Wanting people to focus on his teachings rather than him as a person or a teacher, Mr Gotama asked that no images be made in his memory. For several hundred years after his death, the Buddha’s life and his teachings were represented by the bodhi tree under which he awoke, an empty chair, by footprints, and possibly also other images.
The statues that are so familiar to 21st century Buddhists have their origin in Greek art from the portrayal of Apollo, with the earliest representations of the Buddha in human form found so far created around 500 years after his death.
These representations of the Buddha in human form were created originally in the Greek-Bactrian kingdom in today’s Afghanistan, from where they spread to Gandhara in what is now the northwest of Pakistan, and then to the Indian region of Mathura. Unsurprisingly, Indian religious art also strongly influenced the Buddha images of Mathura.
Coming from a Jewish family which placed an empty chair and a glass of wine at the Passover table for the prophet Elijah, I smile at the idea of having the Buddha and his teachings represented by an empty chair in place of a Buddha statue, or rupa as they are sometimes called.
In a recent blog post, Object Lessons: The Television Buddha, Seattle artist Iskra Johnson wrote about the statue which sat on top of her step-grandmother’s television that she inherited, and how recently she so wanted another statue of her own, but life sized.
Trawling the city’s Asian import furniture stores, Iskra found what she describes as ‘a graceful, stupefyingly beautiful Thai god’, which at $15,000.87 was out of her price range. So instead, as a reminder to be still, to just sit and be present in this moment, she placed a chair next to the bamboo in her garden.
What brings you back to this moment in the same way as Iskra’s chair?