Buddhist Statues, Inside and Out

August 29, 2018

To the untrained eye, the Sakyamuni Buddha in the China Gallery appears visually similar to other nearby Buddha sculptures. While it borrows from traditional Buddhist iconography found during the Yuan Dynasty, certain aspects of the sculpture are unique to this Sakyamuni Buddha. The sculpture was made with dry-lacquer, a rare and laborious technique, and strikes an unusual pose. It is difficult to know everything about this sculpture, but, by comparing it to other similar objects found in the Penn Museum’s collection, it is possible to learn more about ritualistic practices that involved the historical Buddha.

In many ways the statue is very typical of a Buddha statue. For example, common characteristics of Buddha figures from the Yuan Dynasty include wearing monk’s robes and having elongated ears. Another typical feature of a Buddha is having a ushnisha and urna. An ushnisha is the 3-D oval on top of the Buddha’s head and indicates the wisdom of the Buddha. The urna is a dot on his forehead that again stresses the great wisdom of the Buddha. Statues in this pose are usually either a Luohan like the one at the Princeton University Art Museum or Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha. Since we know he is a Buddha based on the above evidence, we can identify him as Sakyamuni.

Still, the way he is portrayed is very different from conventional standards. Here he is shown as an ascetic, which oftentimes means he is shown with bones protruding to demonstrate him starving himself. While he does look haggard with sharp shin bones and a scrawny neck, the Sakyamuni Buddha otherwise appears to be well-fed and blissfully happy. Additionally, both his eyelids and lips are slightly curved to convey his amusement, giving him a mysterious appearance.¹ It is hard to know exactly why the Buddha is depicted this way. It may be that it represents a rarely depicted event in the Buddha’s life when he came down from the mountains just before he reached enlightenment.

Penn Museum Object C405A.

Another unique part about the Sakyamuni Buddha is the technique used, called hollowed dry-lacquer. This process is time-consuming and difficult because it involves the use of multiple layers of tree sap and cloth. First, cloth would be soaked in layers of lacquer from the Chinese lacquer tree, and the layers would then be applied to a clay core. Each layer must be completely dry before adding the next layer, making it a long process. It was not until the last layer that finer details could be applied to the sculpture. Finally, after the layers had been applied, the core of the figure would be removed to form a hollowed sculpture. Following this, the entire figure was gilded, which is now partially worn off on the Sakyamuni Buddha.²

Close-up of Penn Museum Object C405A.

Dry-lacquer became popular during the Yuan Dynasty. It was typically only used for Buddhist sculptures, partially because lacquer was viewed as a suitable material for making sacred objects. It was thought to be a means of protecting the dead and was used to coat wooden funerary figures. This process would create light-weight figures that could be more easily carried in processions, a practical reason for using this technique.³

Another important reason for hollowing out a figure was to allow for the common practice of placing ritualistic objects inside of Buddha statues. There was usually a cavity in the back of these ritual sculptures for sacred items to be kept. It was thought that by placing real-life objects inside of a sculpture, it would bring the figure to life. Inside of this Sakyamuni Buddha, perfumed ashes, organs, and sutras, Buddhist scriptures, were found. The ashes and organs have since disappeared, but the sutras have not. Each sutra contains teachings from Buddhism.⁴

The ritual process of placing objects inside Buddha sculptures was to consecrate the figure. It was thought that this process was akin to bringing a person back to life and giving the statue human-like qualities. The main ritual consisted of a craftsman painting the eyes of a figure. Before the painting happened, a monk would place Buddha relics in the figure. There was not a traditional ritual for this, but there was a ritual for painting the eyes of a figure and consecrating the object. This ritual was thought to be dangerous for the craftsman involved in it. To protect him from possible evil stemming from a mistake during the ritual process, smaller ceremonies were held in advanced.

Once it was time to complete the actual ritual, the craftsman would have to paint the eyes of the sculpture on his own. His colleagues would stay outside of the room, and the craftsman had to follow strict rules of not looking the figure in the face while painting. It was necessary for him to use a mirror to see the reflection of the statue to paint its eyes. Once the painting was complete, the craftsman had to leave the room blindfolded because it was believed that his gaze was dangerous to others. Upon being consecrated, the Buddha statue could then be worshiped by followers and had to be treated with respect.

In addition to relics, medicine packets were placed inside Buddha sculptures. These packets would include things such as seeds, herbs, and tea leaves. The contents of the packets were often ingredients commonly found in Chinese medicinal recipes. It is not entirely known why these would be placed in sculptures, but it is theorized that the medicinal ingredients were meant to heal the statue from the trauma of carving. It is known that these packets have a specific meaning. For example, the packet was comprised of five differently colored strings that stood for the five main internal organs. This was thought to give the statue longevity and good health.⁵

The Sakyamuni Buddha is only one example in the Penn Museum’s collection of sculptures that contain cavities for the placement of objects. Within the collection, there are a few other sculptures with cavities and ritualistic objects that were known to be housed inside a figure. Through examining these objects, it is clear that placing objects inside larger sculptures was a common practice in Buddhism. Some examples are shown below:

Front and back of statue of Amitabha Buddha, Penn Museum Object 38-32-1A,B.
Front and Back of Gilt-bronze statuette of Maitreya, Penn Museum Object C355.1.
Front and Back of Guanyin statue, Penn Museum Object 54-6-6.
Prayer rolls from inside a Buddhist statue, Penn Museum Object 88-16-78. Penny for scale.
Front and Bottom of Shotoku Taishi statue, Penn Museum Object 29-96-336.

Overall, it is difficult to know everything about the Sakyamuni sculpture. Thousands of objects in the Museum have their own distinct and circuitous history, and the Sakyamuni is an example of this. Although parts of its history are unknown, more can be learned through examining this object in context of other sculptures. By comparing this statue to other objects, it is possible to learn more about the importance of carving cavities and placing objects in Buddhist sculptures during certain ritualistic practices. Examining the Penn Museum’s vast collection of statues used during ritualistic practices allows us to gain greater insights into Buddhism and ancient society.

Tibetan prayer on paper. Stored inside an amulet box (g’au) for protection against danger during travel. Penn Museum Object 2015-16-1.3.

Many thanks to Stephen Lang, Keeper of the Asian Section, and Adam Smith, Curator of the Asian Section.

Sources Cited:

[1-3] Slusser, Mary S. 1996. “The Art of East Asian Lacquer Sculpture”. Orientations. 27 (1): 27-28.

[4] Chinese Sculpture. The Museum Journal. Volume XV (No. 4): 258-287.

[5] Robson, James. “The Buddhist Image Inside-Out: On the Placing of Objects Inside Statues in East Asia.” In Buddhism Across Asia: Networks of Material, Intellectual and Cultural Exchange, Volume 1, edited by Tansen Sen. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2014.

Samantha Thompson is a student at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA. She wrote this blogpost in partial completion of her internship in the Penn Museum’s Marketing/Communications Department during the summer of 2018.