Kengu-kyo Sutra (Buddhist scripture), Known as Ojomu, Attributed to the emperor Shomu, Nara Period, 8th century.

Path of the Buddha — Statues & Belief in India, China, Korea, and Japan

Seated Bodhisattva with one leg pendent, Gilt bronze, Three Kingdoms period, 7th century, Gift of The Ogura Foundation.

Head of Buddha from Khotan, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, 3rd-4th century.


Tokyo National Museum
13-9 Ueno Park, Taito-ku
Room T5, Honkan
The Path of Buddha
July 27, 2007-April 14, 2011

The Path of Buddha traces the development of Buddhist statues from Gandhara (Ancient India), China, the Korean Peninsula, and Japan to provide insights about how Buddhist beliefs and statues developed in each region.

Buddhism is a religion based on the teachings, known as dharma, of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in India around the 5th century B.C. He attained "Enlightenment" and became Sakyamuni Buddha when he was 35, and spent the rest of his life teaching his insights to others. After his death, his followers continued to practice and spread his teachings. Following his cremation, the Buddha's ashes and relics, known as sarira, were deposited in stupas, originally mound-like structures. Buddhist art developed when stupas were decorated with reliefs that depicted stories of Buddha and other designs.

Initially, Buddha was not presented as a human figure. This changed around the 1st century A.D. and Buddhists began to worship statues. Over time, Buddhism spread to other areas, where statues were crafted and worshipped in various forms.

Siddhartha Gautama (Sanskrit; Pali: Siddhattha Gotama) was a spiritual teacher from ancient India and the founder of Buddhism. He is generally recognized by Buddhists as the Supreme Buddha (Sambuddha) of our age. The time of his birth and death are uncertain: most early 20th-century historians date his lifetime from circa 563 BCE to 483 BCE; more recently, however, at a specialist symposium on this question, the majority of those scholars who presented definite opinions gave dates within 20 years either side of 400 BCE for the Buddha's death, with others supporting earlier or later dates.

Gautama, also known as kyamuni Pli or Shakyamuni (“sage of the Shakyas”), is the key figure in Buddhism, and accounts of his life, discourses, and monastic rules were said to have been summarized after his death and memorized by the sangha. Passed down by oral tradition, the Tripitaka, the collection of teachings attributed to Gautama by the Theravada, was committed to writing about 400 years later.

The prime sources of information regarding Siddhartha Gautama's life are the Buddhist texts. The Buddha and his monks spent four months each year discussing and rehearsing his teachings, and after his death his monks set about preserving them. A council was held shortly after his death, and another was held a century later. At these councils the monks attempted to establish and authenticate the extant accounts of the life and teachings of the Buddha following systematic rules. They divided the teachings into distinct but overlapping bodies of material, and assigned specific monks to preserve each one. This was done orally until three generations after the Buddha's death, when they were recorded. By this point, the monks had added or altered some material themselves, in particular magnifying the figure of the Buddha.

The ancient Indians were not concerned with chronologies, being far more focused on philosophy. The Buddhist texts reflect this tendency, and we have a much clearer picture of what the Buddha thought than of the dates of the events in his life. These texts contain descriptions of the culture and daily life of ancient India which can be corroborated from the Jain scriptures, and make the Buddha's time the earliest period in Indian history for which substantial accounts exist. The following is a summary of what is found in these texts.

Head of Buddha from Khotan, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, 3rd-4th century.

Lady Maya and three attendants, Asuka Period, 7th century.