Buddha's Stories

FIG. 2
The Eight Great Events of the Buddha’s Life; Tibet; ca. 13th century; Pigments on cloth;
41 3/4 x 30 3/4 in. (106 x 78cm); Private Collection, Switzerland




The Buddha's Stories

It all begins with the story of the Buddha.

The story tells of a young prince who renounced his palace life to seek spiritual liberation. After years of searching, he attained it and taught others the path. Most sources agree that the Buddha's teachings and the biographical accounts of his journey toward the goal of spiritual awakening were originally recounted orally. The exact dates of the Buddha's life are still debated, but he is believed to have lived sometime between the sixth and fourth century BCE. His full life story was not written down until the second century CE, but visual narratives of numerous episodes from his life and previous lives have been the main subject of Buddhist art from its very beginning and continue to be represented in various sculptural and painted forms in all Buddhist cultures up to the present.

Tibetan depictions related to the life of the Buddha vary and can be found in murals as well as scroll paintings. Among the earliest such scrolls is this rare painting (FIG. 2) that shows the scenes of the eight great events of the Buddha's life. The representations of the eight events as a visual convention developed in India during the fifth through the ninth century and became prominent in the medieval art of numerous Buddhist countries, from the Indian kingdoms of Pala and Sena, to Newar city states, to Central Asian empires, to Tibetan and Burmese kingdoms. This scroll shows the scenes of the eight events within architectural structures but does not represent the events as occurring within the structures. It visually refers to commemorative stupa shrines at the sites where the events occurred.