TAIPEI - Buddhism originated in India in the sixth century BCE and underwent more than 1,700 years of development on the subcontinent before the Muslim invasion of the late twelfth century. In the process, Buddhism evolved and its teachings became more and more systematic. With the support of Indian ruling houses and the efforts of Buddhist clergy, the religion spread to Central Asia, China, Tibet, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. From China, the religion also spread further to the Korean Peninsula and Japan. Since then, Buddhism has flourished and now exists in diverse incarnations around Asia.

Across Asia, Buddhist images and sūtras all center on encouraging followers to attain enlightenment, but different styles have emerged in different cultures, hence the large variation in calligraphy and framing and representation of deities. All these have contributed to the diversity and splendor of Asian Buddhist art.

This exhibition comprises five sections: “The Joy of Birth,” “The Wisdom of the Buddha,” “The Compassion of the Bodhisattva,” “Transmission and Transformation of the Buddhist Striptures,” and “The Mystery of Esoteric Buddhism.” Each section presents exhibits side by side in chronological fashion in order to show the similarities and differences in Buddhist art, so that the viewer can appreciate the beauty of Buddhist artworks from different regions during the same period and can see the depth of its philosophical foundations.

Section 1. The Joy of Birth

Legend has it that Siddhārtha, crown prince of Kapilavastu, was born from his mother’s right ribs. He is said to have taken seven steps forward, with lotus flowers blooming in his footsteps. Pointing with one finger to the sky and another to the earth, he proclaimed, “Above and below the sky only I am the World Honored One. The three realms are nothing but suffering and I shall relieve sentient beings of their suffering.” Then, the heavenly kings showered fragrant water on the crown prince, who would later found Buddhism and become known as Śākyamuni. Because of this story, the Buddha’s birthday is also known as the Bathing Buddha Festival. Nowadays, many temples still hold Buddha bathing ceremonies on the Buddha’s birthday. The many infant Buddha statues depicting him pointing one finger to the sky and another to the earth are probably associated with Buddha bathing rites.


Stupa Railing with Tree Goddesses, Mathurā region, India, Kuṣāṇa dynasty (1st century-320), 2nd-3rd century. Sikri sandstone. Height: 93 cm© National Palace Museum

The railing (Skr. vedikā) is made from Sikri sandstone quarried in India’s Mathurā region and was originally part of an ancient stupa. Carved with high-relief yakṣas and lotus, the railing exhibits an iconography commonly seen during the Kuṣāṇa period (1st century-320), and its style is in keeping with many works dated from the second to third century.

The yakṣa (i.e., śālabhañjikā) is a female earth spirit or tree goddess widely worshipped in ancient India prior to the founding of Buddhism. Her wide-hipped, full-breasted figure is a symbol of fertility. The cult of the yakṣa was later absorbed into Buddhism in order to encourage converts, and the yakṣa is regarded as a protector of the Dharma.


Infant Buddha, Ming dynasty (1368-1644), 16th century. Gilt-bronze. Height: 20 cm. Gift of Mr. Peng Kai-dong© National Palace Museum

On the Buddha’s birthday, temples provide purified water, tea, or five-colored water for followers to pour over the shoulders of infant Buddha statues. Because of this ceremonial use, statues tend to be made of bronze and small in size, around 10-30 cm tall.

The iconography is similar to that in Pl. 3 in that the Buddha is also portrayed here without a cranial protuberance. He has a dot (Skr. ūrṇā) on his forehead, plump cheeks, contoured eyes, and a smile. The body is round and the garment reveals his protruding abdomen and waist. This Chinese work probably dates around the sixteenth century.

Section 2. The Wisdom of the Buddha 

Śākyamuni Buddha is the only religious mentor revered in early Buddhism. However, Mahāyāna Buddhism holds that the “Buddha nature” is in every one of us and that in parallel universes there exist many Buddhas, including Maitreya, Amitāyus, and Bhaiṣajyaguru. Buddhist imagery across Asia has been influenced by Indian or Chinese art, but as Buddhist culture has taken root in various other places, regional features with strong ethnic flavors has also developed.


Seated Buddha, Kashmir, India, dated 645 or 653. Brass with silver and copper. Height: 29 cm© National Palace Museum

This brass Buddha has inlaid silver eyes and copper lips, a typical Kashmiri technique. Kashmir had a long Buddhist tradition and the style of its statues shows the heritage of Gandhāran art during the Kuṣāṇa period and Gupta Empire art.

This Buddha performs the wheel-turning gesture (Skr. dharmacakra mudrā) and sits on a lotus throne decorated with lions. The figure’s head is covered with an extravagant arrangement of hair whorls. The realistic modeling of the body and solemn expression are characteristic of Gandhāran art, while the figureclinging robe is in line with the Guptan style. The overall style conforms to the period indicated in the inscription on the base. Features common to Kashmiri royal families can be seen in the donors’ clothing. This mid-seventh-century Kashmiri masterpiece is one of the important works from that area that have been precisely dated, so it is very precious.

Section 3. The Compassion of the Bodhisattva

The essence of Mahāyāna Buddhism is altruism and the central figure is the bodhisattva, who vows to liberate all sentient beings from suffering. Among the many bodhisattvas, the largest followings and the most statues belong to Maitreya, Buddha of the Future, and Avalokiteśvara, bodhisattva of compassion. Their statues have also enjoyed popularity for the longest time and over the greatest area. As Buddhism spread, bodhisattva cults became intertwined with local cultures and new iconographies emerged, such as China’s Guanyin of Fertility and the Kingdom of Dali’s Yizhang Guanyin, which were distinct from those of Indian Buddhism.


Bodhisattva Maitreya, Pakistan (Ancient Gandhāra), Kuṣāṇa dynasty (1st century-320), 3rd century. Schist. Height: 168.5 cm© National Palace Museum

Gandhāra is the name for a historical region that covered parts of present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gandhāran art is strongly influenced by the Hellenistic cultural tradition that was established with the conquests of Alexander the Great, the heyday of which coincided in large part with the rule of the Kuṣāṇa dynasty. This bodhisattva has carefully defined facial features and wavy shoulder-length locks. He wears a shawl, a dhotī (waist cloth), and sumptuous jewelry. The realistically modeled body is strong and upright. 

The gesture of fearlessness and the sacred water flask identify this figure as Maitreya, Buddha of the Future. The many similar extant statues dating from the Kuṣāṇa period attest to Maitreya’s popularity at that time.



Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara Acuoye, Dali Kingdom (Yunnan, 937-1254), First half of 12th century. Gilt-bronze. Height: 52.5 cm. Gift of Mr. Peng Kai-dong© National Palace Museum

Legend has it that Avalokiteśvara Acuoye manifested as an Indian monk and arrived in Yunnan to aid the establishment of Nanzhao. Avalokiteśvara Acuoye was thus the most venerated deity in Nanzhao and the Kingdom of Dali, and the cult is unique to Yunnan in China. 

This gilt-bronze bodhisattva wears a tall crown with a miniature seated Buddha. The ear pendants are similar to those of the standing Avalokiteśvara Yizhang (Pl. 61). The facial shape and features are characteristic of Southeast Asian peoples. The posture is rigid and the body is modeled thin and flat. The torso is naked and adorned with jewelry, and the long skirt is secured with an ornate sash. The origin of these features can be traced back to statues made in Indo-China. This work is very similar to the Avalokiteśvara Acuoye statue commissioned by Emperor Duan Zhengxing (r. 1147-1172), currently in the San Diego Museum of Art in the United States, and probably dates from the same period.

Section 4. Transmission and Transformation of the Buddhist Scriptures

In ancient India, the teachings of Buddha were passed down orally in the beginning, but later on, in order to preserve the teachings of lineages or to facilitate the spreading of Buddhism to other cultural areas in Asia, the Buddhist scriptures were written or inscribed in different languages and scripts. For example, Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit, Pāli, Chinese, or Tibetan represent the various distinctive Buddhist cultures. Similarly, other Buddhist texts, like the Manchu Buddhist canon or the Burmese palm-leaf manuscripts, started to appear in certain local cultural areas, and this also contributed to the diversity of Buddhist scriptures. This section features a variety of Buddhist texts in the National Palace Museum’s collection. Some are the xylograph editions, others hand-written manuscripts. They are not only in different languages but also the framing styles are diverse, depending on their origins in various space and time.



Kangxi Manuscript Kangyur in Tibetan Script, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), completed 1669. Gold ink on indigo paper; Wood planks with gold, pigment and gems. Page size: 33 x 87.5 cm© National Palace Museum

Kangyur, literally meaning “the translation of the Buddha’s words”, is a Tibetan Buddhist canon that consists of scriptures of sūtra and vinaya (monastic codes). The compilation was commissioned by the Grand Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, grandmother of Emperor Kangxi. The project started in the sixth year of the Kangxi era and was completed two years later, in 1669. This manuscript used to be housed in Xianruo Guan in the Forbidden City. It is the most magnificent of the many Kangyur manuscripts transcribed during the Qing dynasty and also the one that receives the most attention.

This voluminous collection of manuscripts has the same order and divisions as the Yongle Kangyur, completed in Nanjing in the eighth year of the Yongle era in the Ming dynasty (1410). The collection is divided into six parts by order of importance: Tantra (esoteric teachings), Prajñāpāramitā (perfection of wisdom), Ratnakūṭa (accumulation of jewels), Avataṃsaka (flower ornament), Mdo sde (miscellaneous Sūtra), and Vinaya (monastic codes). A total of 1,057 Buddhist texts are included in the manuscript. 

Each volume measures 87.5 cm in length and 33 cm in width and contains 300 to 500 leaves. The collection consists of Tibetan script in gold ink on the unique Tibetan Blue Paper (mthing shog). The inner front and back protective cover planks are decorated with seven polychrome painted Buddhist miniatures and inlaid with jewelry, covered by protective curtains embroidered in five colors—red, blue, green, white, and yellow. A piece of silk khata is placed on the wrapped manuscript, then wrapped by three cloths: a piece of plain yellow silk, a piece of yellow wadded cloth, and then a double-layered yellow satin woven with flower patterns. After bundling by a seven-toned wadded bundling strap, the whole set is further sandwiched by two outer protective cover planks, then bound by a five-toned bundling strap, and finally wrapped with a yellow wadded quilt.




The In-between Layer of the Double-layered Yellow Wrapping Satin Woven with Flower Patterns: Gold-embroidered Yellow Satin Featuring coiled Dragons with Patterns of Ruyi, Clouds, and Flowers. Accessory to the Kangxi Manuscript Kangyur in Tibetan Script, Volume “Tha”. Silk, 194 x 203.4 cm© National Palace Museum

Each volume of the Tibetan script Kangxi Kangyur is wrapped in four layers of wrapping cloths. This piece, the third layer, is made of layers of silk fabrics and comes with a seven-toned bundling strap that is 485 cm long and 6.5 cm wide. The top layer of the wrapping cloth is a piece of plain woven yellow silk fabric. The middle layer is a yellow silk fabric decorated with a total of seven coiled dragons in three rows, each embroidered in gold thread and surrounded by an exquisite frame of colorful cloud patterns. The bottom layer is a silk fabric decorated with straw yellow plum blossoms and magnolias.

The wrapping cloth and the Kangyur five-colored curtains were made at the commission of Grand Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang by three weaving bureaus in southern China between the sixth and the eighth year of the Kangxi reign. This piece belongs to the Tha case of the manuscript. 

Section 5. The Mystery of Esoteric Buddhism

Esoteric Buddhism marked the last phase of Buddhism’s development in India. As a way to compete with Hinduism, during this period Buddhism absorbed elements such as traditional mantras, mandalas, and burnt offerings, and multi-faced and multi-armed, wrathfull, and female deity statues started to appear in large numbers. 
Tantra, or Buddhist scriptures on esoteric practices, can be divided into four classes according to their time and contents: Kriya Tantra, Carya Tantra, Yoga Tantra, and Anuttarayoga Tantra. Anuttarayoga Tantra can be further divided into Method-father Tantra and Wisdom-mother Tantra. Esoteric Buddhism practiced during the Tang Dynasty in China and in Japan mainly focused on Carya Tantra and Yoga Tantra, whereas Tibet followed the Anuttarayoga Tantra tradition. Esoteric Buddhist art is rich in contents and diverse in style.


Triad of Vairocana, Four-armed Lokeśvara, and Prajñāpāramitā, Thailand or Cambodia Khmer Empire (802-1432), Late 12th-early 13th century. Gilt-bronze Height: 22 cm. Gift of Mr. Peng Kai-dong© National Palace Museum

This triad is in a style typical of the Khmer Empire (802-1431). The Buddha in the middle performs the gesture of meditation and is seated on the coils of a seven-headed serpent whose hoods form a canopy. The two attendants are Four-armed Lokeśvara and Prajñāpāramitā. 

This iconography used to be attributed to the story of the Buddha and Mucalinda the serpent king, as related in Theravāda Buddhist texts such as the Abhiniṣkramaṇa Sūtra. However, recent studies suggest that the central seated figure is the Vairocana Buddha, venerated in the esoteric tradition, and that the iconography may relate to the spread of the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha tantra in Khmer from the 10th century on. The fact that the two attendant figures are also Esoteric Buddhist deities lends support to this theory. 


Knife Mahākāla, Central Tibet; Densatil style Ming dynasty (1368-1644), 14th-15th century. Gilt-copper with semiprecious stones and pigment. Height: 32.6 cm.Gift of Mr. Peng Kai-dong© National Palace Museum

This one-headed, two-armed Mahākāla holds a flaying knife (Skr. kartrika) in the raised right hand and a blood-filled skull cup (kapala) in the left. He stands with the right leg bent and the left straight, and has three staring eyes, bared fangs, a curled tongue, and moustaches and hair that flow upwards. The stocky deity wears a crown of five dry human skulls, a necklace of fifty wet heads, and a tiger-skin skirt. 

This richly gilded statue is inlaid with gemstones of various colors, and the splendid style is characteristic of the statues at Densatil (Tib. gDan sa mthil) monastery in central Tibet. The monastery was founded in 1158 by Phagmo Drupa Dorje gyalpo (Phag mo gru pa rDo rje rgyal po, 1110-1170) and received long-term support from the Lang (rLangs) family, who defeated the Sakya (Sa skyas) in the mid- 14th century to become the most powerful regime in Tibet. 


Durgā Mahiṣāsuramardinī, Northeastern India or Bangladesh, Pāla dynasty (750-1199), 12th century. Copper with traces of gilding. Height: 38.5 cm© National Palace Museum

Durgā in Sanskrit means “hard to approach”. She is the wrathful manifestation of Pārvatī, the consort of Śiva, and the most important deity of the Śaktist school. Followers of the school believe that Śakti (the primordial cosmic energy) is Brahma (the energy that brings the universe into existence). 

This work depicts the story of ten-armed Durgā slaying the demon buffalo. While the severed buffalo head lies on the pedestal, the true demon-an asura-springs forth from the wound. Durgā’s left leg tramples the buffalo’s body and one of her main hands grabs the asura, while the other transfixes him with a trident. 

The polygonal pedestal, boat-shaped mandorla, and flames in serrated patterns are characteristic of statuary of the late Pāla dynasty (750-1199). This work exhibits impressive dynamism and power.