Education About Asia

Which Buddha is This Anyway? Notes on Identifying the Enlightened Ones

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For most American educators, the imagery of Christian, Jewish, and, to a lesser extent, Muslim religious art is relatively familiar. Not only are angels and devils instantly recognized, even when they appear in the context of Saturday Night Live, but many of us heard Bible stories growing up, and some could recite a whole litany of saints and other holy beings. However, in our globalizing times, images from other religions also appear more frequently than ever—particularly in museums and galleries. Though we may think we know a Buddha when we see a Buddha, there is, in fact, a whole hierarchy of beings represented in Buddhist art, some of them familiar and some much less so. This essay should serve as an aid to identification of Buddhist imagery commonly exhibited in many museum collections. Moreover, the notes will help us place each image within the taxonomy of the Buddhist pantheon. Each figure has a name in Sanskrit, and those were translated into Chinese and then transformed into Korean, Japanese, Mongol, and other languages used by the cultures into which Buddhism was carried; for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the Sanskrit terms below except when there is another name commonly recognized in English.