This blog is a mini-study into the nature of Icons, particularly within the Eastern Orthodox tradition and sundry Buddhist traditions as well. Perhaps when one first brings to mind the image of an icon, one is immediately drawn to those Orthodox representations. Within Eastern Orthodoxy precedence is given to apophatic-theology:

Our negative statement about what God cannot be embodies within itself a statement about the existence of God, affirmation of that existence lying within our apophatic statements about God themselves. Thus symbol, as understood by St. John of Damascus, for example, was a device by which God’s affirmation might be approached through negation, the symbol having no integral relationship with any aspect of God. Negation, used as affirmation, remains negation, separated absolutely from affirmative acknowledgement of that which it negates.

In the New Testamental encounter with God, St. John and the iconodules argued, God appears in icon, in a human image which is knowable, joined, at the same time, with a divine nature that is unknowable. And herein lies the initial key to an exact and precise grasp of what the iconic is in Orthodox theology. Whereas symbol, in an apophatic way, speaks of God referentially (albeit negatively and without affirmative intent in the negative symbol itself), the icon touches on the reality of God. St. John characterizes this iconic reality by the Incarnation, in which the uncontainable God was brought to dwell in flesh, being thereby contained, combining in the God-Man the true materiality of man and the true divinity of God. Indeed, the veneration of an icon, like the veneration of Christ, somehow, for St. John, brings man into contact with what is genuinely divine through that which is also genuinely physical. (This contact, of course, obviates the accusation of idolatry put forth by the iconoclasts.) Unlike a symbol, an icon brings one to participation in the reality which the icon “represents.” The image and its prototype, “symbol” and “reality,” as it were, are brought together. (The Iconic and Symbolic in Orthodox Iconography, by Hieromonk [now Bishop] Auxentios)

The aspect of Luminous Light also predominates within the Tradition:

According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, after the resurrection everyone will receive a new body which will differ from the previous material one, just as the body of Christ after His Resurrection differed from His earthly body. The new, “glorified” human body will be immaterial, luminous and light, but will preserve the likeness of the material body. At the same time, according to St. Gregory, it will have none of the defects of the material body, such as mutilations or signs of old age. In a similar way, an icon should preserve the bearing of a saint’s material body but should not reproduce his or her physical defects.

The icon exhibits a person in his or her transformed and deified state. L. Ouspensky writes, “The icon is an image of a human being truly filled with the passion-searing and all-sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, his flesh is depicted as essentially different from the ordinary corruptible flesh of a human being. The icon communicates a certain spiritual reality: sober, based on a spiritual experience and completely free of any exaltation. If grace illumines the whole person so that his entire spirit, body and soul are engulfed in prayer and dwell in divine light, then the icon visibly portrays this person who has become a living icon, the likeness of God”. According to Archimandrite Zenon, the icon is “the appearance of a transformed and deified creature, that same transformed humankind which Christ revealed in his person”.

Among widespread images of that time is that of our Saviour in a white garment with golden rays emanating from His body – an image based on the Gospel account of the Lord’s Transfiguration. The ample use of gold in icon-painting during the hesychastic period is also believed to be associated with the teaching on the Uncreated Light.

Thus, within Orthodoxy “the icon reflects the eschatological, apokatastatic, redeemed and deified state of nature.” While by and large these icons represent the God-Man of Jesus the Christ, the Most Holy Mother of God (Theotokos), or one of the prominent saints, they can also depict saints of lesser-vintage, such as Euphrosynos, the cook:

Once again, the emphasis within Orthodoxy is not upon “fleshy substances”, but rather the Divine-import which illuminates the deified state of nature. Think of it, an icon is a representation of Luminous Light Itself, and it is this Light that completely absorbs and animates it—thus, what you are actually seeing is the Uncreated and Primordial Light itself, in a sense “captured” if you will and divinely inspiring you in ways untold.


Let us now turn to the representations of icons in the Buddhist Tradition. This will be a twofold endeavor—firstly an overview with Bernard Faure at the helm, and then concentrating on the colorful representation as found within Tibetan Buddhism. The Faure-factor is taken from his article, The Buddhist Icon and the Modern Gaze. He states that “On the whole, Buddhist iconology has valorized stillness. Buddhist icons are, strictly speaking, “still life” or “suspended animation”.

A significant case is that of a Japanese stone statue of the Buddha Amida, in which was placed the mummy of a Buddhist monk. The icon becomes a container, a recipient, a funerary urn or stupa. The labyrinthine structure of my argument might be partly justified when we recall that Daedalus, the first maker of animated images, was also the inventor of the labyrinth. Daedalus was the first to open the eyes of the statues, and to set their feet apart. Notice here the symbolic equivalence between eyes and legs: it is as if the opening of the eyes, which gives life, were equivalent to the separation of the legs, which permits movement. Buddhist icons, although their eyes have been opened, are usually represented sitting cross-legged or standing still with legs joined.

The animation process of Buddhist icons corresponds to what the Greeks called stoicheiosis, in which talismanic powers are brought to an icon through the introduction of mineral or vegetal substances, or even sometimes of small animals (lizards), but also through inscribed seals or incense. (ibid)

The Ch’an factor also comes into play:

The mummy of the Chan master Wuliao (787-869) is another similar example, in which the stinking icon, the mummy, resists representation, resists commodity fetishism –even on the part of an Emperor. The icon fights back. The smell of the icon, whether stink or fragrance, is another excess, a sign of transcendence that can easily go unrecognized. In this context, we may recall that the first Buddhist icons in Japan were made out of aromatic camphorwood (kusu), a particularly sacred wood, although especially difficult to carve. A good example is the Miroku image of Chuguji, the first known instance of the assembled woodblock technique (yosegi zukuri). It has been argued that camphorwood was the Japanese equivalent for sandalwood, out of which was carved the first icon of the Buddha. But, unlike sandalwood icons, camphorwood icons were usually painted, which tends to cover the fragrance. The Yumedono Kannon, for instance, is carved out of camphorwood. The fragrance of these icons may be seen as a reflection of the natural fragrance of the Buddha’s body, but it may also be a way to cover the fingering stink of death in icons that were perceived as mummies or as anthropomorphic tombs containing relics.

… the meditator must visualize the physical attributes of a Buddha to obtain the “samadhi [mental absorption] of the one who stands (avasthita) face-to-face with or in the presence of (sammukha), the present … Buddhas.” One of the sixteen ways to obtain this Samadhi is by having an icon of the Buddha made, or “just having a picture painted.” (ibid) Reminiscent of our recent series on theSutra of Primordial Perfection.

Faure also introduces the “Double” effect, wherein icons represent a metaphor for practitioners of becoming divided, i.e., projecting self into the icon in order to become reintegrated:

The priest who projects his Buddhahood into a material support, a wooden icon, does not fall into the trap of fetishism–let alone of primary narcissism. He can eventually bridge the gap, the cleavage of the self, when he reintegrates in his self-consciousness the power temporarily projected into the icon. Here again we encounter the metaphor of the symbol, the split image, and the reunion of the tallies: divided in order to be reunited. Another paradigmatic expression of the folded structure of reality and its resolution is found in Hegel’s statement, “As a spirit, man does not have an immediate existence but is essentially returned-home-to-self (in sich Zuruckgekehrtes). This movement of mediation (Vermittelung) is an essential moment of the spirit. Its activity consists in transcending and negating its immediacy so as to return upon itself.

The much-vaunted iconoclasm of Chan/Zen, based on the notion of immediacy, is belied by the adherence of this school to the Two Truths theory, which implies a bifurcation of the real, two levels of reality rather than a single, and therefore the use of symbols to mediate between them, to bridge the gap. This two-tiered structure should be seen as the symbolic structure, the structure of the symbol itself. Thus, the opposite (and counterpart) of immediacy is mediation, duplication, the double, the icon. The Chan/Zen rhetoric of immediacy is also a rhetoric of iconoclasm. (ibid)

Of course one needs to be mindful and careful lest succumbing to the negative effects of this reversal:

One of the best expressions of the uncanniness of the double is given by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Here, a reversal takes place between the “real” (Dorian Gray) and his double (his portrait), his “truth in painting.” The portrait undergoes all kinds of changes while Dorian remains eternally young, until he tries to get rid of his shadow, the silent witness to his depravation, without realizing that it is himself. By trying to destroy it, he ends up killing himself, effecting one last reversal. This illustration of the expression “le mort saisit le vif ” recalls the traditional Chinese belief that the subject of a painting sometimes dies when the painting is finished: all his or her life flows into the double. It explains in part the custom of painting only the portraits of the dead.

There is a timely moral involved in all of this—one must not try to violently stamp out “the shadow”, since it is an integral aspect of the Real Integration of Self. Some positive examples of this “shadow effect”:

The icons of the Buddha are sometimes compared to the “original” shadow that he is said to have left in a cave at Nagarahara, in Central Asia. This shadow, which became the source of another iconographic tradition, was described by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (600-664), who was able to see it only after prostrating himself several hundred times. The shadow, invisible at first, eventually appeared in its full glory, with a cohort of bodhisattvas and celestial musicians, “as when the clouds open to reveal the golden Mountain.” Likewise, the first Chan patriarch Bodhidharma left his shadow on a rock on Mount Song, near the cave where he had practiced his legendary “wall contemplation.” As a focus of worship in the Chan/Zen tradition, this shadow plays a role equivalent to that of another famous relic, the flesh-body or mummy of the sixth patriarch Huineng. (ibid)

One further Ch’an anecdote that should be included here concerns the iconic import behind the relic of the Buddha’s Robe.

In fact, in East Asia, especially in the Chan/Zen tradition, the “transmission of the robe”, whether literal or symbolic, became one of the primary means of asserting the passing on of one’s teaching lineage, something that was traced all the way back to the Buddha (or at least to the founder of Chinese Chan, Bodhidharma.) Moreover, in China, as Anna Seidel has pointed out, the “Dharma-robe” came to be thought of as a kind of Daoist talisman (fu) or dynastic treasure (bao), half of a single bipartide reality, the other half of which is dharma. According to the magical principles of efficacy governing such objects, possession of the one half (the robe) necessarily entails and guarantees possession of the other (the dharma), and possession of the dharma makes one into a Buddha—an awakened master. As Bernard Faure has put it: “Those who wear the Dharma robe, become ipso facto Buddhas. (John S. Strong, Relics of the Buddha, pg. 218)


Tibetan Buddhism offers perhaps the most colorful and thorough-development of the icon motif, with Nepal playing an integral if not dominate role:

In the development of Tibetan art, Nepal played a significant role. Nepal acted as a meeting place between India on the one hand and Tibet and China on the other. Nepal, by accepting the art and iconography of Indian Buddhism together with its theory and technique, rendered a great service to the growth of Tibetan Buddhist art. (Peter Della Santina, The Development and Symbolism of Tibetan Buddhist Art and Iconography)

Yea, what was once referred to at one time as the Mighty Gods and Goddesses of the Buddhist Pantheon revealed themselves most fully within Buddhist Iconography. The best resource for this is an old one, but still the most profound: The Indian Buddhist Iconography, by Benoytosh Bhattacharyya, 1958—truly an indispensable resource for the significance of this Pantheon, particularly for the development of the Dhyāni Buddhas. Of course, all of this revolving around Vajrayāna Mysticism:

Vajrayāna introduced many innovations of a revolutionary character. It introduced, for instance, the theory of the five Dhyāni Buddhas as embodiments of the five Skandhas or cosmic elements and formulated the theory of the Kulas or families of the five Dhyāni Buddhas from which deities emerge according to need. It introduced the worship of the Prajñā or Śakti in Buddhism for the first time, and a host of other things including a large number of gods and goddesses, their Sādhanas for the purpose of visualisation, Mantras, Tantras, Yantras, Mudras, Mandates, mystic realizations and psychic exercises of the most subtle character. (ibid)

To this day, the painting of Buddhist iconic figures are subject to strict formal rules…

Notice how the artistic technique remains the same as in Eastern Orthodox iconography, both exhibit Divine Hierarchies but that only the deities have changed. Let us now consider the general Pantheon of Buddhist iconography all centering on Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and deities. SOURCE

Buddha Shakyamuni – the historical Buddha

Buddha Maitreya – the future Buddha

Avalokiteshvara – Bodhisattva of compassion

Manjushri – Bodhisattva of wisdom

Mahakala – the guardian

Tara – female deity

And, of course, our most beloved Dhyāni Buddhas:

It needs to be stressed, as in the Eastern Orthodox example, that these icons fully illuminate the deified state and the Primordial Unborn Light that animates it. From previous experience, I can attest for example, that meditation with the icons of the Dhyāni Buddhas is a most illuminating practice and has revealed truths beyond my wildest imagination. Hence both Orthodox Christian and Mystical Buddhism bear a profound penchant for these iconic-wonders that act as portals into unknown regions of the Unborn. Icons are indeed most relevant tools for those noble explorers who yearn for that undivided union and illumination with the Light beyond all lights.

May the Light Guide and Protect you!

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