Aro gTer To Art, aesthetics, and architecture (Buddhism)

Aro gTer

Aro gTer (Mother Essence) is a relatively small and unrecognized lineage within Nyingma Tibetan Buddhism. It is described as a nonliturgical, nonmonastic tradition that emphasizes the practice of Dzogchen. Aro gTer emphasizes the integration of Buddhist practice with everyday life, and everyday life as practice. it also teaches an equality of the sexes.

Aro gTer originated with a number of females who had experienced enlightenment. This lineage culminated in the career of Khyungchen Aro Lingma (1886-1923). The visionary Aro Lingma had received transmission from another enlightened female, Yeshe Tsogyel. She passed the lineage to her son, Aro Yeshe (1913-51), and through him it passed to the current lineage holders, Ngak’chang Cho-ying Cyamtso Ogyen Tog-den Rinpoche (1952- ) and Khandro Dechen Tsedrup Yeshe. Khandro Dechen is a recognized master of the Dzogchen Long-de system, whose practices she teaches.

Ngak’chang Rinpoche is a German by birth. Raised in England, he developed an interest in Nyingma Buddhism and in 1971 traveled to the Himalayan Mountains to find a teacher. During his stay, he completed a four-year solitary retreat. Having encountered the followers of the Aro gTer, he was eventually recognized as the incarnation of Aro Yeshe, who had died the year before the new Rinpoche’s birth. He now holds the lineage along with his wife, Khandro Dechen.

Since returning to the West to teach in 1979, Ngak’chang Rinpoche has opened Aro gTer centers in North America and across northern Europe. In England, the group is known as Sang-Kgak-Cho-Dzong.

Art, aesthetics, and architecture

Art and design are major aspects of Buddhist practice. As Buddhist ideas spread into new regions they have invariably ignited creative surges and expressions in all aspects of culture. There is thus no single form or school of Buddhist art. Instead each culture has created its own unique mix—all centered on the teachings, images, and stories found in early Buddhism, along with later elaborations. Early artists, sculptors, architects, and artisans gave visual expression to the Buddha’s spiritual vision by infusing new meaning in existing cosmological models, modes of expression, and material culture; subsequently others created fresh images that reflected the evolving visions and practical needs of the faith. Buddhists adapted and consigned innovative meanings to Hindu and Hellenistic ideas and motifs. Artists continue to recreate Buddhist symbols and narratives in accordance with local canons of taste in every region where Buddhism spread. Buddhist ideals are also apparent in the inexpensive utilitarian wares made and used by the common people.

Much Buddhist art and architecture falls into six broad areas: the stupas, monasteries and temples, the mountain temple, the Buddha image, paintings, and folk art.


When Sakyamuni Buddha passed away in 483 b.c.e. his lay devotees divided and erected stupas over his cremated remains to honor his memory and his parinirvana (more commonly, nirvana), a spiritual ideal that provided an alternative to endless cycles of life and death. Fusing the earthly and transcendent, this ancient sepulchral monument became the signature icon of Buddhism.

The stupa has evolved from a simple funerary mound to symbolize the parinirvana (death), to mark a sacred site associated with the Buddha, his earthly possessions, or other holy persons. Some scholars have suggested that the stupa is an expression of the Mount Meru cosmology.

The oldest example of the stupa is the Great Stupa at Sanchi, India (third century b.c.e.). Other important examples include the Great Stupa at Amaravati in present-day Andhra Pradesh; the cylindrical stupas at Karle and Ajanta, eastern India; the great stupa at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka; and the bell-shaped stupas at Ananda Stupa in Pagan, Myanmar, and Phra Si Ratana Chedi in Bangkok, Thailand. By the Gupta period (c. 319-550 c.e.), sculptors placed the image of the Buddha on the elongated cylindrical base. Architects also experimented with square bases, cornices, articulated by pilasters, niches, and arcades, developments that prefigure the East Asian pagoda.


The vihara (monastery) and caitya (communal worship space) are the archetype Indian spiritual sanctuaries. Viharas and caityas were hewn out of living rock or constructed from brick and other materials. More than 1,000 were cut along the ancient trade routes in the Western Ghat range between 120 b.c.e. and 400 c.e. They were built near prosperous towns and on sites associated with the Buddha and other worthies. While some, like Nalanda in Bihar and Sirkap in Gandhara, grew into vast establishments, the vihara evolved from a simple cave or hut that housed, especially during the rainy season, a single cleric. As the number of clerics grew, living quarters were built around a common center where the community could gather for rites and for study. The ruins at Nalanda show that each cell contained a stone bed and pillow with a niche for a lamp. In contrast, caityas were designed with an apse or recess and two side aisles designed to accommodate circumambulation. Devotees proceeded between two rows of columns that formed a corridor that circled the stupa placed in the far end of the apse. The second century c.e. caitya at Karle, near Lonavla in Maharashtra, India, is of monumental proportions (125 feet in length, 46 feet in width and height).

Viharas and caityas continued to be hewn in the Tian mountains that linked Central Asia and northern China. The earliest Chinese cave-temples are in Gansu Province. Archaeologists have discovered new sites near the great cave-temples at Dunhuang. The Northern Wei dynasty (386-532) established cave temples at various sites in northwest China. While cave-temples continued to be hewn and maintained, urban temples and monasteries were laid out on a south-north axis based on Daoist geomancy. In the early layout, the devotee would immediately arrive at the pagoda after entering through a south facing gateway. The kondo (Japanese pronunciation), or Buddha hall; kodo, or lecture hall; and other structures were placed behind the pagoda. But the pagoda, essentially a foreign element, did not fit into the Chinese architectural layout. Between the sixth and eighth centuries, it was placed to the left of the central axis. At times a second pagoda was added, and in other cases the pagoda was eventually abandoned. The seventh-century Horyu-ji in Nara, Japan, is an example of this shift, which begins in the Six Dynasties period of Chinese history (220-589 c.e.) temple layout. The pagoda stands on the west and the kondo to the east. To the north and facing the central entry is a large kodo, or lecture hall, that houses the Buddha and subsidiary images. The kondo at Toshodai-ji, also in Nara, marks another shift. The Vairocana Buddha occupying the central seat in the kondo is intended to be viewed from the front and was not designed for circumambu-lation. In later developments, the altar is pushed to the back, opening up a space for congregate worship that is common in Pure Land temples, where the Amitabha Buddha occupies the central position. Over time, in East Asia the kondo replaces the stupa in importance.


In Buddhist architecture some structures function as representations of the cosmos, the loka-dhatu, or universe that comes into existence, is sustained and disintegrates through the collective karmic energy of all living beings. At the center of that cosmos sits Mt. Sumeru. According to the Abidharma-kosa by Vasubandhu (c. 420-500) Mt. Sumeru and the surrounding seven concentric square mountain ranges, each separated by vast oceans, are located in the middle of a great ocean. The five peaks region at the summit of Mt. Sumeru is the heavenly abode of the god Indra, the four great kings, and 33 lesser deities. Four heavenly palaces are located above the summit. Maitreya, the future Buddha, resides in the Tusita Heavens. Mount Sumeru served as a model for temple design and layout and the cakravartin, or ideal ruler, that guided earthly polity in Southeast Asia. important cosmological temples include the Bayon, built by Jayavarman VII (r. 1181-1219), the symbolic center of Angkor Thom, the capital city of the Khmer empire; the later Angkor Wat (early 12th century), the most ambitious architectural monument to recreate Mount Sumeru cosmology; and Borobudur in Indonesia.

In East Asia Mt. Sumeru is preserved in the dais on which the Buddha rests. The dais, or bottom half of the rectangle platform, is in the form of a step pyramid; the upper half is an inverted step pyramid; the Buddha is portrayed as the lord of the physical and spiritual worlds. often a lotus throne is placed on the dais, compounding the glory of the Buddha. Buddhism adopted the lotus to symbolize spiritual unfolding and the axis of the universe.


The third century b.c.e. bas-reliefs sculptured at Sanchi and Bharhut, India, are the earliest extant narratives that illustrate important events in Sakyamuni Buddha’s life and Jatakas Tales, stories of the Buddha’s former lives that exemplify his wisdom and compassion. in these and other early visual representations, artisans depicted major personalities, but never the human Buddha. His presence was suggested by images of the bo-tree (Bodhi tree, Ficus religiosa) under which he realized enlightenment, or the cushion on which he rested at the moment of the enlightenment, or the stupa representing his parinirvana, or his footprint(s) signifying his presence, or the dharmacakra, or Dharma Wheel, representing the first sermon. At times the Buddha is presented as part of a trident, a symbol of the Triratna, or Triple Jewels—Buddha (the teacher), Dharma (the Teaching), Sangha (community)—that constitute the core of the faith.

Sculptors may have hesitated to portray the human Buddha because transcendence, purity, and spirituality are more effectively conveyed by symbols. Their reluctance may have been due to the belief that Sakyamuni had achieved parinir-vana and thus ceased to exist; because he was not of this world, it was not possible to depict the Buddha and his spiritual accomplishments. The state of nonexistence presented the artist with a dilemma concerning how to present the formless and transcendental Buddha through form.

The shift from the aniconic (symbolic) to the iconic representation of the Buddha coincided with the rise of Mahayana and the spread of lay devotionalism (bhakti) at the beginning of the first and second centuries c.e. The heroic and sacrificial character of the bodhisattva, who vows to save all beings by sharing the merits he/she has accumulated over eons of discipline, is an outgrowth of the idealization of the historical Buddha. other scholars have suggested that the bodhisattva ideal and the accompanying vision of Suhkavati, or Pure Land, were of Mediterranean and Central Asian origin and filtered into Mahayana thought. At any rate Mahayana ideals departed from the understanding that the historical Buddha was an exceptional individual and teacher. This new vision together with the spread of the faith among the population required more readily accessible images to replace the highly abstract notions of enlightenment and parinirvana represented by the stupa and other symbols. The development of the Buddha image was one response.

The first Buddha image appeared more or less simultaneously in Mathura and Gandhara regions in the first century c.e. under the Kushan (c. 50-288) political hegemony; a flurry of images appeared during the reign of Kaniska (c. 78-101 c.e.). Their respective depictions of the Buddha emerged from different traditions. Artisans from Mathura in north central India near the modern-day city of Agra continued the sculptural forms of the yaksa and yaksi—male and female, respectively, fertility spirits. The blocklike compactness and smooth close-fitting robe, almost entirely devoid of folds, are replicated in the earliest standing Buddha image. The first Mathuran image makers, it seemed, never intended to sculpt an anatomically correct human Buddha. Their images were a composite of 32 major and 80 minor laksana, or marks. These literary descriptions were based on natural images and features associated with manly beauty and heroic ideals. Thus the Buddha, a noble being and a cakravartin (ideal ruler), has a smooth and perfectly proportioned body, an oval-shaped head, eyebrows in the shape of the curve of an Indian bow, eyes that recall a lotus bud, ears that evoke the shape of mangos, thighs that are like those of a gazelle, and limbs smooth like a banyan tree. The triple folds of the neck are derived from a conch shell, a symbol used to call the faithful to listen to the teachings. The broad chest and narrow hips recall the lion, the patriarch of the jungle; the arms that reach to the knees and webbed fingers symbolize the Buddha’s great compassion. The long arms enable the Buddha to embrace all beings; his webbed fingers prevent those whom the Buddha has scooped from the sea of samsara from dribbling back. The distended ear lobes, a feature of nobles, who wore heavy ear ornaments, recall his aristocratic birth. The colored gold body emits a wondrous scent.

Siddhartha’s locks curled to the right after he cut his hair, a symbol of abandoning the secular life, and became a spiritual mendicant. He has 80 of these right-turning tufts of hair that never grew again. His curls and lotus-petal lips prompted the early British explorers mistakenly to report Buddha images to have an "African cast." The palms of his hands and the soles of his feet bear the dharmacakra, "dharma wheel," or Buddhist swastika. The urna, the white lock curled to the right, emits the light of wisdom; the urna is depicted as a third eye in Tantric Buddhism. The Buddha image is often embraced by halo and aureole (circles of light) that symbolize the Buddha’s immeasurable brilliance of truth and wisdom. The Buddha’s extraordinary wisdom is represented by the usnisa, a "bump" or extra cranial protrusion. These various features are not afterthoughts, but integral parts of the Buddha’s representation. Since the laksana (marks) were too numerous to include in any single image, the Mathuran artisans selectively chose the principal features to use for each Buddha image.

Burmese Buddha figure, painted wood and lacquer, Mandalay, northern Myanmar (Burma)

Burmese Buddha figure, painted wood and lacquer, Mandalay, northern Myanmar (Burma)

In contrast the Gandharan Buddha image was inspired by Hellenistic realism, tempered by Persian, Scythian, and Parthian models. Sculptors crafted Buddhist images with anatomical accuracy, spatial depth, and foreshortening. The straight sharply chiseled Apollonian noses, brows, and mustaches capture a "frozen moment." Their more realistic tradition transformed the usnisa into a topknot or turban; the Buddha’s curls were altered into wavy hair. Another obvious Mediterranean feature is the diaphanous (thin), togalike robe. The emaciated Buddha, an image rarely seen in Mathura, is another evidence of Hellenistic realism.

From the close of the second century both the Mathuran and Gandharan styles experienced mutual cross-fertilization. The skillful incorporation of the laksanas suggests that the Gandharan image makers became more comfortable in incorporating native Indian notions of beauty. The bulky Mathura Buddha gradually gives way to the slender elegance of the Gandharan image. The result of this synthesis ennobled, refined, and purified the Buddha image that appeared in the Gupta period (c. 320-467 c.e.). The soft and supple body visible beneath the thin robe swells with life-giving breath. The round face sculpted with a feeling of perfect tranquility engaged in profound meditation conveys in the human form a sense of the transcendent. The Gupta style became the model for Southeast Asian images.

Transcendence in bodily form is also seen in the walking Buddha in the round created during Thai culture’s Sukhotai period (c. 1240-1438). The Sukhotai-style image in the maravijaya (Victory over Mara) seated posture where the Buddha extends his right hand to touch the earth—a gesture known as bhumisparsa-mudra—signifying the defeat of Mara, lord of darkness, and the walking image with the abhaya-mudra (gesture of fearlessness and reassurance) are Thailand’s best-known styles. Thai sculptors seamlessly blended literary description with aesthetic sensitivity to create a figure that emanates great spiritual power. The asexual images exhibit no anatomical or skeletal features; the head is shaped like an egg; the torso is lionlike with broad shoulders, the arms smooth and tapering; the thick thighs resemble the stalks of a banana tree. The downcast eyes and high flame usnisa finial (top decoration) convey a spiritual radiance. This distinctive Thai style emerged after the Thai overthrew their Khmer (Cambodian) overlords. Khmer images were square-faced and topped by a conelike usnisa or a wide crown. The figure of Muchilinda, the naga-king (water serpent), protectively hovering over the Buddha is especially popular in Southeast Asia.

While Theravada artists and sculptors of Southeast Asia have portrayed the historical Buddha and events related to his life, the ideas and goals of Mahayana introduced an important shift in visual and plastic representation. Mahayana artists in Central and East Asia have struggled to render the celestial Buddhas and bodhisattvas and transcendental Buddha Lands. Mahayanists understood nirvana to be the "other world" of Sukhavati, not the state of non-being of parinir-vana. The Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra and other Pure Land sutras describe in exquisite detail this "other world" that is reigned over by the Amitabha Buddha. Maitreya, or the future Buddha, was the most popular image during the Kushan period; this representation of the Buddha seems to have been influenced by Persian and Mediterranean messianic ideas. Vairocana, the universal Buddha; Bhaisajya-guru, the Medicine Buddha; and the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara are other popular images. These celestial beings and their realms inspired the creation of monumental images and spectacular symbolism. Thus we see the appearance of colossal Buddha images at Bamiyan in Afghanistan. The 175-foot-tall Vairocana Buddha, the universal monarch, was hewn into the cliff between the fourth and fifth centuries. After 15 centuries Taliban artillery destroyed this image and a smaller 120-foot-tall accompanying Buddha in 2001. The 53-foot-tall Vairocana Buddha at Todai-ji in Nara, cast in 752 c.e., is another such example. The great size of these figures reflects the importance Mahayana placed on celestial realms that promise riches and rewards to those who would be reborn in such a paradise. Mahayana artists portrayed these Buddha lands with rich colors and vibrant imagination.

Massive "sleeping Buddha" (with eyes open, indicating relaxation, not parinirvana) at Shwethalyaung Temple in Bago (Pegu), Myanmar

Massive "sleeping Buddha" (with eyes open, indicating relaxation, not parinirvana) at Shwethalyaung Temple in Bago (Pegu), Myanmar

Head of large marble Buddha, Mandalay, Myanmar

Head of large marble Buddha, Mandalay, Myanmar

In another change, many of the early Buddha images were accompanied by pairs of bodhisat-tva images and other worthies. unlike the simply dressed Buddha images, bodhisattvas were adorned with elaborate dress and ornamentation that reflected the tastes of princes. Bodhisattvas can often be identified by the objects and symbols that accompany them. Maitreya, the future Buddha, is displayed with a stupa on its crown; Vajrapani holds a thunderbolt; Avalokitesvara or Guanyin (or Kannon in Japanese), "he or she who hears the pleas of the world," is especially popular in China; this bodhisattva has a seated Amida Buddha in his crown and holds a lotus. The bodhisattva Manjusri, the personification of wisdom, rides a lion; Samantabadhra sits on a six-tusked elephant.

Feet of a sleeping Buddha figure at Shwethalyaung Temple, Bago (Pegu), Myanmar, with the dharma-cakra, the Buddhist wheel in each sole

Feet of a sleeping Buddha figure at Shwethalyaung Temple, Bago (Pegu), Myanmar, with the dharma-cakra, the Buddhist wheel in each sole

The first Buddha images to enter China were probably transported in small portable shrines that were molded and carved in Central Asia. These images, a fusion of Gupta and later Gand-haran styles, had a great impact on the early Northern Wei (386-535) style that formed the foundation of Chinese Buddhist art. The distinctive slender and frontal figure with its cascading robes of the Wei-style images appears during the Japanese Asuka period (552-646) in the Shaka Triad and Yumedo Kannon at Horyu-ji in Nara. A characteristic Chinese style appears in the Tang (618-907) period. The Tang style is rounder and bolder. A prime example of the classical Tang style is at the Yakushi Triad at Yakushi temple in Nara, Japan. The 751 c.e. Sokkuram Buddha in Korea is another fine example.


Visions of the various Buddhist paradises were executed with great delicacy and imagery on the walls and ceiling of the viharas and caityas. Mahayana inspired not only lofty images of the Pure Land, but also images of the horrors of hell. Dating to the first century b.c.e. these paintings constitute, as do the bas-reliefs at Bharhut and Sanchi, a testament to the Indian artist’s skill in narrative presentation, composition, and use of color. The majority of Ajanta’s murals date from the fifth and sixth centuries; the tradition continues in the cave paintings of Central Asia and East Asia. The best example of Tang dynasty painting survived on the walls of the kondo at the Horyu-ji in Kyoto until it went up in flames in 1950. East Asian artists used the soft brush to create a diverse corpus of Buddhist paintings. Monochrome ink paintings of the Song dynasty (960-1178 c.e.) inspired great Zen paintings in China and Japan. Most Thai paintings date from the 18th century. The delicate linear drawings, vibrant colors, and textile patterns give Thai paintings a distinctive look.


Parallel to the development of "high" art, Buddhist culture and feeling are also found in folk art. The Japanese aesthetician Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1960) found profound beauty in the humblest and most commonplace utilitarian artifacts produced by unknown craftsmen. Yanagi’s mingei, or folkcraft philosophy, relocates Buddhist art, not to Buddhist subject matter, but to the source of and manner of creativity. The artless spontaneity in the manner in which Korean Yi dynasty (1392-1912 c.e.) ceramic wares and their brushwork were created reveals the Pure Land of Beauty; it is a beauty of the nondual or Buddha mind. The task of the artisan is to give form to this formless mind. Yanagi derived the notion of the "Pure Land of Beauty" from the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra. The Zen philosopher Hisamatsu Shin’ichi (1889-1977) also proposed that the task of the Zen artist is to give form to the Zen experience. Spontaneity required in writing calligraphy is especially suited for mirroring such experiences. For Yanagi and Hisamatsu Buddhist art should express the Buddha mind and experience of the enlightenment; it is not about conveying Buddhist themes.

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