Life of the Buddha by I Made Sesangka
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I Made Sesangka (1970-) is a Balinese artist from the village of Kamasan, painting in the traditional style of that village. He is a well-known painter who has been exhibiting his paintings since childhood. Some of his works have been collected by Australian and German Museums. He learned painting from his environment in Kamasan Village and also from the painting master I Nyoman Mandra, who later became his father-in-law. He is also a teacher who trains young artists in the techniques of the style.
This work, which was commissioned by the Ehipassiko Foundation to accompany an Indonesian translation of Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita, or Life of the Buddha, is 8x1.5 metres in size and is the largest painting ever made in the Kamasan style. It illustrates the 28 chapters of that work. I have added in his painting of the Sutasoma legend at the end, which is another fine work by this artist.
The painting was part of an exhibition organised by the Ehipassiko Foundation of this, and 20 other paintings of the Life of the Buddha, that were commissioned by the Foundation. The exhibition was held in the Ubud Diary gallery in December 2023.
The first panel is full length from top to bottom of the canvas and shows the birth of the Bodhisattva and the first steps he takes as he proclaims his greatness and that he is now in his last birth. His mother is seen still holding onto the tree she was holding when giving birth. Her maids are alongside her and worship the Bodhisattva. The Four Great Kings and Sakra, Lord of the Devas, are also seen at the site of the birth, with one of them holding a white umbrella over the child to both protect him from the elements and as a sign of royalty. In the sky above we see a white elephant in a cloud, which was the sign of his conception when a
Here we see the young Prince Siddhartha with a halo around his head, together with Princess Yośodharā enjoying life in the palace. On the right are two young lady-musicians playing for their entertainment. On the lower register courtiers raise their hands in añjalī and await orders to do their service for the royal couple.
After some time the Prince asked his father King Śuddhodana if he could go out of the palace to see the common folk in the town. Permission was given and here we see him driving in his chariot, with Chandaka his faithful retainer and Kanthaka, his horse. In the lower register we see three of the sights the Devas conspired to show him: an old man on a walking stick; a sick man lying down; and a dead man being carried along on a bier. (The fourth sight, that of an ascetic seeking the truth is omitted in this painting.)
After seeing the four sights Prince Siddhartha grew more and more thoughtful, and his father increased sensual pleasures for his son, hoping to bind him to the lay life. Here we see the prince with the halo, and his father besides him. In front are three dancers and two musicians playing the vīnā, and one male courtier sits alongside.
On the night his son was born Siddhartha decided to leave the palace to seek for the truth about existence. He mounted his favourite horse Kanthaka, and with Chandaka his groom in tow, and with the help of the Yakṣas, he drove into the forests. The Nāga pictured here is lighting his path with fires as he departs from the palace.
Having travelled through the night and crossed the river Anoma the Prince sat on the bank and taking his sword cut off his hair, a sign of his royalty. Above the Devas wait to gather the hair up which they will enshrine and worship in a Chaitya in heaven. To the right of the Prince, Chandaka is seen holding gold coins in his hand, as the Prince renounces his wealth. The horse Kanthaka is neighing in the background.
Having renounced the household life the Bodhisattva now entered into the forest and found a hermitage where there were ascetics undertaking various penances. Shown here are one ascetic who is explaining the penances to the Bodhisattva, one who is tending the sacred fire, another who is in the waters of a pond. In the top register we see three ascetics engaging in debate.
Having returned to Kapilavastu, Chandaka and Kanthaka went to the Palace to report the Prince’s renunciation. Seen here are King Śuddhadana, and next to him is evidently Princess Yośodharā. On thwe lower register one of the court ladies looks on, and Kanthaka is seen on the floor.
The king, having been informed of his son’s departure, was distressed, and resolved to send a minister and his brahmin advisor to request his son to return. In this painting we see not only the minister on the left, and the brahmin advisor on the right (and what may be Chandaka in the middle), but, departing from the story, what appears to be the king himself talking to the Bodhisattva, but the latter holds up his hand, refusing to return to the palace.
As he proceded south the Bodhisattva entered Rājagṛha, the capital of the Magadha state. King Śreṇya, having him seen him collecting almsfood in town, followed him to his temporary residence, and offered him half of his kingdom. In the painting we see the five hills surrounding Rājagṛha in the background. The king is still approaching in his palanquin. One minister is standing and two are worshipping from the ground, with one knee raised.
The Bodhisattva turned down King Śreṇya’s offer, but he did promise to come and teach him when he had awakened. On a tree behind the Bodhisattva sits a peacock, a symbol of spirituality. The king, has now descended from his palanquin, and is making the offer, which the Bodhisattva rejects. Two ministers sitting on the ground now worship the Bodhisattva.
The Bodhisattva next visited the teachers Arāḍa and Udraka, but he was not satisfied with their teachings, which did not lead to Awakening. So he proceeded to the river Nairañjanā where he met the Group-of-Five. In the painting we see the two teachers at the top, with the river in between and the Bodhisattva and the Group-of-Five engaged in austerities in the foreground.
After six years of fruitless asceticism, the Bodhisattva took regular food again, and then he moved to the Bodhi tree and sat down intent on Awakening. The Devaputra Māra was not happy with that and he sent his forces to prevent the Bodhisattva attaining his goal. In the painting we can see at the front the three daughters of Māra who try to seduce him, and behind the forces armed with daggers as they try to attack him, and one shooting fire at him from the sky. The Bodhisattva sits peacefully intent on his aspiration.
Having overcome Māra and his forces, the Bodhisattva continued intent of Awakening. In the first watch of the night he saw all his previous births; in the second he saw how beings arose according to their deeds; and in the third he understood the dependent origination of all things, and he Awoke to the truth. In the painting we see representatives of the gods and goddesses, and also a Nāga, while the Buddha, newly Awakened sits under the Bodhi Tree and in anticipation of his teaching, holds the Dharmacakra mudrā.
After being requested by Brahma the newly-Awakened Buddha decided to teach. Seeing that Arāḍa and Udraka had both passed away, he decided to go to the Deer Park at Ṛsipatana to teach the Group-of-Five ascetics. It was there that the Buddha taught the Dharmacakra discourse, setting the Wheel of the Dharma in motion. In the painting we see the deer taking water at the river, and the five ascetics listening with hands held in añjalī.
(During the Rains Retreat the Group-of-Five and 55 others became Arahats, and the Buddha sent them out to teach.) He himself returned to Gayā and asked to stay with the fire-worshipper Uruvelā Kāśyapa, who warned him the hut was protected by a fierce Nāga. The Buddha nevertheless insisted by would be alright, and overcame the Nāga in a duel.
(After converting the Kāśyapa brothers and their followers, the Buddha went on to Rājagṛha, where he received his first monastery, in the Bamboo Grove.) It was while there that Śāriputra heard the Dharma taught by Aśvajit, an early disciple of the Buddha. He was convinced and passed on the message to his friend Maudgalyāyana, and they and there disciples joined the other monastics in the Great Assembly. It was that they were appointed the Chief Disciples of the Buddha. In the painting two of the monks are holding teaching mudras, on the Buddha’s right is Śāriputra and on his left is Maudgalyāyana. One other monk pays his respects.
While he was still in Rājagṛha a great merchant came from Kośala called Anāthapiṇḍada. When he heard the Buddha teach he was convinced and decided to build a monastery for him in Śrāvastī. He purchased suitable land from Prince Jeta by covering the whole area over with gold coins. In the painting we see Anāthapiṇḍada on the floor laying the coins, and Prince Jeta watching nearby.
After dwelling for many months in Rājagṛha the Buddha decided to return to his home town of Kapilavastu so as to teach his father and other family members. Seeing as he was still only 35 years old his relatives were loathe to pay their respects, so the Buddha performed the Twin Miracle of emitting water and first from alternative parts of his body. Being humbled they then paid all due respects.
After converting his family in Kapilavastu the Buddha travelled on to Śrāvastī where the Jetavana monastery was now completed. The Buddha and his monks accepted the monastery from Anāthapiṇḍada, and it became the second major foundation of the Buddha. In the painting we see Anāthapiṇḍada and his family, with the patriarch ready to pour the waters of donation.
The Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta, seeing the success of the Buddha, grew jealous and determined to kill him and become leader of the Sangha himself. He let loose the maddened elephant Dhanapālaka hoping he would trample the Buddha to death. But when the elephant saw the Buddha he immediately calmed down and the Buddha patted him on the head. Devadatta is not seen in the painting, but the Buddha and two disciples, the frightened townsfolk and Dhanapālaka are pictured.
After nearly 45 years of teaching the Buddha knew that the end was coming, and he went to Vaiśālī and stayed in the courtesan Āmrapālī’s grove. When she heard she went out to meet the Buddha and he taught her the Dharma, after which she invited the Buddha together with the monastics to an almsgiving, which the Buddha accepted. We see Āmrapālī with her hands in añjalī as she listens to the Dharma.
After the Rains Retreat the Buddha stayed on the shore of the Markaṭa Lake, which is where Māra visited him to once again request him to pass away as his objectives had been fulfilled. But the Buddha told him he had already given up the will to live on further and that he would pass away in three months time. In the painting we see Māra speaking to the Buddha, with the lake with a couple of herons in it in the background.
The Buddha then explained to his faithful companion Ven Ānanda his decision to pass away which caused him to grieve. The Licchavis also heard about the Buddha’s decision and gathered round him. So he taught them the Dharma about the impermanence of all things. We see the Buddha, Ven Ānanda and the Licchavi princes in the painting.
(The Buddha then traveled across country with his monastics until he came to Cunda’s house where he accepted his last meal.) Then he continued his journey crossing the river Hiraṇyavatī and outside Kuśinagara he lay down on a bed between two Śāla trees prepared by Ven Ānanda, from where he gave his final instructions.
Then the Buddha entered into the absorptions one by one and having reached the fourth absorption he passed away. Ven Ānanda announced this to the Mallas who came out to pay their last respects to the Buddha. In this full height canvas we see the Buddha lying on his deathbed with the monks around him, and the Mallas who had come out to see him.
The Mallas then prepared a bier for the Buddha’s body, made of gold and silver, and then, when Ven Mahā Kāśyapa arrived, they cremated the body and paid homage to the bodily relics of the Buddha. In the painting one king holds a white umbrella over the reliquary, while a male and female devotee raise their hands in añjalī. The monastics look on.
Then the kings of seven countries, who had heard that the Buddha had attained parinirvāṇa sent to claim a portion of the relics so they could build stūpas and pay homage to them. They almost came to blows over contradictory arguments about possession of the relics, but a brahmin, Droṇa, cam forward and proposed to distribute portions equally between them. In the painting Droṇa is seen holding the urn. In the background the various claiments are seen ready for war; while in the front, pacified, they worship the relics.
The Sutasoma story is about the Bodhisattva in a previous life which tells of a king who gained a liking for human flesh and who was later exiled to live in the forest. There he gathered 99 princes whom he proposed to sacrifice and eat. The Bodhisattva came and preached non-violence to the king and converted him. He then released the princes, who lived a moral life from there on.
The Sutasoma story is especially important in Indonesia as it preaches the harmony of religions – specifically Hinduism and Buddhism – and is the source of the national motto: Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which is usually translated as Unity in Diversity. Although written in Java during the Majapahit empire, nearly all manuscripts of this story were preserved only in Bali.
Photographs by Anandajoti Bhikkhu
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