Text Essay 4
Devotional Objects

Introduction: Devotional Objects
Buddhist art has a purpose, a reason for being: to help people understand and experience the Buddha’s teachings. The artworks sooth suffering, teach concepts, tell stories, aid meditation and prayer, and express devotion. Some are even designed to hasten release from the cycle of samsara, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

Unlike much of the work of traditional European and American artists, the creators of Buddhist art are very often anonymous and followed centuries of unchanging tradition. The sculpture, paintings, mandalas, and other artworks seen on the Visions of Enlightenment website are all devotional objects and were created to be elements of altars, temples, stupas, and private devotional spaces.

VajraMore about this artwork: The vajra is a type of scepter that is used in esoteric Buddhist rituals in Tibet and Japan. It is such an important object in esoteric Buddhism that the Vajrayana ("Vajra Vehicle") tradition is named after it.

Often called a "diamond" or a "thunderbolt" in English, the vajra symbolizes the power of the Buddha's teachings to cut through ignorance and help us attain enlightenment. It also represents the male force in the universe and is often paired with the bell, the female force. Many Buddhist deities are depicted holding a vajra in one of their hands.

Tibet, c.1500
Gilded bronze
Pacific Asia Museum Collection
Gift of David Kamansky in honor of Zelma Long, 2001.13.3

1. Begging Bowls
When Siddhartha Gautama began his meditation under the bodhi tree, a young woman named Sujata offered him a golden bowl of rice. He divided it into portions to take him through the meditation leading to his enlightenment and then threw the bowl into the river. A monk, after all, should have no attachment to possessions.

Today, monks own few material goods, but a begging bowl that recalls the Buddha’s rice bowl is often one of the most important objects in their daily lives. Many monks in Thailand, for example, collect their daily food in their begging bowls and depend on people in the community for sustenance.

In traditional Tibetan Buddhism, lamas and other spiritual leaders drink beverages from cups shaped like or made from skulls, recalling wrathful deities drinking the blood of their victims and reminding worshipers of the impermanence of life.

The Buddha ThangkaBase for Skull CupSkull Cup





Painting of the Buddha and other Deities (detail)

Tibet, 19th century
Ink and opaque watercolor pigments and gold on cotton
Anonymous Loan

Base for Skull Cup
Tibet, 19th century
Human skull, silver, coral
Pacific Asia Museum Collection
Gift from the Collection of Harold and Jane Ullman, 1991.67.36

Skull Cup
Tibet, 19th century
Human skull, silver, coral

Pacific Asia Museum Collection
Gift from the Collection of Harold and Jane Ullman, 1991.67.36

2. Prayer Beads
In all Buddhist cultures, monks and lay practitioners use prayer beads or rosaries to help them count their prayers and incantations. They are usually round, but in some cases, they are carved in the form of human skulls, a reminder of the impermanence of life. Traditionally, Buddhist rosaries have 108 beads, representing the 108 human passions, or enough beads to say the Buddha’s name 100 times with a few left over in case the worshipper loses count. Some smaller Chinese rosaries have 18 beads, one for each lohan.

Even the beads that fasten the string together have a meaning: they symbolize the three jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the dharma (his teachings), and the Buddhist community. The string passing through the beads stands for the power of all the Buddhas that runs through everything.

Prayer Beads in the Shape of SkullsPlain BeadsPrayer Beads in the Shape of Skulls
Pacific Asia Museum Collection
Gift of Elizabeth M. Marshall, 84.80.54

Plain Beads
Burma (Myanmar)
Pacific Asia Museum Collection
Gift of Elizabeth M. Marshall, 84.80.51

3. The Prayer Wheel
Buddhists use the five senses to reach the deities: the smell of incense wafts to heaven, offerings of fruit and food evoke the sense of taste, the beauty of the Prayer Wheelaltar and the texture of the objects on it please the eye and the sense of touch. Finally, worshippers read or chant sacred texts and phrases. The sound of these mantras such as Om mane padme hum or “Praise to the Jewel in the Lotus,” pay tribute to the compassionate bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

The prayer wheel provides a way for devotees to invoke the sacred texts even if they cannot read because spinning the wheel sends the prayers to heaven. The prayer wheels suggest the Wheel of the Law and the Buddha’s first sermons, when he set the wheel in motion.

Larger prayer wheels are sometimes turned by several people or powered by mountain streams.

Prayer Wheel
Tibet, c. 1800
Silver, brass, turquoise, wood, leather, conch shell and stone
Pacific Asia Museum Collection
Gift of David Kamansky
in memory of Nina G. Bushnell, 2001.13.4

4. Zen Staff
This ink painting depicts a staff made out of a bamboo branch. Such staffs were carried by Zen Buddhist monks and they were often used to strike trainees, for example, if they nodded off during meditation.

Zen Ink PaintingThe image is typical of Zen ink paintings in its extreme simplicity and spontaneity--a single downward brush stroke, followed by a thinner, winding upward stroke. The artist who created this work was undoubtedly a Zen monk. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, the relationship between teacher and disciple is extremely important, and many Zen masters distilled the essence of their teachings into simple paintings like this one, or of a simple circle representing the entire universe, or in calligraphic inscriptions of Zen sayings.

Zen Ink Painting
Japan, 20th century
Ink on paper
Pacific Asia Museum Collection
Gift of Dr. Jesse L. Greenstein, 2002.4.4


5. Mandalas
Buddhists in Tibet, Nepal, China, and Japan use mandalas as diagrams or models of a perfected environment, most often a symbolic depiction of the world of a particular Buddhist deity. They help worshipers practice concentration and cultivate inner vision, picturing themselves present within the perfected environment. From here, the deity can help them to progress toward a state of enlightenment.

Yamantaka MandalaThis particular mandala depicts the sacred abode, or perfected environment, of Yamantaka, "Conqueror of Death," an important Tibetan Buddhist deity who represents triumph over death. Yamantaka is the wrathful manifestation of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom and has the head of a buffalo, multiple arms, and legs, a form he assumed in order to conquer Yama, the Lord of Death. In this painting, Yamantaka is in the very central square of the mandala and in the surrounding four chambers of his palace, each corresponding to the four directions: green (north), red (west), white (east), and yellow (south).

Yamantaka Mandala
Tibet, c. 1725
Color on cloth
Pacific Asia Museum Collection
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Jesse L. Greenstein, 1996.8.6

6. Putting It All Together
Throughout the Buddhist world, men, women, and children show their devotion to the Buddha, past or future buddhas, bodhisattvas, and great teachers at altars in temples or in their homes. What is found on these altars and how people worship is as diverse as the practice of Buddhism itself.

In the temple, a priest may conduct prayers or rituals before a large, public congregation or for a small group of devotees. Sculptures and lamps often stand on or by the altar and paintings or mandalas hang behind or at either side. Worshippers as well as the priest offer incense, flowers, food, or money to the Buddha or bodhisattva. The rituals and the objects on the altars depend on the sect, importance, and wealth of the temple.

Altar Arrangement (detail)More about this altar: In East Asian homes, portable wooden shrines often include small images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas. Burning incense clears the air of evil spirits and makes offering to deities connected with all five senses. Other objects include prayer beads, bells that sound at the beginning and end of meditation, and perhaps fruit, candy, or other food for departed ancestors. Objects included in the altar may be new or have belonged to the family for many generations.

Many Buddhists also include altars in their places of business or even cars to bring protection and good fortune.

Altar Arrangement (detail)
Japan, various dates from the 16th through the 20th century
Wood, lacquer, metal, paper
This Buddhist altar arrangement is courtesty of Hirokazu Kosaka

Back to Resources Index


  Top of page

Home | HTML Index | Flash Index

This Visions of Enlightment: Understanding the Art of Buddhism web module
is funded through the generous support of the Freeman Foundation.
Terms of Use and Copyright © 2003, USC Pacific Asia Museum. All rights reserved.
Send us your comments
USC Pacific Asia Museum, 46 North Los Robles Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101 (626)449-2742