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Color Symbolism In Buddhist Art

Article of the Month - February 2002
Viewed 1051094 times since 2nd Oct, 2008

...Continued from Page 1

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Turquoise Ring

 

 

 

When worn in a ring, it is believed to assure a safe journey;

Turquoise Earrings

 

 

 

 

worn in the ear it prevents reincarnation as a donkey;

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turquoise Pendant

appearing in a dream, it is auspicious; when found, it brings the best of luck and gives new life (in contrast, it is not considered lucky to find gold or coral); when changing its color to green, it indicates hepatitis, yet at the same time it draws out jaundice. Most importantly it is believed to absorb sin. Strings of prayer beads too include turquoise. In fact, when worshipping the popular goddess Tara in her green form, because of the color association, it is desirable to do so with a rosary entirely composed of turquoise beads. There also exists as well the concept of living and dead turquoise. Living turquoise has a healthy blue color, whereas dead turquoise has turned either white or black. In the natural aging process of turquoise, exposure to light and body oils darkens the color, eventually turning it black. Tibetans compare this to human aging and death. Wearing "living" turquoise is therefore very desirable, as it will give long life to the wearer.

Buddha of Medicine: Blue Buddha

 

 

 

Turquoise has also been held as a sacred stone by ancient cultures other than the Tibetan. It was sacred in Egypt along with malachite and lapis lazuli. It was also sacred to the Persian culture, where it symbolized purity. American Indians believe it to be a protector and guardian of the body and soul. Gypsies wear this stone in their navels, believing it to be good for everything.

Nothing illustrates more the spectacular influence of the darker blue on Buddhist aesthetics than the 'Blue Buddha', also known as the Buddha of Medicine or Healing.

 

Lapis Lazuli

 

The most distinctive feature of this Medicine Buddha is his color, the deep blue of lapis lazuli. This precious stone has been greatly prized by Asian and European cultures for more than six thousand years and, until relatively recently, its ornamental value was on a par with, or even exceeded, that of the diamond. An aura of mystery surrounds this gemstone, perhaps because of its principal mines are located in the remote Badakshan region of northeast Afghanistan, an all-but-inaccessible area located behind the Hindu Kush. One commentator has written, "the finest specimens of lapis, intensely blue with speckled waves and swirls of shining gold-colored pyrite, resemble the night aglow with myriads of stars."

 

Tibetan Goddess

 

E.H. Schafer summarizes the Buddhist interest in lapis lazuli:

"The Chinese were not alone among the Far Eastern peoples in their admiration for the blue mineral. The Tibetans valued it above all others, even ahead of gold, and those highlanders saw in it the image of the azure sky, and said that the hair of their goddess had its color. Both men and women wore it on their heads."

Indeed to this day, statues prepared in Tibet and the Himalayn kingdom of Nepal have their hair painted blue.

Traditionally this beautiful stone was used to symbolize that which is pure or rare. It is said to have a curative or strengthening effect on those who wear it, and its natural smoothness allows it to be polished to a high degree of reflectivity. Specifically in alternative medicine, because of it being associated with a certain 'coolness', it is used when inflammation is present, or when any internal bleeding or nervous condition exists. For all these reasons, plus the fact that deep blue light has a demonstrable healing effect on those who use it in visualization practices, lapis is the color of the principal Medicine Buddha, making this stone an important one in Buddhist mysticism.

Indeed the Lapis Healing Master is one of the most honored figures in the Buddhist pantheon. In one of the main sutras (canonical texts) concerning the Medicine Buddha, Shakyamuni tells his close disciple and attendant Ananda:

I beseech you, Blessed Medicine Guru,
Whose sky-colored, holy body of lapis lazuli
Signifies omniscient wisdom and compassion
As vast as limitless space,
Please grant me your blessings

Red

Gautam Buddha with Scenes from his LifeRed throughout the development of civilization has had connotations with life and those things considered sacred in some way. It has developed as synonymous with the preservation of our life force, as in the logos of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. Danger signs and signals are also often surrounded in red to indicate warning or threat to life. Fire has two facets. It can be a warming lifesaver or an uncontrollable destroyer.

The symbolism of the color red shines forth in Buddhist aesthetics in the type of paintings known as red thangkas. A style requiring high technical virtuosity, all elements making up these painting are subsumed in the overall red field characteristic of this special genre of thangka. Red is the color of powerful rituals and deeds. It is the color of passion, transmuted to discriminating wisdom. These are especially relevant in especially vigorous meditation rituals requiring equally potent meditative tools.

 

Coral Necklace

 

 

Another dimension regarding the color red is the belief surrounding coral, the semi-precious stone which is a gift from our mother ocean to remind us of our eternal foundation. It is actually composed of the skeletons of little animals into reef-plant - like with hard branches. It reminds us of our bones - hard and durable. Coral teaches us form, also flow and flexibility within form. It lives and breathes in the sea but its roots are anchored in the earth.

Coral Pendant

 

 

It is one of the five sacred stones of the Tibetan Buddhists, and symbolizes the energy of life force.

Coral PendantIt is often believed to be a protection against the evil eye. In a curious belief it was supposed to lighten in color and become pale if the wearer were ill or even exposed to illness - or were given poison. The coral would then darken as the wearer recovered. The same attribute was associated with a woman's menstrual periods, which the coral was supposed to "share" with women. Coral was also associated with stopping the flow of blood from a wound, curing madness, imparting wisdom, and calming storms.

In Buddhism coral is believed to be generally good, and the Tibetans and Tibeto-Nepalese think of it as a good investment, and believe that the person who wears coral will have success in life. The color red is auspicious in Tibetan culture. It is a sacred color, one of the colors of the five Buddhas and the color of the monk's garments. It is believed to have protective qualities and is therefore often used to paint sacred buildings. In neighboring China, coral is a symbol of longevity, and in India it is thought to prevent hemorrhages. Hans Weihreter records beliefs about coral in western Tibetan cultures which center around blood. Coral is said to strengthen blood, and act beneficially for the menstruation of women.

Gautam Buddha

Yellow

 

 

Yellow is the color closest to daylight. It has the highest symbolic value in Buddhism through its link with the saffron robes of monks. This color, previously worn by criminals, was chosen by Gautam Buddha as a symbol of his humility and separation from materialist society. It thus signifies renunciation, desirelessness, and humility. It is the color of earth, thus a symbol of rootedness and the equanimity of the earth.

 

 

 

Green

Green Tara

 

 

Green is in the middle of the visible, seven-color spectrum and thus epitomizes the qualities of balance and harmony. It is the color we relate to in nature, trees and plants. Hence Green Tara' s color represents a blending of white, yellow, and blue - colors which symbolize, respectively, the functions of pacifying, increasing, and destroying. Green also denotes youthful vigor and activity and hence the Green Tara is always shown as a young girl having a mischievous and playful nature.

The Buddhist Lord of karma (action), Amoghasiddhi, is also associated with this color, thus reiterating that green in Buddhist thought is the color of action.

Gold Painted Gautam Buddha

 

 

 

 

Another important color in Buddhist mysticism is golden. The statues prepared in the Tibetan regions are often painted with gold.

 

Tibetan Gold Painted Statue

 

 

 

 

 

Not only the faces but often the complete figure is gilded over with pure gold. Indeed the practice of painting statues, particularly faces, with gold paint is exclusively Tibetan. If, therefore, a sculpture looks as if it has been given a face-lift with gold paint, it is likely to have emerged from Tibet, no matter where it was made.

 

Gautam Buddha

 

 

 

Tibetans have a love for gold that stretches back to ancient times. This love is reflected in their workmanship in gold, which was praised as long ago as the Tang period in Chinese chronicles and which, therefore, may have been as intrinsic to them as it was to the Scythians in Central Asia.

Gold in Buddhism symbolizes the sun, or fire.

 

 

Gold Painted Tibetan Sculpture

 

 

 

The most valuable of metals, it is accorded a sacred status through its association with Surya, the sun god of the Hindu pantheon. The alloying of gold with other alloying elements is therefore thought of as an act of sacrilege, since it dilutes the natural brilliance of the golden radiance. Thus when used in the fine arts, whether sculpture or painting, the gold is always of the purest 24 karat variety.

But though Buddhist aesthetics theorizes colors to be used primarily for their conventional symbolic significance, in practice it recognizes their powerful emotive effect. In application too it is not a simple question of hue, saturation and density. The pigments used are chosen, and adopted as traditional, because their particular color-inflections evokes the required emotive responses. These are not diluted in intensity or 'killed'; their force is always kept at its maximum. Further, such colors, combined as they often are to meet prescribed symbolism, are nevertheless also juxtaposed very skillfully in calculated quantities so as to produce definite but indescribable visual and emotive effects.

The figures represented in Buddhist art have naturally evolved from basic traditional principles. But Buddhist imagery is never concerned with imitating an external world. The objective colored surface is not meant to challenge comparison with any sensuously derived image of external reality. It is meant to stimulate radiant inner icons, whose bodies and features could be quite unrealistic in any ordinary sense of that word. Blue skin or red skin, many arms and heads are commonplace. The density and strength of colors, the vigor of plastic development can life the imagery, so to speak, and at the same time interpose a barrier between the inner icon and any comparable visual object. This is meant to produce a higher key or grade of objectivity than any transient reflection on the retina of the eye, a consistent world of imagination against which visual phenomena seem gray and pale.


References and Further Reading

  • Bhattacharyya, N.N. Tantric Buddhism (Centennial Tribute to Dr.Benoytosh Bhattacharyya): New Delhi, 1999.
  • Cayce, Edgar. On the Power of Color, Stones, and Crystals: New York, 1989.
  • Chocron, Daya Sarai. Healing with Crystals and Gemstones: Maine, 1986.
  • Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols: London, 1999.
  • Fisher, Robert E. Art of Tibet. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
  • Gabriel, Hannelore. Jewelry of Nepal: London, 1999.
  • Kelly, Maureen J. Reiki The Healing Buddha: Delhi, 2001.
  • Lipton, Barbara, and Ragnubs, Nima Dorjee. Treasures of Tibetan Art: Collection of the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Meulenbeld, Ben. Buddhist Symbolism in Tibetan Thangkas: Holland, 2001.
  • Pal, Pratapaditya. Art of Tibet. Los Angeles: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1990.
  • Rhie, Marylin M. & Thurman, Robert A.F. Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
  • Shrestha, Romio. Celestial Gallery: New York, 2000.
  • Tresidder, Jack. The Hutchinson Dictionary of Symbols: Oxford, 1997.
  • Untracht, Oppi. Traditional Jewelry of India: London, 1997.
  • Lilly, Sue. Modern Colour Therapy: London, 2001.

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  • This article is wonderful, and it was the only GOOD article I could find on the symbolism iof color in Buddhist Art. I thank you because it helped me to add some great finishing touches on my Art History paper...and dont worry, i did cite your work!
    by K.W. on 11th Nov 2004
  • I am an author who also runs an art site and I very much enjoyed this article. Nice job. Thank you.
    by LK Hunsaker on 6th Dec 2003
  • This article is excellent and contains precise information to understand the culture to which it refers. It is a very good job by Nitin Kumar and a very intersting policy of Exotic India Company to publish this kind of articles. Thank you.
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