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Buddhism: Cultural Impact | 17

Buddhism: Cultural Impact

Cultural Impact

Monks are prohibited from listening to music and from dancing:

such things represent, from a monastic point of view, a lack of control of the senses, a kind of indulgence and distraction that is not conducive to mindfulness.

Nonetheless, monks have often chanted Buddhist texts, and the effect can be almost musical.

In contemporary Śrī Lanka a special class of monks is trained in such chanting, and recordings of their recitations are frequently sold as popular music,

although the monks themselves have been careful to stipulate that this is simply a more effective means of transmitting the dharma and not intended for aesthetic enjoyment.

Elsewhere, in Tibet and East Asia, different forms of chanting, sometimes with musical accompaniment, are common and popular:

From the lay perspective, music can sometimes be a significant form of offering, or dāna, and an expression of faith in, and attention to, the Buddha’s teachings.

Furthermore, at many Buddhist temples drumming, flute and horn playing, and lyrical chanting all accompany devotional and ritual activity.

Some of the earliest examples of Buddhist art and architecture are the great stupas of Bharhut, Sanchi, and Amarāvatī; not only did these stupas contain relics of the Buddha, but they were embellished with spectacular stone reliefs.

More than decoration or ornamentation, these sculptures were intended to visually convey the Buddha’s teachings, to instruct laypeople and monks alike in the dharma:

Key events in the Buddha’s life are depicted—for example, his defeat of the evil Mara or the simple gift of sustenance offered by the laywoman Sujāta that enabled Siddhārtha to attain enlightenment.

The very nature of a sculptural image in Buddhism is complex:

Although there has been some debate about the matter, it is clear that Buddhists began to depict the Buddha early on, perhaps even before he died.

The Buddha himself said that images of him would be permissible only if they were not worshiped. Rather, such images should provide an opportunity for reflection and meditation.

Virtually all Buddhist temples and monasteries throughout the world contain sculptural images of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas:

These images range from simple stone sculptures of the Buddha to incredibly intricate depictions of a Bodhisattva like Kanon in Japan, with his thousand heads and elaborate hand gestures and iconographic details.

And although these images function in the ritual context of the temple and monastery, they also serve an artistic and aesthetic purpose.

In Tibet particularly, an important artistic form is the mandala, an aid in meditation that symbolically depicts a world populated by Bodhisattvas and other beings.

Mandalas, which are often painted on cloth scrolls but can also be depicted in three-dimensional media or made out of sand (to emphasize the impermanence of all things),

are intended to lead the meditator visually from the outer world of appearance and illusion to the inner core of being, the very nature of the self and emptiness.

In East Asia, Zen has profound influence on the arts, and there is a long, rich tradition of Buddhist painting:

Painting is seen as a form of meditation, a method of attaining insight into the immediacy of the moment and the transiency of the natural world.

Other important artistic Buddhist endeavours in East Asia include archery, gardening, and the tea ceremony, all of which combine ritual action, meditation, and artistic expression.

Most of the Buddhist architecture of India is long gone,

although Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained Enlightenment, continues to be a vital centre of activity not only for India’s Buddhists but for Buddhist pilgrims throughout the world.

Some of the most spectacular examples of Buddhist architecture can be found in Southeast Asia:

At Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, for instance, Buddhist kings constructed an enormous monument that re-creates the cosmic hierarchy of divine and semi-divine beings in order to symbolically convey the concept that their earthly rule paralleled a celestial one;

the ruins of similar monuments can be found in Bagan, Myanmar (Burma), in the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in Śrī Lanka, and in several ancient cities in Thailand.

One of the most magnificent examples of Buddhist art and architecture is the temple complex at Borobudur, on the island of Java in Indonesia, an almost unfathomably elaborate and extensive architectural marvel.