The Ultimate Jadeite Jade Buddhas

The motivation behind Jade Buddha is to offer a comprehensive overview of Buddhism including the origination and use of the jade mineral in Buddhist sculpture. This motivation has been based on my extensive travels through Asia over the last several years. The Buddhist artwork I have seen on the Asian continent is very inspirational and this is also where the religion of Buddhism was founded. The use of jade and jadeite in Buddhist sculpture is due to the mutual qualities that are evident in the mineral and the religion. As a result, jade Buddhas are common in jade markets across East and SE Asia.

In East Asia, green jade is a common base material that is used to carve Buddha statues. Jade Buddha statues that depict the ubiquitous Buddhist icons such as Guanyin and Happy Buddha are most popular in China. The popularity of these jade Buddha statues is due to several reasons. In ancient China, they believed that jade was crystallized moonlight that had fallen down onto the mountaintops. Additionally, jade has calming properties that reduce stress and increase confidence levels. These qualities seem to mesh with the objectives of Buddhist meditation  – that being inner calm, self reflection and tranquility.

The Source of Jade Buddha Statues

The two forms of jade are nephrite jade and jadeite. Jadeite is the denser and more translucent mineral. It is also lacking the long ancient history that nephrite jade has enjoyed in China. Additionally, jadeite has mineral qualities that are closer to a diamond and it is therefore more expensive. Since top grades of jadeite jade are much more expensive than nephrite jade it is prohibitively expensive to make even a small of mid size jade Buddha statues. Therefore, the imperial jadeite and other jadeite Buddhas are usually smaller versions such as pendants or figurines.

Additionally, the largest source in the world for jadeite is in Myanmar and it is not sourced in China. However, the primary source for jadeite in Myanmar is in the northern state of Kachin. This rich jadeite source sits right on the southern border of China. The combination of the world’s largest source of jadeite with the world’s biggest market for jade is very good for business. As a result, there are many skilled sculptures and the best jade Buddha statues can be found in this area.

Nephrite jade is also a much sought after mineral source. Additionally, large sources of nephrite jade have been found in China. However, due to it’s immense popularity over many centuries many of the original sources are now mined out. Therefore, it is necessary to import the nephrite jade products from other sources such as Canada and Australia. However, the best sculptors of jade Buddha statues are still found in China and other East Asian countries.

History of Jade

The use of jade in China goes back over 5000 years and it’s use predates Buddhism by a large margin. In China, jade symbolizes a connection between the living and the dead. As a result it is used as part of ancient burial rituals. For example small squares of jade would be tied together with metal wire and draped over the deceased to cover the entire body. Once this burial suit was in place then other pieces of jade would be used to cover up the eyes, mouth and nose.  Due to the high cost, this ritual was only used for royal burial ceremonies.

As Buddhism spread into East Asia from Northern India it was only natural that the Chinese sculptures would begin to create jade Buddha statues. Jade has calming qualities that entice inner reflection. These qualities are also imbued by the the Buddhist deities that evolved in China. Therefore, jade Buddha statues of Chinese deities such as Kwanyin and Happy Buddha are very common.

The Origins of Buddhism

The origins of Buddhism date back to the 6th century BCE when Prince Siddhartha Gautama renounced his kingdom and left the trappings of power, wealth and comfort behind.  Siddhartha went to live as a recluse in the forest for 6 years. During this time period he received instruction from samatha meditation masters. However, the next stage was to discover vipassana meditation which he did on his own. As a result, Siddhartha Gautama would discover the path to enlightenment. The foundation of Buddhism was now established and he would become known as Gautama Buddha or Shakyamuni Buddha.

The geographical region that Buddhism originated in was Northern India. Specifically, Buddhist believe that the location where the Buddha reached enlightenment is in a place called Bodh Gaya which is located in modern day Gaya District in the Indian state of Bihar.  It is in Bodh Gaya that Buddhism was born. From Bodh Gaya, Buddhism spread throughout Asia and worldwide. Although the location of most Buddhist devotees is in Asia, there are currently over 500 million adherents worldwide.

The spread of Buddhism throughout Asia did not follow a straight line. From its point of origination Buddhism simultaneously spread north towards Central Asia and south to the island of Sri Lanka. From Sri Lanka, Buddhism traveled to South East Asian countries such as Burma, Laos and Thailand. The countries of SE Asia have stuck to their conservative Buddhist roots. However, from Central Asia and SE Asia Buddhism would move into China. From China it would spread to Tibet and also to countries in the Far East such as Japan and Korea. As a result of geographical divisions Buddhism would become segmented.

The Divisions in Buddhism

The first divisions in Buddhism arose after the death of its founder, Shakyamuni Buddha. During the Buddha’s lifetime his teachings were passed on orally by his disciples. The first council was held and the Buddha was present. From this first council there was no disagreement. However, after the death of the Buddha divisions in the sangha began to appear at the second meeting of the Buddhist council. The disagreement was over nominal issues and the core teachings of the Buddha were not questioned. However, the seeds of discontent were sown. As a result, in 250 BCE the third Buddhist council was held and this is when Theravada Buddhism originated.

Theravada Buddhism

This branch of Buddhism is the oldest and most orthodox of the 3 Buddhist divisions. Theravada is based on the original teachings of the Buddha. Generally speaking, in Theravada Buddhism it is agreed that all mental and physical phenomenon that we encounter in the world is subject to 3 rules. All phenomenon is impermanent, unsatisfactory and has no substance to it (no self). The focus of Theravada Buddhism is on self improvement of the individual. Through living a moral life and practicing meditation one can see the true nature of things and achieve the state of Nirvana (enlightenment). This is the ultimate goal of Theravada Buddhism – entering Nirvana.

Adherents to Theravada Buddhism are found in Sri Lanka, Laos, Thailand and Burma. In these countries any disagreements between the different Theravada schools remain nominal and there is nothing significance to dispute.

Burma (now Myanmar) is the world’s largest source of Jadeite jade. The abundance of this precious mineral and the Buddhist dedication of the country make it one of the world’s best sources of jadeite jade Buddha statues outside China. However, the focus is more on the Buddha statue and not so much the popular bodhisattvas such as Kwanyin and Budai or “Happy Buddha”. As a result of quality materials, skilled workmanship and fair prices the jade markets in Yangon are a very good place to find a high quality jadeite jade Buddha statue.

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism is very difficult to describe. However, generally speaking the goal is to become a bodhisattva instead of directly seeking Buddhahood. Additionally, this segment of Buddhism originated and began to gain traction at about the start of the common era. Therefore, it is about 250 years younger than Theravada. Geographically, most of the Mahayana followers can be found throughout China, Japan and Korea.

The path to Buddhahood is not an easy one and it requires extreme levels of dedication and practice. All Buddhists believe that enlightenment is the ultimate goal. However, it is clear that becoming a Buddha in a single lifetime is not a practical for most common people. Mahayana can be viewed as a populist form of Buddhism while Theravada is focused on the individual.

Bodhisattvas

In contrast to the Theravada school, Mahayana Buddhism is very diverse and complex. The primary focus of Mahayana is on the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is a being that has obtained enlightenment but has chosen to forgo accepting it. Instead, the Bodhisattva will stay behind and assist others until all sentient life is able to reach enlightenment.

The bodhisattva is said to embody the compassion of all the Buddhas. A primary bodhisattva is known as Avalokitesvara. Indeed, it takes great compassion in order to delay one’s own enlightenment in order to assist others. As a result, the Avalokitesvara bodhisattva exploded into thousands of pieces upon realizing the enormity of the commitment that had been undertaken.  Amitabha Buddha put Avalokitesvara back together again and he gave the bodhisattva one thousand arms in order to work more efficiently to assist sentient life. Additionally, he gave Avalokitesvara 11 heads in order to better observe the cries and suffering of humanity.

Bodhisattvas also have special power to grant forgiveness and give karmic merit to sentient beings in order to ease their suffering. This is in contrast to the focus of Theravada on self improvement. Additionally, the Buddhist canon states that bodhisattvas can be male or female or take any other form in order to assist sentient beings. This explains why statues of Avalokitesvara can be depicted as male and also female. Plus, there are many variations based on the multi arm and multi headed embodiment of this popular bodhisattva.

Green Tara

There is a particular female bodhisattva named Green Tara who is very popular among devotees of Mahayana Buddhism. The color green is very significant because devotees believe that the green color signifies vigor and rebirth in nature. Green Tara was born from a teardrop that fell form the left eye of Avalokitesvara. However, it is not common to find jadeite jade Buddha statues depicting Green Tara.  Although jade Buddha statues depicting Quanyin and Happy Buddha are immensely popular in China and geographical regions that have large Chinese populations.

Buddhist Art

Furthermore, in contrast to the core principles of Theravada Buddhism such as no-self, bodhisattvas and Buddhas in Mahayana Buddhism have taken on the qualities of deities. As a result, devotees pray to them in hopes of gaining earthly favor such as wealth or fertility. Also, bodhisattvas and Buddhas can grant beings entry into special “pure lands.” The “pure land” of Amitabha Buddha is described as being a land of “sonorous and visual delights”.

As a result of Mahayana, the diversity of Buddhist art was greatly enhanced and this was seen in the creation of Buddhist paintings and jade Buddha statues. It is pretty clear that Mahayana Buddhism is a source of great artistic inspiration that has had a profound effect on the perception of Buddhism.

Bodhisattvas

The Most Popular Bodhisattvas

A bodhisattva is a venerated figure in both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.  However, the primary difference in the 2 main Buddhist schools is that attaining the level of bodhisattva is central to Mahayana belief. Whereas, in Theravada Buddhism becoming a full Buddha is the objective.

Meitreya Bodhisattva

Meitreya is known as the Buddha of the future. However, in the present he is still a bodhisattva who is waiting in a special place. It is Buddhist prophecy that Meitreya will return to the human realm in the distant future and achieve Buddhahood in a single lifetime. In his time the the sangha will have forgotten the Dharma teachings of Gautama Buddha and fallen into severe disarray. Meitreya bodhisattva will return and then lead all sentient life to nirvana.

Therefore, Meitreya is a very important figure in Buddhist belief and he has tremendous responsibility. Additionally, he is of great significance because he is similar to Siddhartha Gautama before he achieved Buddhahood. Siddhartha became the Buddha of the current era. However, he was also a Bodhisattva before he achieved the ultimate goal. Meitreya is the future Buddha and until his time comes he will remain a bodhisattva.

Meitreya is very popular in China. The largest stone Buddha statue in the world represents Meitreya and it was completed in Leshan, China in 803 ACE. However, the project was initiated in 713 ACE and took nearly 100 years to complete.

The mastermind of this majestic Meitreya statue was a monk named Hai Tong. Hai Tong had great compassion and he endured great self sacrifice to ensure that the project was completed.

Leshan Buddha StatueLeshan Buddha Statue

Incarnations of Meitreya – Chinese Buddhists believe that a monk named Budai or “Happy Buddha” is an incarnation of the Meitreya bodhisattva. This incarnation of Meitreya was believed to have existed in China in the early 10th century ACE. His name means “cloth sack” in Chinese because he always carried a cloth sack over his shoulder filled with his few possessions.  Additionally, he is seen as bringing good fortune and always carried treats for children in his sack.

Additionally, Happy Buddha was very fat and this is how he is reflected in Buddha statues. He also is sometimes depicted with children climbing on his large body. Furthermore, it is thought that if you rub his belly it can bring you luck.

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva

Buddhists believe that the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara embodies the compassion of all the Buddhas. This is a tremendous amount of compassion for any one being to hold. As a result, Avalokitesvara pledged to remain a bodhisattva and continue working in the human realm until all sentient life was relieved from suffering. However, when the magnitude of this promise was fully realized Avalokitesvara was said to have blown up into a thousand pieces.

The injury from the implosion was not fatal and Amitabha Buddha provided assistance by putting the pieces of Avalokitesvara back together again. Although during the reconstruction Amitabha decided it would be prudent to make some practical improvements. As a result, he gave Avalokitesvara 1000 arms and 11 heads. With many arms and heads Avalokitesvara would be able to work much faster and also observe the suffering of sentient life much more efficiently.

AvalokitesvaraAvalokitesvara

The changing forms of the bodhisattva is considered normal. In fact, in the Buddhist canon it is explained that a bodhisattva can take the form of a male or female or any other form in order to relieve the suffering of sentient beings.

However, the way that the bodhisattva is depicted in Buddhist art seems to be contingent on the geographical region and the school of Buddhist thought that is adhered to there. As a result, different cultures have adopted different interpretations about whether the bodhisattva’s attributes are masculine or feminine. For example, it seems that conservative Theravada Buddhist countries have considered Avalokitesvara to be male. However, in Mahayana Buddhist countries such as China, Japan and Korea the bodhisattva is usually female.

Chenrezig

In Tibet Avalokitesvara is called Chenrezig and he is depicted as masculine. Additionally, he is always depicted with multiple arms although not always multiple heads.

Lokesvara Bodhisattva

In Cambodia, Lokesvara is a male bodhisattva that is believed to be an embodiment of Avalokitesvara. As a result, Buddha statues and paintings of him are overwhelmingly masculine.

LokesvaraLokesvara Bodhisattva

Guanyin Bodhisattva

In China there is a very popular female bodhisattva called Quanyin. She is widely believed by Chinese Buddhists to be an embodiment of Avalokitesvara. However, since the Chinese believe that compassion is a female attribute, the depictions of the bodhisattva usually always female.

Additionally, Chinese Buddhists believe that an incarnation of Guanyin appeared in the 10th-11th century ACE as the Princess Miaoshan. It is interesting to note that some scholars believe the story has its origins in Taoism and not Buddhism.

Princess Miaoshan

Princess Miaoshan’s father was very demanding and when she came of age he ordered her to marry a wealthy man that he had chosen. However, the princess refused and would only agree to marry a man who could help to ease the suffering of sentient beings. When she suggested to her father that she be allowed to marry a doctor, he became enraged. As a result, (according to some versions of the story) the king ordered that the princess be executed.

On the day of her execution, the executioner was unable to end her life after many tries. Although she could have saved herself she knew the king would do something terrible to the executioner if she was still alive. Therefore, she allowed the executioner to take her life and she took all of his bad karma and replaced with it with her own good karma. As a result, upon her death she was condemned to a Hell realm because she had the bad karma of a murderer. However, she refused to be tormented and instead played music. The realm of torment was then transformed into a realm of heaven.

GuanyinGuanyin Bodhisattva

Tara Bodhisattva

Tara is female bodhisattva that was born from a teardrop that fell from the eye of Avalokitesvara. One day in ancient times, Avalokitesvara was looking down from the Tibetan plateau to observe the suffering of all sentient life. As a result, a teardrop fell from the left eye of the bodhisattva’s eye and Tara came to be at that moment.

Tara can be perceived in many ways. There is Green Tara, White Tara, Black Tara plus many others. Green Tara is depicted in Buddhist sculpture as always being prepared to spring to the aid of humanity. Additionally, Tara is commonly depicted with lotus flowers growing over her shoulders. Also, the hand mudras she uses display generosity and protection to all sentient life.

Additional sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guanyin

Buddhas

“Thousand Buddhas”

Theoretically, there are many Buddhas that have existed over a time period of many eons. Typically, there is one Buddha for a life cycle. It seems that a “life cycle” is not defined by one human life span. Instead the life cycle lasts over many thousands of years. As a result, the best way to cover the topic of Buddhas is to start at the very beginning with the Adi-Buddha or primordial Buddha.

Adi Buddha

Adi Buddha is believed to be the ultimate primordial Buddha. However, similar to the bodhisattvas, Adi-Buddha is know by many names depending on the geographical region. For example, in Tibet he is known as Samantabhadra or Vajradhara. In East Asia this Buddha is known as Vairocana.

In Sanskrit, Vajra translates as “diamond” or “lightening bolt”. As a result, in Tibetan Buddhism he is considered to be the supreme essence of all male Buddhas or the “Ruler of the Vajra Beings.

However, by referring to this Buddha as primordial it is not actually a man but instead Adi Buddha represents the wisdom that always existed in the universe. Therefore, it is not actually a person but instead it represents the innate form of wisdom in the universe.

The concept of a primordial Buddha is the same as picturing our universe before it became an organized system of stars and solar systems held together and put in motion by gravity. Before this time all the elements for an organized universe existed but they had not worked in unison. The concept of primordial or innate wisdom is similar.

The Buddhas Of Our Time

Buddhists believe that there are three Buddhas of our time. There is the Buddha of the past (Dipankara), the Buddha of the present (Gautama Buddha) and the Buddha of the future (Meitreya).

Although Meitreya is not actually a Buddha at this time, instead it is foreseen that he will be the Buddha of the future. As a result, he is technically a bodhisattva until he reaches Buddhahood.  Each Buddha is responsible for teaching the Dharma to the sentient life that exists in their eon or “life cycle”.

Dipankara Buddha

Dipankara Buddha is known as the first Buddha of our time. He is thought to have existed here on earth about 100,000 years ago. An enormous amount of time has passed since Dipankara Buddha walked the earth. As a result, trying to recreate the physical features of Dipankara is a bit obscure. In contrast,  Shakyamuni Buddha walked the earth over 2000 years ago but we have a general idea of what he may have looked like. This is because the “32 Physical Characteristics of the Buddha” are found in the Pali Canon.

Dipankara Buddha statues usually depict him as a sitting Buddha. Also common in Tibet, China and Nepal are standing Buddha statues that show him using the Abhaya mudra with one or both hands. Additionally, Dipankara Buddha was believed to have been one of the “Buddhas of Bamiyan” that existed in Afghanistan prior to their destruction in 2001.

Jataka Tales

Gautama Buddha was also a bodhisattva in many or his prior lifetimes and he recounts these past lives in the Jataka Tales. In one previous incarnation he existed as a hermit named Sumedha. The hermit Sumedha had previously lived the life of a rich Brahmin and had since become a renunciant. During his new life as a hermit he had an encounter with Dipankara Buddha. This encounter is depicted in wall frescoes that exist in many Buddhist stupas and temples.

The Coming of Shakyamuni

The Buddhist artwork shows the hermit Sumedha laying down his long dark hair in a mud puddle. This is so that Dipankara Buddha can walk through it without becoming dirty. Dipankara then approaches Sumedha and says to him

“in the ages of the future you will come to be a Buddha called Shakyamuni”.

Sumedha then replied to Dipankara:

“I am to become a Buddha, awakened to enlightenment, may you tread with your feet on my hair – on my birth, old age and death.”

Then Dipankara Buddha responds by saying that:

“Freed from human existence, you will become an effective teacher, for the sake of the world. Born among the Shakyas, as the epitome of the Triple World, the Lamp of all Beings, you will be known as Gautama. You will be the son of King Suddhodana and Queen Maya. Shariputta and Moggallana will be your chief disciples. Your caretaker will name as Ananda.”

In this life cycle sentient beings received the Dharma teachings from Shakyamuni Buddha. As a result, Dipankara Buddha is not at the forefront in contemporary Buddhism in the same way as Shakyamuni.

Nonetheless, Dipankara is widely known and venerated by devotees. Starting in the 1600s Nepalese communities believed Dipankara was associated with alms giving and that he protected merchants as they traveled abroad. Additionally, Dipankara is believed to provide protection to sailors and their ships. Therefore, statues of him can be found along the coastlines.

Shakyamuni Buddha

The exact birth date of Siddhartha Gautama is not known with certainty. However, it is estimated that his birthday is sometime between 563 BCE and 480 BCE. His birthplace was in northern India however in present times the location is Lumbini, Nepal. Lumbini is now located in south central Nepal near the border with India.

Additionally, it is believed that on the night he was conceived his mother had a dream that a white elephant with tusks entered her right side. Then 9 months later Siddhartha was born.  As was the tradition at the time, his mother attempted to travel to her father’s kingdom in order to give birth. However, she would not arrive in time and her new son was born in Lumbini on the side of the road under a sal tree.

As was his way in many of his past lives recounted in the Jataka Tales, Siddhartha would renounce his kingdom in exchange for a life of solitude and austerity. Indeed Siddhartha was born a prince and he renounced his kingdom when he was 29 years old. Throughout his life he had been overcome with compassion for sentient life and he wished to end the suffering of all sentient beings.

Siddhartha Gautama obtained enlightenment 6 years later. He spent the remaining 40 years of his life teaching the Dharma and died when he was 80 years old. In present times, it is estimated that Buddhism has 500 million followers worldwide.

The Future Buddha

The future Buddha is known as a bodhisattva named Meitreya. Meitreya is waiting in a special place until his time has come to reteach the Dharma to sentient life. It is foreseen that he will return at a time when the sangha has fallen into disarray and forgotten the Dharma. Meitreya will become a Buddha and lead all sentient life to their awakening.

Additional sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adi-Buddha
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C4%ABpankara_Buddha