Buddha’s Life and the Story of Buddhism

Amida (Amitayus) Buddha, the principal Buddha in Pure Land Buddhism, Japan, wood with traces of lacquer, height 87 cm, circa 1125/75, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam,on loan from KVVAK

The latest exhibition at the Nieuwe Kerk Amsterdam explores the life of the Buddha from ancient to modern, showing the wealth and diversity of the many cultures and countries that have a connection to Buddhism. Buddhism is considered one of the great religions of the world and owes its origins to the inspiration of one man, Siddhartha Gautama. This exhibition explores the historical Buddha’s life and brings together more than 60 works of art from the Royal Society of Friends of Asian Art (KVVAK), to celebrate the society’s 100th anniversary.

Among the loans are pieces from private collections, as well as works borrowed from the Rijksmuseum. The exhibition also connects the historic story of Buddhism to the living culture of today, by showing works by Kohei Nawa, Rei Nato, Yoko Ono, and Ai Weiwei. The exhibition was opened by the Dalai Lama on 15 September, who has also personally lent a 19th-century thangka depicting the life of the Buddha.

The Life of the Buddha

The exhibition is not about the spread of Buddhism, or the way in which Buddhism transformed and evolved after the death of the Buddha, instead the focus is the exploration of the life of the Buddha, aiming to be as clear and as factual as possible, but obviously myth is difficult in these circumstances to distinguish from fact. It examines the earliest histories of the Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, as they were depicted before the widely varying views and explanations that have evolved in the 2,500 years after the Buddha’s birth.

The essence of Buddhism is enlightenment, attainable via a consciousness of the here and now. The show illustrates the ‘now’ by including works by contemporary artists, with some works being especially commissioned for the exhibition.

Divided into five main stages, the exhibition discusses the historical Buddha’s life using a mix of antique works of art, contemporary art, film footage and photographs. The sections follow the classic periods of the Buddha’s story: birth, insight, enlightenment, the first discourse and finally death. Each stage includes crucial moments and meetings to illustrate the turning points in his life and are also related to the key principles of his teachings.

This story of his life and teachings is used as a main source of direction for Buddhists and therefore fits in perfectly with the museum’s requirements for a biographical exhibition. Buddhism is not  based on divine revelation, but on the  teachings of a man. The word Buddha literally means ‘the awakened one’, which refers to the profound insights he gained through meditation after a lengthy spiritual quest for enlightenment.

The Story of the Birth of the Buddha

In the first section, the Buddha’s birth is discussed. Siddhartha Gautama’s exact date of birth is unknown, however, most recent research assumes that he lived between 490 and 410 BC, but these dates are still open to debate. There is no unified biography of his life from the earliest texts, as the texts were mainly written in the first century by using oral history, which had been passed down from generation to generation of disciples and learned men.

It is believed that he was the son of Suddhodana, ruler of the Sakyas, in the foothills of the Himalayas, Northern India, and where he was known as Prince Siddhartha. The story goes that when his mother Queen Maya was ready to give birth she travelled back to her parents’ home, however, on the way, Maya went into labour and she gave birth to a son in the forest of Lumbini (now in Nepal), while standing up and  holding on to the branch of a tree. A few days after returning to her husband’s court, she died and her sister raised the child. Sages at the royal court had pronounced that the baby prince’s physical attributes suggested he would become either a universal ruler,  or an ‘awakened one’ (a buddha).

Suddhodana wanted his son to become a great king, so he was brought up in great comfort and luxury – he had hoped that his son’s lasting attachment to the physical world would prevent him from pursuing a spiritual path. In the exhibition, to represent the tale of the Buddha’s birth is a Japanese Tanjobutsu, the historical Buddha Sakyamuni as an infant made in Japan,  the Edo period, from the 17th/18th century.

The Start of the Journey Towards Enlightenment

‘Insight’, the second section, explores the beginning of the prince’s journey towards enlightenment. The story continues that at the age of 16, he married his cousin, Princess Yasodhara, with whom he enjoyed many years of wedded bliss and had a son. However, by the age of 29, he had started to be curious about the world outside the palace and began to make excursions to explore the wider world.

It was then that he encountered an old man, a sick man, and a corpse – which brought him to contemplate the fragility of life: ageing, sickness, and death. He then started his spiritual quest and lived in the traditional way by seeking alms and becoming a wandering religious mendicant engaged in the search for the true meaning of life. Again, from Japan, a major artwork depicting this part of the Buddha’s life is the wooden Amida Buddha, from the 12th century.

The Buddha’s Search for Enlightenment

The Buddha’s search for enlightenment is explored in the third section. During the early part of this period of his life, Siddhartha visited a number of renowned sages, who taught him several meditation techniques and passed on all their experiences. Siddhartha absorbed this information, but did not find the answer to his quest. He continued his journey and met five other ascetics and he joined their strict lifestyle,  abandoning sensual pleasures and practising abstinence, in the pursuit of redemption, salvation, and spirituality.

This severely restricted life meant that he barely ate, or drank, and practised extreme forms of self-mortification. After six years, when he had become severely emaciated, at a time when he regained consciousness from mediation and deprivation, he saw that this life was not the answer to his search. The five ascetics left him after they realised he would no longer subscribe to the same harsh physical restraints. A standing Buddha from China, Northern Wei dynasty, late 5th/early 6th century, represents this part of the Buddha’s story.

Meditating Under a Tree

Siddhartha then travelled to a grove at Uruvela to seek the truth. He meditated under a large itree (now called the bodhi tree, Ficus religiosa). Here, he vowed to remain seated and meditate until he had found a path to liberation. It was at this time he was put to the test by the demon Mara, Lord of worldly desires, who challenged his right to become the Buddha. Mara summoned up an army of demons, but Siddhartha refused to be tempted by them. Then Mara brought his voluptuous daughters to seduce him.

Again, Siddhartha remained unmoved. Finally, Mara indignantly asked what right Siddhartha had a to clear a path for mankind to escape Mara’s power. In response, Siddhartha stretched out his right hand to touch the ground and call on the earth to bear witness to the long path he had travelled. The earth assented with a tremor and Mara departed. Siddhartha then sank into profound concentration and, at dawn, he achieved the enlightenment that he had been seeking. He perceived the transience of all physical and mental phenomena and saw that nothing in this world can exist in a vacuum, in isolation from everything else. This brought the further realisation that there was nothing to which he could cling forever, life was transient, and there was no immutable, personal essence, no permanent ‘self’.  He finally experienced that beyond ageing, sickness, and death – nirvana.

The First Discourse

The next part of the Buddha’s life is explores in the First Discourse, section four of the exhibition. After achieving enlightenment, the Buddha remained at Uruvela for seven weeks, contemplating his enlightenment. He then moved to the city of Benares (Varanasi), then and still a major religious centre in India, and outside the city in a deer park (now called Sarnath), he met once again the five ascetics who had abandoned him earlier. It was to them that he delivered his first sermon (Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma), in which he explained the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Afterwards, one of the five immediately achieved enlightenment.

Ehi Bhiksu – ‘Come Monk’

He asked the Buddha to accept him as his disciple and the Buddha replied ‘Ehi bhiksu’ (Come, monk). Over the next few days, the  Buddha continued teaching the ascetics. The other four also achieved enlightenment and subsequently remained with him as his disciples. They became the first members of his community of monks, known as the Sangha. At the request of his aunt, who had brought him up, the Buddha also established an order  of nuns. Later, when King Suddhodana died, Yasodhara and the Buddha’s aunt Prajapati both became nuns. After this visit, the Buddha  spent 45 years travelling around the Ganges basin and instructing all who requested knowledge – teaching all social classes, from the courts to farmer’s villages, and both sexes, without distinction. Now most monastic lines still take their lineage back to the First Sermon.

The Death of the Buddha

The final section narrates the story of the Buddha’s death. At the age of eighty, the Buddha told his disciples that he would not be with them much longer. Soon afterwards he fell seriously ill, but recovered sufficiently to be able to travel with a group of students to Vaisali, a city dear to his heart. A while later, in the town of Kusinara he announced he was dying – he asked his disciples to prepare a couch for him between two sal trees (Shorea robusta), where he lay down on a couch to await death. He then told his disciples to summon the ruler of the Malla tribe, because he did not wish to die on their land without them witnessing this act.

Surrounded by his disciples and the Mallas, he asked three times if they had  any remaining questions, or doubts about his teachings. All remained silent. Then, after uttering his last words, ‘Nothing lasts forever. Work hard to gain your own liberation’, he entered into a meditative state and died. The body of the Buddha was cremated and his ashes were given to the rulers of eight kingdoms in northern India, and stupas were built to house the ashes.

The contemporary art in the exhibition successfully links the past to the present and underlines the continuance of Buddhist thought for thousands of years to today. The works visually and conceptually connect to the Buddha’s life story and bring its philosophy into contemporary art.

Ai Weiwei’s Iconic Tree at Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam

One of Ai Weiwei’s iconic trees is in the entrance hall – made of old trees that have been recklessly cut down in China – the consequences of rapidly expanding urbanisation and a sign of industrialisation and modernisation. Ai’s statement is about preserving history and how progress can be at the detriment of mankind’s wellbeing, but in this exhibition the tree references the original Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya under which Siddhartha Gautama found enlightenment – and perhaps the constant state of impermanence.

Another contemporary work by the Japanese artist Kohei Nawa is a sculpture of a deer, symbolising the transience of life and beauty and our inability to often deal with this facet of life. Its thought is echoed in a episode in the Ramayana, when the evil spirit Maricha (the uncle of Ravana, demon king of Lanka) seduces Sita, wife of prince Rama, the story’s hero. Maricha takes the form of a beautiful golden deer with a silver aura, to stir her desires. Overcome by greed, Sita demands that Rama catches the deer, so Rama goes out hunting. Ravana, seizes this opportunity and kidnaps Sita, an event that ushered in a long period of suffering and war, not only for Rama and Sita, but also for everyone they hold close and those intent on doing them harm.

Yoko Ono’s work takes a different line, Three Mounts (1999/2008-2018)consists of three mounds of earth, each from a different place where violence and abuse against women has occurred. It is Ono’s wish that from these mounds new life will emerge during the exhibition as a sign of hope: a reference to the  first stage in the Buddha’s life.

The Monthly Festivals Celebrating the Life of the Buddha

As an adjunct to the life of the Buddha and this exhibition, is the monthly festivals celebrated Buddhists in Sri Lanka and some other parts of Southeast Asia. The monks in Sri Lanka were some of the earliest adopters of Buddhism and have constantly celebrated the Buddha’s story through the centuries with their poya (full moon) days every month.

January: Duruthu, marks the first of Buddha’s three visits to Sri Lanka on the first full moon after his enlightenment. February: Navam, celebrates the appointment of Buddha’s two chief disciples and the first Buddhist Council held after the death of Buddha. March: Madin, marks Buddha’s first visit back to his hometown, Kapilavastu, following his enlightenment. April: Bak, celebrates Buddha’s second visit to Sri Lanka, to make peace between two warring chiefs. May: Vesak: Marks three key events in the Buddha’s life: birth, enlightenment, and achieving Nirvana. June: Poson. Commemorates the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka. 

July: Esala, celebrates the Buddha’s first sermon. August: Nikini, marks the retreat of the bhikkus (monks) following the Buddha’s death. September: Binara, commemorates the establishment of the Buddhist Bikkhuni Order (nuns). October: Vap, marks Buddha’s preaching of Abhidhamma to the gods in Tavatimsa and the end of the Buddha’s fasting period.  November: Ill, commemorates the Buddha’s ordination of 60 disciples as the first missionaries. December: Unduvap, celebrates the arrival of the Bodhi tree sapling in Anuradhapura, brought by Emperor Ashoka’s daughter, Sangamitta.

The exhibition may be a biography of the Buddha, but in fact delivers much more through the linking with past to the present – and an idea of the future and what is to come. Lessons from a past life are needed in the present … and most probably the future.

Buddha’s Life, Path to the Present, until 3 February, at De Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, nieuwekerk.nl