b, and 7c -The seven steps, I stitched the 2 photographs 4 and 5 to have a complete view of the painted event, or wat is left of it. I feel important to illustrate some of the murals of Wat Chedei (Siem Reap) still readable in 2002, by now probably lost after the building of a brand new vihara. They should have been nominated part of Cambodian cultural heritage to follow under the umbrella of restoration of APSARA National Authority. I mentioned this repeatedly to high level people of APSARA but I did not present a report. The late Khmers brick tower that was at the back of the falling vihara, is still in good condition, standing proud amongst Buddhist remains. Fig.7a, b, c (my photographs 2002).

Fig.8 – Young Siddhartha, having completed Seven Steps, sopped, raised his right arm and pronounced the famous say: “I am the highest in the world , I am the best, the first-born in the world ; this is my last rebirth” , Wat Krivanaram, Bangkok(photograph 2002).

Fig.9, 10, 11- I like to illustrate what is left from the murals of Wat Chedei (South west of Siem Reap) that are washed away by the rain of the monsoons, the building being without roof for
several years. The monks have abandoned it to build a brand new vihara in front of the existing 
one. At the same time, a large communal room, named salachan was built and decorated with 
murals of Buddhist mythology. The soldiers depicted below carrying an original shield are part of the cortège accompanying Maya during the trip. Probably 19th century (photograph 2002)

Fig.12 – This nice mural of the end 19-early 20th century has been splashed with drops of white paint droops when restoring the ceiling. Starting from middle part it is possible to see queen Maya in a rich carriage, pulled by horses moving towards the Lumpini Park. Suddenly she had to give birth, approached a tree grasped a branch and at once the boy was born out from her tight. He was named Siddhartha, made seven steps towards the north. On each step a lotus appeared, impeding the boy to touch the ground. At the Seventh Steps halted to pronounce:” I am the highest in the world , I am the best, the first-born in the world ; this is my last rebirth , there will not be further existences” that in effect contains all his Dhamma. Wat Suria (Pusat), Cambodia

Fig.13 - This cement statue is part of a diorama of Phnom Baset (near Phnom Penh) several of which were constructed around the tall Vihara/ubosot, during the 20th century   (picture2002). In front of him are some stupefied devas (saints). 

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