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The Khmers chose a very particular selection of stories from the life of the Buddha for the visual narrative that they described in stone. Khmer artists selected episodes from the life of the Buddha that would emphasise the compassionate aspect of his teachings. There is no representation of Siddhartha’s conception and very few of his birth, which are common in Indian and Indonesian iconography. Furthermore, the stories relating to his early years, details of the pivotal Four Encounters, the First Sermon and other scenes of his teaching, and the Descent from Heaven, are all missing from Khmer narrative relief sculptures.
In my work I focus on scenes that appear in Khmer and Khmer-influenced art in Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. In this article, I will try to provide a better understanding of the Khmer reliefs relating to the life of the Buddha, and the flow of events they describe, by outlining some early events that are not represented in Angkorean art.
Like other religious texts, references to the life of the Buddha contain so many miraculous events and contradictory stories that a plausible reconstruction of his biography is difficult.
The Buddhist events in Khmer reliefs that can be clearly linked to Indian Buddhist texts are rare and were mainly created during the Bayon and early Post-Bayon periods of the late 12th and early 13th centuries CE.
The life of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, or Shakyamuni, (563-483 or 566-486 BCE), is told in several basic versions which are widespread in Southeast Asia. None of these appeared in written form until several centuries after the Buddha's death. The better known texts, which I use in my own research, are the Buddhacarita and the Lalitavistara, both written in the 2nd century CE. These same texts were probably adopted by the Khmers – we don't know for sure, they would have had their own versions on scrolls stored in the temple 'libraries', but none of those survive today.
The Buddhacarita, 'The acts of the Buddha', written by Ashvaghosa, is a biography of the Buddha in the style of Sanskrit epic poetry. The shorter Lalitavistara, a Buddhist text which is highly valued in Mahayana Buddhism, gives a poetical account of the early life of the Buddha up to the beginning of his ministry.
The stories told here are based on those two texts.
The third lowest of the heavens is the realm occupied by the tushita, the calm or joyful gods, where all bodhisattvas, or 'Buddhas to be', are born into their penultimate existence.
When the time comes for a Buddha to appear on earth, indicated by cosmological treatises, the gods gather to ask the bodhisattva to be born in his final existence among humankind. Before reaching the end of their divine life, bodhisattvas are called upon to prepare themselves for the ultimate birth, during which they will experience ‘complete awakening’.
After extensive mental examination, the bodhisattva himself determines the most propitious time, continent, place of birth, lineage, and even the mother who will bear him, based on his knowledge of past and future events.
The Buddha’s chosen father and mother were King Shuddhodana and Queen Mayadevi. Shuddhodana was the warrior (or ksliatriya) ruler of the modest Shakya tribe of the Gautama clan. They lived in Kapilavastu, in modern Nepal, and wished to have a child.
One night, in a dream, Mayadevi saw a white elephant penetrate her side. The next day, sixty-four brahmins reassured the royal couple that a boy had been conceived who would become either a Universal Monarch (Chakravartin) or a Buddha.
The miraculous pregnancy lasted ten months, during which time the mother withdrew into the forest of Lumbini, a delightful grove with trees of every kind, accompanied by the king. When her delivery was approaching, Mayadevi stood grasping the branch of a tree that bent down towards her. The child did not enter the world in the usual manner, but he appeared to descend from the heavens and emerged from her right side without pain or injury.
The child, having practised meditation for aeons in previous lives, was born fully aware. He was received by Indra and Brahma, and appeared as if a young sun had come down to Earth, his limbs shining like gold and lighting up all the space around him. Instantly he walked seven steps, firmly and with long strides, surveying the four quarters, and, raising his right arm, declared that this was the last time he was to be born, and that he was destined for enlightenment.
The great seer Asita came to see the newly-born prince. In wonderment he noticed that the baby had on his body several signs of a supernatural being: the soles of his feet marked with wheels, the fingers and toes joined by webs, a circle of soft down between his eyebrows, and withdrawn testicles.
Filled with emotion, the sage prophesised to Shuddhodana that his son would be uninterested in worldly affairs, would give up his kingdom, and after long and strenuous efforts would achieve enlightenment. He would thus remove the darkness of delusion from this world, bringing to an end the cycle of births and rebirths, and freeing the world from its bonds.
The child was taken back to Kapilavastu, where his mother, overwhelmed by the joy she felt at the sight of her son's majesty, died seven days after the birth. She went to heaven and dwelt there. Her sister brought up the boy, called Siddhartha ('he whose purpose is accomplished'), as if he were her own son.
We will continue this tale tomorrow in The Early Life of the Buddha, when we visit Ta Prohm Temple to look at some reliefs depicting the early years of the Buddha.
The image at the top of this page was made at Angkor Wat Temple, you can find it and more of my works from Angkor Wat by clicking here: My Work at Angkor Wat Temple.
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