Enlarge Image

Deities and Devotion in Mongolian Buddhist Art

Shakyamuni Buddha Calling the Earth to Witness His Enlightenment
19th century
Pigments and gold on sized cloth; silver and glass case
12.1 x 10.2 cm

Gift of David Kamansky and Gerald Wheaton, 2014.23.330.1a-c

Tradition says that when Shakyamuni was on the cusp of achieving enlightenment, the demon Mara tried to distract him with doubts and temptations. By remaining steadfast in his meditation, Shakyamuni gained a true understanding of existence that became the basis for all of his subsequent teachings. When the frustrated Mara mockingly asked Shakyamuni who would bear witness to his enlightenment, Shakyamuni calmly touched the ground in front of him and the Earth itself responded, “I am his witness.”

Because the Buddhist faith began with the moment of Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, the earth-touching story appears frequently in all traditions of Buddhist art. This painting follows a common iconographic formula for the subject, depicting Shakyamuni sitting cross-legged on a lotus-form pad wearing a monk’s robes. His left hand rests in his lap holding an alms bowl to signify his renunciation of worldly possessions, while his right hand touches the ground in front of him to signify his enlightenment. His skin radiates a golden light to signify the absolute purity of his body, mind and speech, and he is surrounded by an auspicious, rainbow-colored mandorla.

The reverse side of the painting is inscribed with five Sanskrit characters written in red ink. The five characters—oṃ āh hūm svā hā—constitute a mantra, or sacred phrase, that focuses a believer’s attention in meditation and promotes spiritual development. Mantras were often written on the back of Mongolian Buddhist paintings to consecrate the images and empower them for use in ritual practices.

References: Meinert, Carmen (ed.). Buddha in the Yurt: Buddhist Art from Mongolia, Volumes 1 & 2. Munich: Hirmer Publishers, 2011, pp. 94-101 and 110-111; Huntington, John C. and Bangdel, Dina. The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art. Columbus: Columbus Museum of Art, 2003, pp. 62-63; Lang, Maria-Katharina and Bauer, Stefan (eds.). The Mongolian Collections: Retracing Hans Leder. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences, 2013, p. 39.