In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Images

  • Introduction
  • Images in Theory
  • Images in Practice
  • Aniconism
  • Miraculous Images
  • Relics
  • Image and Text
  • Secular Display
  • Buddhist Images and Modern Art

Buddhism Images
Charles Lachman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0216


Buddhism appears to have spread slowly at first from its birthplace in northern India after the death of the historical Buddha. With the territorial expansions of King Aśoka—a supporter of Buddhism—in the 3rd century BCE, however, it began to spread more rapidly, first reaching other parts of India, and eventually reaching Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Thailand to the southeast, and Gandhara (in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan) to the northwest. From there, it gradually traveled through Central Asia to China, Korea, and Japan. The various sutras containing the teachings of the Buddha were certainly a central element of this enterprise, but a wide array of Buddhist images also played a crucial role in this transmission. In China, for example, Buddhism was even dubbed the “teaching of images” (xiangjiao) and although this term was meant as a slur it clearly reflects the prominent place of images in Buddhist practice. This prominence persists today, and rituals of bowing, burning incense, and making offerings to images is a characteristic feature of virtually every branch and school of Buddhism. The formal study of Buddhist images, however, is a relatively recent field that only emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since many early historians of Buddhism tended to dismiss the ritual use of images as popular superstition, focusing instead on texts and doctrine, the first scholars to take an active interest in studying Buddhist image traditions tended to be art historians, whose concerns were mainly iconographic and stylistic. More recently, though, this situation has changed, as many Buddhologists have turned their attention to the critical study of images in creative and fruitful ways, while many art historians have stopped approaching images merely as art objects or as iconographic embodiments of Buddhist doctrine. Thus, the study of Buddhist images today is no longer only, or even mainly, the preserve of art historians, and many of the art historians who do focus on Buddhist images tend to be interested in issues that go far beyond matters of style.

Reference Works

Reference works devoted to Buddhist visual culture fall into several broad categories: encyclopedias and dictionaries of Buddhism that contain entries related to Buddhist images and image makers, encyclopedic volumes of world art that include sections on Asia, and more specialized volumes that focus specifically on aspects of Buddhist iconography.

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