Buddhas in Bali

Buddhas in Bali

Buddhas in Bali

Ni Wayan Murni
Hello Bali, February 2005

Visitors to Bali see Buddha images everywhere. They are often moved and inspired by them but wonder what they mean. They all look alike, but are subtly different.

Bali is predominantly Hindu but has long had a connection with Buddhism and, following contact some 2,000 years ago with various Indian influences, is the last surviving Hindu-Buddhist civilisation in Indonesia.

Inscriptions dated 9 AD have been found, which mention Tantric and Mahayana Buddhism. There are stone statues and references to Buddhist monks and monasteries.

Some time between the 14th and 19th centuries, the Buddhist monasteries came to an end and eventually the various Hindu and Buddhist sects, whose beliefs were similar, merged into Bali-Hinduism.

Buddha was born into a royal family in Lumbini in south Nepal in the sixth century BC. He lived a life of luxury, married and had a son.

One day he met an old man, then a sick man, then a dead person. They represent suffering. Later he came across a wandering monk with a shaven head, dressed in a yellow robe, begging for alms. He saw tranquillity in the monk and decided to renounce the World and live the same way.

When he was 29, he left home in the middle of the night, on a horse, and travelled to a forest where he fasted. Some images show him in an emaciated state with his ribs showing. He decided that suffering was not the right way and enunciated his doctrine of the Middle Way: moderation in all things.

The earliest human Buddha images were made in the first century AD in Gandhara, a kingdom encompassing parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Greco-Roman art had a great influence there, which is evident in the Buddha’s toga-like robes, wavy hair and young features.

Buddha’s physical characteristics indicate his qualities and episodes in his life.

The bump on his head, the ushnisha, indicates supreme wisdom; the hairy mole between his eyes, the urna, supernatural vision; his short, tight, curly hair his renunciation of the World; and his long pierced earlobes his nobility. Indian royals wore heavy earrings, which stretched their ears. Sometimes the ushnisha takes the form of a flame, which symbolizes illumination.

Buddha’s skin is always unblemished and he wears a monastic robe, either open, leaving the right shoulder bare or draped over both shoulders.

In Bodh Gaya, Bihar, in northeast India he meditated for 49 days under a bodhi tree. During that time, Mara, the god of desire, tried to tempt him. Finally Buddha asked the Earth goddess for help by touching the earth with his right hand. She roared, “I am his witness,” and defeated Mara. At that moment Buddha overcame desire and attained Enlightenment, which Buddhists call Nirvana. Buddha images show him sitting in the lotus position, right hand extended down, palm inwards, middle finger touching the ground, left hand in his lap.

After a while, Buddha gave his first sermon to the World. It was in the Deer Park at Sarnath in northern India and is called ‘Setting the Wheel of the Law in Motion’. It marks the beginning of Buddhism as a faith. Images show Buddha, hands at his chest, each forming a circle with thumb and forefinger with the ends of the fingers of the left hand resting against the palm of the right.

Buddha then travelled around India, preaching, meditating and performing miracles. Images show him walking, right hand raised, arm bent, palm outwards, fingers pointing upwards, in the gesture of fearlessness.

The meditating Buddha is tranquil, back straight, in the lotus position, hands in his lap, right hand resting on his left, palms upwards, fingers extended, thumbs touching, eyes half-closed and with a hint of a smile; suggesting that he understands everything.

When he was 80, probably in 483 BC, Buddha died in a grove of trees near Kushinagara in northern India. He lay on his right side, head resting on his right hand, left hand on left hip, a peaceful expression on his face and accompanied by some of his disciples. The reclining posture always refers to his death; his final release.

Buddha images are usually on a throne shaped like a lotus, a symbol of purity and perfection. Just as the lotus has its roots in mud and filth and can grow into a beautiful flower, so can a person who follows the Buddha’s path reach Enlightenment.

Following his death, Buddhism spread to many countries and many Buddha forms came into existence. Perhaps the most popular is the Laughing Buddha. He is represented as a monk with a bald head, big smile and large, prosperous belly. He keeps a bag full of treasures beside him, and beams, “Don’t worry, be happy!” but is this man really a follower of the Middle Way?

Ubud, Bali

Buddhas in Bali