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1.1 A True Likeness of Śākyamuni?

Last update: 28 March 2013

While doing fieldwork on Buddhist monasticism, on 30 July 2005, I saw an unusual image of Śākyamuni Buddha, strikingly different from any other Buddha image I had seen previously (fig. 1). I was in Taiwan’s Jinmen County 金門縣, Da Jinmen 大金門 Island, Huguo Monastery 護國寺. Unlike other pictures of Śākyamuni, this image was executed in a “realistic” manner—that is, in a style mimicking photographic verisimilitude— depicting Śākyamuni as an ordinary man. The location and framing of the picture in what serves as a monastic study room suggests that the resident monk found it conducive to reflection or inspiration, whereas the lack of censers, divination sticks, or offerings of water or fruit suggest that it was not treated as a living icon, that is, as an object of worship that can provide advice and grant requests.
        The portrait was surrounded by the following three inscriptions:
(1) Along the top, the title, “Śākyamuni Buddha.”
(2) Along the sides, a verse from Kumārjīva’s translation of the Diamond Sutra: “All constructed dharmas/ Are like dreams, mirages, bubbles, and shadows/ Like dew and like lightning/ In this manner they should be observed” (T 235: 8.752b28-29).
(3) At the bottom, a description: “This portrait of Śākyamuni Buddha when he was forty-one sui 歲 [about 40 years old] was drawn in person from life by his disciple, the Venerated [=Arhat] Pūrṇa, and later it received inscriptions and the addition of color. It was originally displayed in the English Royal Museum [=British Museum?] as a precious national treasure.” This description is dated “Renchen 壬辰 Year of the Republic,” which corresponds to most of 1952 and to the beginning of 1953.
        Extensive, multilingual Internet searchs in November 2007 revealed that this image or closely related images had spread to some two dozen websites and blogs, mainly but not exclusively in the Chinese language world (examples: Śākyamuni1  and Śākyamuni2, and a newer one: Śākyamuni3 [in each website, scroll down to find the image]). These sites ranged from official websites of serious Buddhist organizations to informal blogs to a site promoting tourism in China. Some bloggers offered the image pious praise and digital flowers while others claimed the image was a forgery. One author, who had seen a similar image venerated by a monk in his quarters in Beijing, wrote at length that the image was a creation of Māra (this website also includes the image in question, and was still online as of August 2008: Śākyamuni4).
        The image I saw, which I call the “Jinmen Śākyamuni,” differs from most traditional depictions of Śākyamuni in the following ways:
(1) It is a bust rather than a depiction of his entire body.
(2) It is composed in a style mimicking photographic realism.
(3) It depicts none of the Buddha’s unusual physiognomic traits.
(4) It depicts Śākyamuni as a middle-aged, foreign, possibly Indian man, rather than as an ageless divinity.
(5) It is in three-quarters view rather than frontal.
(6) It claims to be a true likeness that was drawn from life by a disciple.
In several ways these images appear to be something new in the history of Buddhism: I am aware of no other images that depict Śākyamuni in this manner that have ever been treated as objects of contemplation or worship. Nevertheless, there are related historical precedents, such as depictions of Śākyamuni as a middle-aged, foreign man, sometimes in three-quarters view, which began to appear during the Song dynasty (960–1279) and continued to be produced until modern times. Often they depict Śākyamuni before his enlightenment. For instance, Liang Kai’s 梁楷 Śākyamuni Emerging from the Mountains (13th c.) depicts Śākyamuni in three-quarters view as a middle-aged, foreign man with dark hair on both his head and face (see Śākyamuni5). In Liang's painting, Śākyamuni’s unusual physiognomic traits are minimized, although he clearly still has a bald, cranial protuberance and unnaturally long ears. Other Southern Song and Yuan (1271-1368) period paintings of this same scene likewise depict the Buddha in a similar, “humanized” manner. Some versions even show him wearing an earring, as he does in the Jinmen image.
        The framing and composition of the Jinmen image also resembles portraits of deceased abbots and lineage ancestors or “patriarchs.” Such portraits, produced from Tang times onwards, were displayed in a special room in the monastery called an ancestors’ hall (zutang 祖堂), portrait hall (zhentang 真堂), or founder’s hall (kaishantang 開山堂), and depicted deceased lineage masters in a lifelike manner, often showing the entire body in a frontal view. Such portraits are by no means limited to the Chan school or even to Buddhism, and are a common part of the Chinese ancestor cult. Buddhist ancestor portraits are often inscribed with a poem, sometimes written by the depicted ancestor himself and called a self-eulogy (zizan 自讚). Similarly, as described previously, the “Jinmen Śākyamuni” is inscribed with Śākyamuni’s own words, namely a famous verse from the Diamond Sutra. The production of such monastic ancestral images continues into the present, although often as photographs rather than as paintings (examples: figs. 2 and 3).
        A number of influential twentieth and twenty-first century Buddhist teachers and organizations tend to historicize and humanize Śākyamuni. For instance, the Indian Ambedkar strongly opposed ideas that the Buddha was anything other than a human being, and Taiwanese nun Zhengyan 證嚴 (of Ciji Foundation) emphasizes that the Buddha should be understood more as a person to emulate than as a deity to supplicate. In a similar vein, Taiwanese monk Shengyan 聖嚴 (of Dharma Drum Mountain) writes that images of Buddhas should be understood as symbols to help focus one’s mind rather than as icons (living entities). Yet the Buddha images produced by these and other modernist organizations are still traditional in that they depict the Buddha as an ageless being with features such as a cranial protuberance (example from Ambedkar-related group: Śākyamuni6, online as of August 2008).
        Given modernist, humanizing forces worldwide, might a fully humanized image of Śākyamuni one day catch hold and enter into the mainstream of Buddhist iconography? Might a “realistic” true likeness of Śākyamuni appear—a modern-day Udayana Buddha—that would replicate far and wide, as did the Christian Veronica, Image of Edessa, and Shroud of Turin? If so, such a representation would have to overcome not only ordinary skepticism but also the weight of Buddhist textual and artistic precedent, which indicate that the Buddha always looked different from an ordinary human.
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Note 1: The author who claimed one of these “realistic” Śākyamuni images was the work of Māra managed to contact Roderick Whitfield, a scholar formerly employed as Assistant Keeper in the Department of Oriental Antiquities of the British Museum, to see if there was any such image in the museum. He reported that Whitfield replied: “There is nothing remotely like this at the British Museum,” and in an email dated 6 December 2007 Whitfield confirmed to me that he had indeed made that statement.

Note 2: The third and fourth links to images, above, were no longer active as of 25 March 2013. However, I found another interesting image with a printed caption in Bahasa Indonesia, with a handwritten caption in Chinese, here. This makes me wonder if this family of images may have originated in Indonesia. On 25 March 2013, Jack Chia helpfully translated the Bahasa caption into English, as follows:

The Real Face of the Gautama Buddha
[Wajah Sang Budha Gautama Yang Sesungguhnya]
This rare image is currently stored in the Museum of London, England. It was painted by one of the disciples of the Buddha - Ariya Purnamaitrayaniputra - at the time when the Buddha was 49 years old.

As we can see, it says basically the same thing as the Chinese does. Chia suggests that the image may have been the creation of a new school of Indonesian Buddhism, the Buddhayana, for which see Brown, Iem. 1987. “Contemporary Indonesian Buddhism and Monotheism.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 18:1 (March): 108-117. For background on that article, see the same author’s “The Revival of Buddhism in Modern Indonesia,” in Hinduism in Modern Indonesia (2004).
(Thanks to William Ma for pointing out this image to me, and to Jack Chia for the translation and advice. William found the image using this nifty Reverse Image Search website.)

Related Link:
My webpage 5.6, a photo album of similar images.


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Fig. 1. Śākyamuni as a Homo sapiens. Photo by Douglas Gildow (30 July 2005).

Fig. 2. Ancestral portraits, Tainan City. Photo by Douglas Gildow (7 Sept. 2005).
Fig. 2. Ancestral portraits, Tainan City. Photo by Douglas Gildow (7 Sept. 2005).
Fig. 3. Ancestral portrait, Gaoxiong County. Photo by Douglas Gildow (30 Aug. 2005).
Fig. 3. Ancestral portrait, Gaoxiong County. Photo by Douglas Gildow (30 Aug. 2005).