Buddhists erect shrines within monasteries and temples, at home, or even in the workplace in order to have a proper context for performing rituals. Representations of the body (images), speech (texts), and mind (stūpas) of the Buddha serve as the focal point of a shrine. Images might be a two-dimensional painting or a three-dimensional statue. Often, before a new image is installed in a shrine, a ritual specialist has consecrated (pratiṣṭhā/buddhâbhiṣeka) it. When consecrating an image, the ritual specialist, usually a Buddhist monk or priest, brings it to life for the patron, a local devotee or resident clergy, who sponsored the ritual. In the Tibetan tradition, in the case of a two-dimensional image, a mantra or dhāraṇī might be inscribed on the back at points that correspond to the head, throat, and chest region, symbolizing respectively the body, speech, and mind. Three-dimensional, hollow images are filled with other representations of the body, speech, and mind of the Buddha. In the East and Southeast Asian traditions, faux organs might be inserted. However, many consecration rituals contain within their liturgy an understanding that, ontologically speaking, the presence of the Buddha already pervades all space. Ultimately, there is no need to perform a consecration ritual. The intention is to entice the presence of the Buddhist deity in question to dwell in the image, therefore making it possible for the community to interact with the presence of the Buddha (or a related deity). However, the rituals are performed with an understanding that they facilitate a person’s relationship to the Buddha’s presence. All evidence indicates that Buddhists have been performing image consecration rituals since the beginning of the Buddhist cult of images over 1,500 years ago. It is still a popular practice for contemporary Buddhists worldwide. Though the ritual has evolved over time in local contexts, the main features of image consecration are still very similar across Buddhist Asia and the West, and they share some features with Jain and Hindu image consecration. As a research topic, image consecration is connected to other subfields of Buddhist studies, especially art history, ontology (multiple bodies of the Buddha), and literature on the life of the Buddha.
Until the 1980s, art historians dominated the study of Buddhist imagery; their concerns were primary the iconography, aesthetic qualities, religious context, and historical provenance of works in situ and individual museum pieces. More recently scholars of both art history and religion have attended to relationships between Buddhist images and ritual, doctrinal debates, and sociological developments. Therefore, the most accessible general overviews of image consecration tend to be found at the beginning of rather specialist articles. Yael Bentor and Donald Swearer have dominated the study of image consecration, with many publications from each of them. For short introductions to the topic, Bentor 2004 begins with the main features of image consecration rituals across Buddhism. Swearer 1995 elucidates background on the origin and function of Buddha images. For book-length overviews, Swearer 2004 is an excellent investigation of image consecration that considers the interplay of texts, materials, and ritual performance. Bentor 1996 is a dense and thorough examination of the tantric aspects of Tibetan consecration rituals. A notable and venerable exception to the influence of the art historians would be Tucci 1949. Morse and Morse 1996 investigates the intersections of aesthetics and ritual in Japanese images. Goepper and Wolfgang 1979 is often cited by specialists in East Asian Buddhism. Fowler 2005 is representative of the author’s significant research into Japanese images.
Bentor, Yael. Consecration of Images and Stūpas in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. Brill’s Indological Library 11. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1996.
An accessible study and translation of the complicated ritual procedures and theological reflections on consecration in Tibetan literature. There is an explicit parallel transformation of ritual practitioners and the material forms, such as Buddha images, into the actual presence of the Buddha.
Bentor, Yael. “The Consecration of a Buddha Image.” In Buddhist Scriptures. Edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., 200–211. London: Penguin, 2004.
Focusing on what distinguishes tantric image consecration from mainstream image consecration.
Fowler, Sherry D. Murōji: Rearranging Art and History at a Japanese Buddhist Temple. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005.
About the history of the Heian era Murōji temple, with a concentration on the images and ritual.
Goepper, Roger, and Wolfgang Bauer. “Some Thoughts on the Icon in Esoteric Buddhism of East Asia.” In Studia Sino-Mongolica: Festschrift für Herbert Franke. Edited by Wolfgang Bauer, 245–254. Wiesbaden, West Germany: Steiner, 1979.
On East Asian Buddhist consecration practices.
Morse, Anne N., and Samuel C. Morse. Object as Insight: Japanese Buddhist Art and Ritual. Catalog of an exhibition held at the Katonah Museum of Art, 14 January 1996–17 March 1996, and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 19 April 1996–30 June 1996. Katonah, NY: Katonah Museum of Art, 1996.
Through a study of art and Buddhist rituals in Japan, the authors show the importance of the aesthetic objects of worship and ritual in Japanese Buddhism.
Swearer, Donald K. “Consecrating the Buddha.” In Buddhism in Practice. Edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., 50–58. Princeton Readings in Religions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
An introduction to and translation of the Buddha Abhiṣeka (Consecrating the Buddha [image]), a text used in Theravada Buddhism, and contextual information on contemporary northern Thailand.
Swearer, Donald K. Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Northern Thailand: Sources and Interpretation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.
An unparalleled multidisciplinary study of the various legends on the origin of the First Buddha image, theories about the origin of the cult, relevant Theravada texts, and a rich ethnographic description of a Northern Thai consecration ritual.
Tucci, Giuseppe. Tibetan Painted Scrolls. Rome: Libreria dello Stato, 1949.
The classic and still excellent study of all aspects of Tibetan art, with an overview of image consecration in Tibetan Buddhism and its relationship to Indian religions. See pp. 308–316 in particular.
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