Building on a religion

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 May, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 May, 1994, 12:00am

Buddhist Art and Architecture by Robert E Fisher Thames and Hudson $102 IT is now accepted that it was from India that Buddhist sculptural art, drawing its inspiration from the Greeks, spread north and east, ultimately shaping the cultures of that vast area encompassing Tibet, China and Japan.

By the beginning of the Christian era, a fundamental development in Buddhist art occurred with the emergence of two schools of Buddhist thought, the Theravada and the Mahayana. The two schools laid different emphases on their forms of worship and the scales of their images. The Theravadins preferred simplicity and shunted the ornate. The Mahayana school spurred on and churned out the most prolific, diverse and opulent Buddhist art. New dimensions were created, local gods were pulled into the Buddhist pantheon of celestial beings, new forms of architecture incorporating the most elaborate designs and settings were invented and ultimately it was Mahayana art that helped Buddhism to encompass more than a third of mankind.

Robert Fisher's small, highly-illustrated book sets out to cover an enormous and fascinating subject but in reality it would take many volumes to do justice to this topic.

Fisher is a scholar with two distinguished mentors, Charles D Weber and Pratapaditya Pal, both of whom are well-known to students of Asian art and culture. Even though this is his first book (he has written many articles and catalogues), it is well thought out and easy to read.

His aim has been to provide a concise introduction to Buddhist art and architecture and to this end the book must count as a success. The only problem is that it is a mite ambitious to attempt to cover the subject so concisely.

Chapter One covers the origins of the faith in India and its spread to neighbouring countries. In the ancient kingdom of Kushan (part of present-day Afghanistan) we see the splendid first emergence of Greek-inspired Gandharan Buddhist sculpture and its spread eastward into central Asia and China.

Buddhist art's spread through the sub-continent and to Sri Lanka and the Himalayas is also followed. However, Fisher's coverage of Buddhist Tibet (a vast subject) is, at just nine pages, far from sufficient and no more than a rudimentary introduction.

Chapter Two's 39 pages takes up the growth of Buddhism from central Asia to China along the silk road. The author rightly concentrates on the importance of the cave shrines in places like Dunhuang and Longmen in the development of Buddhist art.

The development of the Chinese pagoda is also reviewed and its derivation from the earliest stupas is chronicled. By the time of the Mings, Buddhist art had been so completely synthesised into Chinese culture that it had almost lost its Buddhist origins and meaning.

The assimilation of Chinese Buddhist art into the arts of Korea and Japan is dealt with in Chapter Three. The reader can follow the development of Korea's own distinct image of the contemplative Bodhisattva with one leg across the other and fingers resting on the cheek. Japanese Buddhist art and architecture is given fuller coverage and traces briefly but pleasantly the important role that Buddhism played and continues to play in that country.

The last chapter's 36 pages on Southeast Asia bravely attempts to cover Buddhism's role in the artistic development of Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Java where the classical temple of that great Buddhist shrine Borobudur is located.

Borobudur today (unlike Angkor Wat in Cambodia) is in pristine condition following its renovation by UNESCO and is sadly missed by most tourists who head for Bali. Somewhat abruptly Fisher ends his story in Java and surprisingly makes no attempt at a closing overall assessment of the vast area and topics he has covered.

Buddhist Art and Architecture is a quick traveller's guide to the topic and as long as the reader remains aware of the book's limitations and that it doesn't pretend to be scholarly, it is a handy introduction.