Saturday, 24 December 2016

The first statue of the Buddha.

The visual and textual narrative that I present below are considered to be small fragments of the larger Buddhist culture and legends
Lord Buddha was staying in the Jetavana monastery of Savatti (Sravasti), capital of Kosala, ruled by King Pasenadi. One day, King Pasenadi went to pay homage to Lord Buddha. But when the Lord Buddha announced he would leave for three months in Tavatimsa Heaven, the king and his followers felt sad, and made known to the Buddha their feelings, should he die.
The next day the King visited the Buddha to ask permission to make an image of him. On being granted permission, the King had a statue carved using sandalwood of the Lord Buddha in the sitting position. It looked exactly like Buddha and it was housed in the place where the Lord used to sit. Upon Lord Buddha’s return from Tavatimsa heaven, King Pasenadi invited him to look at the sandalwood image. On seeing the Lord Buddha, the image acted as if it were alive and knew it had to rise to show respect to the Buddha. Possibly there was an instant of eye contact, it started to move from the seat and was about to pay homage when the Buddha raised his left hand to stop the figure, saying “You will remain seated”.
After that, the Lord Buddha preached a sermon about the merit gained by making Buddha images. It is believed that the sandalwood image was the very first image in Buddhism.

The Legend in Thailand


In modern Thai iconography the statue of the Buddha refraining his image to rise, was codified (“Halting the Sandalwood image “) with the right arm pendant alongside the body and the left hand raised to prevent the sandalwood from rising (Matics 1988; 103). It is believed that not only is this sandalwood image the oldest ever created but also that it was the first image when the Lord was still alive. Copies of it are highly venerated in Northern Thailand and are always depicted his right hand pressing on the seat (so as to rise).
According to old Thai narrative, the Tamnan Phra Kaen Chan, the first image of the Buddha was made about seven years before Lord Buddha passed away (Shober 2006: 34). The myth of the first Buddha image gave origin to several legends. One rare stone sculpture of Gandhara art is interpreted as King Udajana presenting a Buddha image to the Buddha himself (Skilling 2006: Fig1). The original sandalwood image mentioned above disappeared after the 16th century while canvas paintings of the Buddha are various and in known locations (Skilling 2006: 228). On the wall of the ubooth of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, there are 72 paintings illustrating Buddha in different attitudes, preserved in elaborate guilt frames, renovated in 1831 during the reign of King Rama III. One painting is entitled “Urging Phra Kaenchan (the sandalwood statue in his semblances) not to rise from his seat” (Ambai 2004: 295).

The Legend in Burma

The legend of the first statue of Lord Buddha is also well known in Burma (Myanmar) where the renowned image of Mahāmuni is believed to be the living double of the Buddha. Here the legend is adapted in that it was made by King Candrasuriya, an Arakanese king who lived at the time of the Buddha (Shober 1997: 265). When the Buddha prepared for his departure, the king lamented that he and other devotees could no longer be able to pay homage to Lord Buddha so asked for an image in his likeness. Reflecting on the greatness of the kingdom and the king’s need to gain inspiration, the Buddha consented to the request. Sakka and Vissakamma cast his image and created an exact replica of the Buddha’s physical appearance (Indra and Visvakarman, the architect of the gods). In the Burmese legend, Buddha breathed upon the image to impart life to it and the image was transformed into a life-like one. King Candrasuriya made offerings and placed the image on a throne under a turret, then built monasteries around it and entrusted monks to take care of the image.
The Burmese legend follows the original legend. When the Buddha was brought to see the sandalwood image, the latter made the movement of rising to pay respect to the Lord. The Buddha raised his left hand in Abaya mudra and stopped it by saying ‘Oh young brother do not stand up. I shall enter Nirvana in my eightieth year, but you, endowed with the supernatural powers of a Buddha, shall exist for 5,000 years, which I have prescribed to be the limit of my religion; you shall be the means of working out the salvation of men and nats’ (Shober 1997: 268).

Some thoughts on the Legend.


The Buddha, in recognizing his likeness in the sandalwood image (and vice-versa), set in motion the process of iconization: the investment of images with authority and direct links with the Buddha (Skilling 2006:231).
The sandalwood image traveled in the imagination of Buddhists not only in its material form as the object of veneration, but its enshrinement sites also became the destinations of pilgrimages. Buddha statues traveled to each corner of Buddhist Asia acquiring the idealized form of a man local to the region but with superior spirituality, radiating inner and outer beauty. Rituals were performed around statues giving gradual rise to the cult of an image, so idolatry was born: a cult hardly acceptable to the Buddha, as was the commercial idea of merit-making by paying respect to the Buddha’s statue followed by the concept of acquiring merit in making new Buddha images or renovating older ones. The statue being perceived as the living image of the Lord invited consecration ceremonies where the eyes of statues were opened; or consecrations of amulets with small images of the Buddha or of holy monks, especially in Thailand. Thus Buddha’s statues became the center or religious buildings.

Kings of the Chakri dynasty moved statues from dilapidated temples in the North of Thailand to their capital, Bangkok. Many Laotian Buddha statues were taken as war trophies and religiously installed in Thai temples. Gradually the statue was given potency, miraculous powers, and the ability to make people overcome difficult situations or fulfill a wish.
Gilding of Buddha bronze statues was allegorical of the brilliance and splendor of the Enlightened, besides reflecting the wealth of the donor. The statue was an image of the Buddha and sacred as such. Despite being considered as living images, in mainland SE Asia and especially Thailand, Buddha’s statues were made of glass (and more recently in multicolored plastic resin).
Some important simulacrum, such as the Emerald Buddha of Bangkok, is subject to changes in its adornment according to the seasons; other statues are simply covered with monk’s robes and regularly washed as if they were living. Finally, the image of the Buddha could not escape modern entertainment with a colossal seated cement statue being the main attraction of the ‘Buddhist Theme Park’ of Wat Muang (north of Bangkok) reaching the height of 92meters, named Phra Buddha Maha Navamin.
The name given to a specific statue often depends on the financial donor or maker, or, as in Thailand, also according to their weight or height, fabrication techniques and materials (Aroonrut 2006:45). In Thailand emphasis was paid to the mudra, position or articulation of the statue (Matics 1998).

In the legend of the Buddha and his identical image, it is possible to perceive several meanings such as the relationship Buddha/king, Buddha/homeomorphic image, Buddha/artist, father/son, subject/object, observer/observed. In Cambodian legend the carved image of the Buddha was perceived as that of the Khmer king to be venerated jointly to that of the Buddha with the plinth of the statue equated to the throne of the Khmer king. Incidentally in modern Cambodian iconography, the mudra of the Buddha differs, insofar he use his right hand to dissuade the statue from rising.

Bangkok, October 2014

[1] Or the Pali Jinakālamālini (2006:227)


Fig.1- Mural painting showing a sculptor presumably carving the first statue of the Buddha out of sandalwood. Battambong temple

Fig. 2 – Wat Pho (Bangkok). Lord Buddha urging Phra Kaenchan (the sandalwood statue in his semblances) not to rise from its seat (painted c. 1831 CE, Third Reign)


Fig.3 – Angkor Wat North monastery (Siem Reap, Cambodia). The Buddha encountering his statue and asking it not to rise to pay homage (end 20th century)

Fig.4 – Wat Prasat Andet (Kampong Thom, Cambodia)– Lord Buddha stopping the sandalwood to rise (end 20th century).

Fig.5 - Another example of the Buddha telling the statue not to come alive by raising his left hand in the abhaya mudra. Wat Damrei Soer, Battambnong, Cambodia.

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