Buddhist art is designed to narrate a sacred story, illustrate sacred texts, serve as an instrument for teaching, inspire a sense of piety, or be a focus for meditation, initiation, or ritual practice. Ultimately, the art functions to assist viewers to attain spiritual advancement and eventual enlightenment. At the same time, the art has everything and nothing to do with the Buddha: it asks us to see beyond form, into the heart of the teaching, or dharma.
Buddhist images provide a visual reference for the worshipper, offering guidance and continual reminders about the dharma. The Buddha is identified by his laksanas, or the marks of a great man, including the urna between his eyebrows, indicating supernatural vision. Buddhism’s artistic conventions delineate a spiritual hierarchy; for example, a Buddha figure is given an idealized, human-like form, whereas revered teachers are more realistically portrayed.
Distinctions between deities may be based on their attributes, such as what objects they hold, and the positions of their bodies (asana) and hands (mudra).
The consistency of the Buddha image is notable: introspective and serene, powerful yet meditative. However, styles of representation are often radically different, depending on their cultural origins. For instance, the earth-bound and naturalistic rendering of Gandharan figures contrasts markedly with the brilliant colour and complexity of Tibetan art.
Despite the stylistic differences, the influence of traditional design manuals has maintained the essentials of Buddhist iconography. The repetition of imagery is considered auspicious and, as a result, Buddhist images remain recognizable. The combination of constancy and creativity has yielded some of the world’s most compelling spiritual art.