Images of Siddhartha

SiddharthaWe’re accustomed to see images of the Buddha from China and Japan, in which he is portrayed with more East Asian than South Asian features. Rarely is Prince Siddhartha pictured in East Asian art.

The sculpture shown here is from 1st Century CE Gandhara, one of the Sixteen Arya Kingdoms spoken of in the Buddhist canon. It was located in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although Siddhartha lived hundreds of years before these were created (most scholars say the 6th century BCE, some say possibly the 3rd century BCE), nevertheless my first sight of them gave me a shock–Oh, that’s what Siddhartha looked like when he was the dashing young heir to his father’s throne.

I was delicate, O monks, most delicate, extremely delicate. Lily pools were made for me at my father’s house…Blue lilies flowered in one, white lilies in another, red lilies in a third. I used no sandalwood that was not from Benares. My turban, tunic, lower garments and cloak were all made of Benares cloth. A white sunshade was held over me day and night so that no cold or heat or dust or grit or dew might inconvenience me…I had three palaces; one for the winter, one for the summer and one for the rains…Whilst I had such power and good fortune, yet I thought: …I, too, am subject to ageing…sickness…and death…When I considered this, the vanity of youth…health…and life entirely left me… (from the Anguttara Nikaya)

For many years I have had a very small copy of the enormous bronze Daibutsu of Kamakura, Japan, pictured below, on my desk. He is supremely detached, free from passion and hatred.

Seeing [the nature of impermanence] the wise disciple becomes dispassionate…being dispassionate, his lust fades away…he is liberated…he understands: ‘birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what has to be done is done, there is no more of this to come.’ (from the Majjhima Nikaya)


Sidartha3It’s easy to forget, looking at Daibutsu’s perfect stillness, that the Buddha was a man who suffered to attain liberation. The Gandharan Buddha to the left seems to me to show the marks of Siddhartha’s suffering on his journey to enlightenment. He is not so much detached as approachably serene and compassionate.

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