How the Buddha Got His Face

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The Buddha, seated in padmasana, or the lotus position, with his legs crossed under him, hands open-palmed in his lap, his face a mask of smiling sagacity and fierce inwardness, was certainly beautiful, but he was also a perfect articulation of what dhyana, or “meditation,” meant in the Hindu-Buddhist context. I, for one, could not look at the image of the Buddha without being reminded of this description of the Hindu god Shiva from the Sanskrit poet Kalidasa’s fifth-century work “The Birth of Kumara”:

The fierce pupils motionless
and their brightness slightly lessened,
his eyes, directed downward,
were focused on his nose,
the eyelashes stationary,
the stilled eyes stilling the brow.
By restraint of his internal currents
he was like a cloud
without the vehemence of rain,
like an expanse of water
without a ripple,
like a lamp in a windless place,
absolutely still.

The story of depicting the Buddha is ultimately one of continuity and rupture. Above all, it is a tale of how newness enters the world. It is also the paradigmatic Silk Road story, for being an inadvertent and quiet assertion of the creative freedom implicit in the meeting of cultures. Nothing is more quintessentially Indian than the image of the Buddha seated in padmasana, but for that quintessence to be unlocked, for thought to enter stone, as it were, a catalyst was needed. That catalyst was the Kushans. Through them, Greece, Persia, India and China bore witness, like godmothers in a fairy tale, to this second birth of the Buddha. Here, too, it seems — in our most inviolable symbols and icons, so pure as to seem without origin — lurks the mongrel spirit of hybridity, full of surprise and audacity, a perpetual thorn in the side of our tribalisms.

Aatish Taseer’s latest book, “The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges” (2019), was recently released in paperback. His documentary, “In Search of India’s Soul,” produced by Al Jazeera, is streaming now. He is based in New York City.



www.nytimes.com 2020-05-14 16:59:57

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