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Before and Beyond the Image: Aniconic…

Before and Beyond the Image: Aniconic Symbolism in Buddhist Art (Artibus…

by Dietrich Seckel

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This 2004 translation of a book first published in German in 1976 is an excellent introduction for anyone who wants or needs to know more about the evolution of symbols in Buddhist art. The text is easy enough for any lay reader or university student, yet sufficiently detailed in its more esoteric discussions to offer value to those who have more than a passing interest in Buddhism. Its 92 illustrations (which include some of the most famous and best known examples of both ancient and modern Buddhist art) are extremely well chosen to accompany the points being made, and a good bibliography accompanies the text.

Early Buddhist art was narrative art. During Buddhism's first centuries, the Buddha's presence and teachings were represented by such non-figurative forms as the lotus, wheel, Bodhi tree, the empty throne, footprints, wheel atop a column and other combinations. Many of these symbols predated Buddhism: the elephant of his mother Maya's dream was already associated with life-giving forces, the lion was already an imperial symbol, the wheel "long before it becomes the symbol of Doctrine and the First Sermon" a sun wheel, and the lotus as the seat of divine beings, for example. In short, "Buddha's life [was] shown in pictures of his birth, the attack of Mara, the First Sermon, his entry into Nirvana" (p. 19). Each of these symbols is discussed in length in this thin (107 pages) but excellent volume, and important symbols such as the stupa, footprints, the wheel and the tree are covered extensively.

Then came a transitional period during which the aniconic symbols and the iconic image existed simultaneously, "side by side" as Seckel writes. Moreover, the old aniconic forms didn't disappear as images of the Buddha became more and more common, but retained their meaning, and even gained new, deepened meanings with the development of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, adding more symbols such as the vajra, mandala, words, letters and sounds. But readers should be aware that this is not a "what" book but a "why" book. It's an excellent companion to (not a replacement) of, say, Reading Buddhist Art or Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Introduction.

Such chapters raise the old question of how can one reconcile Buddhism's rich artistic visual history with its focal point "the Nothingness of Nirvana, which transcends all phenomena" (p. 7). The final chapters and particularly the last, entitled "Zen Symbols", addresses this question. As Seckel summarizes: "the ultimate goal of Zen art is the No-Longer-Symbol: the empty picture, the 'picture' as emptiness, the shapeless shape, the 'thundering silence'."

"Before and Beyond the Image" is a well-chosen title; moreover, it hints at the fact that many readers will find themselves pondering long "beyond the last page" some of the ideas and questions found within on the very paradox of Buddhist art. ( )
  pbjwelch | Jul 25, 2017 |
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