Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Iconographic and psychologic interpretation of some Buddhist events

Archeology of images No.9

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

This is the last part of the paper. 

4) The Parinirvana
Western scholars have always been taken by great anxiety in front of Death. Deprived form a religious meaning and of the Judeo-Christian belief, death means emptiness and in front of this great void modern man is paralyzed. For the religious believer, death is a rite of passage, but in our modern world without religion, death is confused with anxiety in front of emptiness or the discovery of nothingness, the void (nil). In primitive and most evolved societies the idea of nothingness is connected with the idea of death and that death is followed by a new start (a new life in the belief of re-incarnation).
Passing into nirvana at death marks the end of the cycle of existence, the samara.
In nirvana there is the absolute cessation of attachments/entanglements. It does mean ‘extinction’ but a state that can be described a gradual process, like cutting off the fuel to a fire and letting the ambers die down, rather than a sudden dramatic event, hence the popular concept that nirvana is the ‘blowing out of a flame’. It is where one is cooled from the fever of desire. In nirvana the Buddha remains accessible to help suffering beings.
Parinirvana is when there are no lingering conditions. As opposed to Nirvana, in Parinirvana there are no residual shadows of previous existences, the Nirvana without reminders
The Entering Parinirvana is thus putting an end for all time to the psycho-physical activity of human individuals, freedom from the effect of karma. The Parinirvana, obtained only at death, is the Final Nirvana.
In the sacred text of the Mahaparinirvana –sutta is expounded “the Discourse on the Great Decease”, including the events leading to the Buddha death and his travel during the last few months of his life.   
According to tradition, the Buddha’s sickness started with the dinner of Cunda, but he managed to control his sickness and resume the journey. One day, he asked Ananda to bring him water to quench his thirst. Ananda was reluctant, knowing that the water from the river had been muddied by the transit of a caravan of hundred carts; the Buddha insisted Ananda to go and surprisingly the water had become crystal clear. He was then visited by Magallan and Sariput.
Later the Budha became more ill but took a bathe in the river; followed by a stop to rest.
However, he decided to move to Kushinagara, a large wealthy town. No sooner that he reached this site he asked Ananda to spread a couch with the head to the North, between two sala trees. He lay down on his left side and would rise no more. His life was to end during the third watch of the following night.
Ananda seeing the Buddha completely immobilized, took matters under his control. He took care of the messages to be sent to important people and friends, and the load of visitors who wanted to see the Master before he passed away, including groups of Mallas and Shakyas. A special case was that of the heretic Subhadra that insisted repeatedly to see the Buddha that was allowed in the “restricted area” and listen to the last words of the Master and his total condemnation of the doctrines of the six heretic masters; Subhadra converted and, according to iconography, is sometimes depicted as a monk seated inn mediation in front of the Buddha’s deathbed.
Sensing his end approaching, the Buddha called his monks and exhorted them to work for their salvation with diligence. The Lord could not die simply from physical exhaustion. Since he was an experienced yogi, he passed through a series of spiritual trance and from the peak of ecstasy he passed through a series of deep meditation stages (1-2-3-4 and then 4-3-2-1-and again 1-2-3-4)- followed by his extinction and transition into the supreme final Nirvana or Parinirvana. As soon as he passed away, two gods appeared: Indra with a golden  urn and Brahma with a golden robe for the Buddha. `Later He exchanged it with that of a poor man, assuming thus the dressing of a simple monk.


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

The Parinirvana

Fig. 1 - The Buddha reclined on his right side, being visited by hundreds of monks. In the foreground are his closest disciples. Wat Chedei (Cambodia). The photo was taken when the sun was illuminating the scene in 2002. The age of the mural was probably of early 20th century.

Fig.2 - A discrete illustration of acolytes visiting and asking permission to see and listen to the Lord’s worlds short before Buddha’s death. Not a Parinirvana scene because Buddha is reclining on his left side
Wat Arun, Bangkok (Difficult dating due to repeated restorations, the original being probably of late 1800).

Fig. 3 – A comparatively small panel high on the wall showing the Parinirvana. Wat Pol Chen (Kampong Thom). Picture I took in 2007.The date of the murals is probably around the mid-1900.

Fig. 5 – a modern Parinirvana attended by lots of people.
Wat Botum (Phnom Penh). 1990’s.
Fig. 4 - A colourful modern Parinirvana. Wat Kesseraram (Siem Reap), painted in 1995-2000.

Fig.6– Rock carved image of the Parinirvana. Panted and recently re-painted. Phnum Santuk (Kampong Thom), Cambodia. The rock carving is old but the painting modern.
Fig.7 - A large mural painting of the Parinirvana that does not seem to encourage devotion from a monk at Wat Kuk Chak (Siem Reap), Cambodia. No comments.

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