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Source and Course of Buddhist Painting

Buddhist painting originated from the Sakyamuni period between the 6th century BC and the 5 century BC. According to the record, after Sakyamuni became a Buddha, a rich merchant called Loneliness Sending Elder became a devotee of him. The merchant bought a garden in Shewei City for Sakyamuni Buddha; he built a living room, store, depot, hall and bathroom in the garden; he also drew Buddhist painting on walls of buildings in the garden. This was the origin of Buddhist painting.

Early Buddhists believed that Sakyamuni was indescribable, and couldn't be shown exactly and clearly. That's also why Sakyamuni didn't appear in Indian Buddhist painting for more than 200 years. It was until the reign of King Asoka (273-232BC) in India that symbolization was employed in relief and painting to indicate the past life and present life of Buddha. For example, a footprint would be carved in the place Buddha arrived at, and a dharma wheel, throne, or bodhi tree in the place of doctrine teaching. The figure of Buddha didn't appear until the Gandhara period in the 2nd century.

Record of the Chinese Buddhist painting appeared in the reign of Emperor Mingdi (58-75) of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). However, Chinese Buddhist painting did not enter into a prosperous period until the Wei and Jin (265-420), Southern and Northern Dynasties Period (386-581). Representative artists of Buddhist paintings of this period were Dai Kui, Gu Kaizhi, Cao Zhongda, Zhang Zengyao. Representative painting works included Five-Generation Buddha by Dai Kui, the Portrait of Vimalakirti by Gu Kaizhi and Jade Buddha sent by Lion Kingdom (today's Sri Lanka) were three masterpieces of Buddhist paintings.

The painting style of the early and mid Tang Dynasty (618-907) represented by Wu Daozi and Zhou Fang was famed for vivid murals in temples. Wu Daozi was good at painting Buddha figures, long murals in particular. He painted murals on walls of three hundred rooms in Chang'an and Luoyang cities. He was capable of painting glory, pillars and beams in just one stroke, and was appraised as Holy Painter". His representative work was Diyu Bianxiang (The Palace of the Hell). The Picture of Six Buddhas painted by Wu Daozi and Lu Lengjia is a famous extant Buddhist painting.

Painting Indian Monk in Red and the Portrait of Amitabha by Zhao Mengfu, Arhats, Sakyamuni Buddhist Meeting by Ding Yunpeng in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) are all famous paintings.

Types of Buddhist Painting

Buddhist painting can be divided into two categories: drawing and image.

Drawing refers to a painting with one figure, or many different figures depicting a story as the principal part. For example, Eighteen Arhats is a picture with eighteen arhats painted in one or several pictures, but these pictures only show the different looks and postures of the arhats and there is no connection between them. The painting Eighteen Arhats Cross the Sea describes different activities of eighteen arhats when they cross the sea together.

Image refers to a painting with only one figure, or with many figures only with every figure's looks highlighted.

Buddhist images fall into seven categories by content, namely Buddha, Bodhisattva, Ming King, arhats (including pratyeka arhats), the Dragon Chronicles, eminent monks, and Buddhist mandala.

Buddha drawings can be divided into six categories in terms of content: Buddha, Noumenon, sutra painting, story, mountain & temple, and miscellaneous.

Besides the above, there are paintings of "water and land Buddhist service, which is a kind of Buddhist painting that mix drawings and images.

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