If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what of a sculpture?

Imagine entering a temple and being greeted by the Buddha above. “Welcome,” he seems to say, invitingly, compassionately. “You are in good company,”–his subtle smile implies wordlessly–“sit down and rest.”

Wordless Ancient Wisdom

Ancient-Wisdom-Wei-Buddha

Buddha (534-550AD Eastern Wei Dynasty, Poli Museum)

You tie your beast of burden and step across the threshold. You’ve traveled afar, for days or even weeks. The temple shade brings a long-awaited relief from the scorching sun. You’re given a cup of water to quench your thirst.

“Concentrate,” continues the Buddha, wordlessly, “leave your cares behind and settle into the serenity of my home.”

What is prayer, after all, but the focusing of one’s thoughts and emotions? What is prayer–in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism–but a deliberate effort of concentration?

The temple, then, must offer the ideal environment for focus. And by the same token, temple art must inspire concentration.

The Wisdom of the Buddha

It does so by portraying concentration in sculpted stone, as the Buddhas features in this post. But isn’t it remarkable that stone can convey the immaterial state of concentration?

“I protect you,” gestures the Buddha with one hand, and with the other, “I bestow you a gift”–all without words.

His gift is the gift of inspiration. The serenity and focus of his facial expression evoke the same in you. He places a mirror before your face, but it’s a special mirror: it shows you, not what you are, but what you might become.

Sculpted Ancient Wisdom

Early Buddhism pushed sculpture to remarkable heights. Buddhist artists realized that sculpture surpassed painting by one dimension. A well carved Buddha commanded awe and respect. It spoke, instructed and inspired–all but breathed.

We live in an age of words, but in the long history of ancient wisdom, verbal transmission was a late occurrence. Rock art came first, a blend of drawing and sculpture. Our prehistoric ancestors, who spoke in imagery and symbols and gestures, knew that a picture was worth a thousand words–even if they couldn’t coin that truth verbally.

Ancient-Wisdom-Bodhisattvas

Buddha and Bodhisattvas (534-550AD Eastern Wei Dynasty, Poli Museum)

Sculpture bears another advantage over its sister arts: the virtue of longevity. Stone is immortal in comparison with the organic materials of paint, wood papyrus or canvas. The fact that the earliest known art is rock art serves as proof for its durability. Its message may last long after the artist and his civilization have disappeared.

So if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a sculpture should be worth a volume–and what is more–the volume remains on the shelves long after the pen that wrote it.

And he who seeks ancient wisdom would be wise to broaden his search beyond the written word to all artistic expressions.