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 sculptors 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.
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 statues 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 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.
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.
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.
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.