Placing Gods in the Iconographic Program of Buddhist Temples

By: Tianshu Zhu  

Depictions of various gods constitute a substantial part of Buddhist art. They are also essential in the iconographic plan of Buddhist temples in both India and China. In India, as shown at the early stūpa and cave sites survived to the present day, it is the images of gods that first appeared at the Buddhist monasteries even before the appearance of the Buddha image. Various supernatural beings are natural existence in the Buddhist cosmology. The Buddha and the Buddhist community of all the times were in the constant interaction with various deities. Gods of different natures function differently, and accordingly appear at different locations in Buddhist art. In India, images of chthonic territory deities, mainly yakṣas and nāgas, first appear in temple plans. Along with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the ideas about gods in Buddhist teachings and practices were also introduced into China. In China after the tenth century, the plan of a Buddhist temple became standardized. In a typical Chinese Buddhist temple, deities of different functions--as the protectors of the Dharma, the Buddhist community, the temple, and local earth god--are all incorporated into the iconographic program. This paper studies the layout of the images of various deities in temple plan and traces their history. By comparing and contrasting India and China, ultimately, the study aims to shed light on gods in Buddhism and the mechanism in culture transmission.

Gods, Buddhism, Location, Function
Religious Community and Socialization
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Tianshu Zhu

associat professor, Department of History , University of Macau, Macao