This dissertation examines images of Buddhas, and some bodhisattvas, that contain clusters of small Buddhas, or bodhisattvas, inside their aura or halo. Specifically, the study considers the formation and the development of this motif from Gandhāra, Central Asia (namely, Khotan and Kucha), and central China from about the third to seventh centuries, and analyzes them in relation to the essential teachings about the nature of a Buddha and nirmāṇabuddha (transformation-Buddha).
The depiction of small Buddha figures in the aura is a commonly seen convention in Chinese Buddhist art; however its history has not been thoroughly studied and its meaning is poorly understood. In Buddhism, the phenomenon that an awakened being can emit other awakened beings is a central Buddha concept. However, textual references are scattered in a wide range of scriptures over a long period of time, including doctrinal texts, commentaries and meditation manuals. These offer different, if not conflicting, explanations.
My detailed visual and typological analysis reveals that the depiction of small figures in the aura first emerged in Gandhara, with conceptual (bhavana) Buddha images. In these images, the small figures are shown tilted with a sense of emanation. In Khotan, and especially in China from the fifth century, the motif became widespread, and the depiction became increasingly schematized.
In this study, I identify the emanated images with the nirmāṇabuddha and suggest that the above trend in visual representations correlates to textual descriptions of the nirmāṇabuddha. Early Mahāyāna texts describe a new type of miracle – a Buddha emanates rays which further transform into nirmāṇabuddhas. Around the turn of the fifth century, nirmāṇabuddhas in the aura became a prominent body mark of a Buddha (in addition to incidental events).
On a theoretical level, the ultimate body of a Buddha is the inconceivable dharmakāya. It is a fundamental feature (as his compassion and skillful means) for Buddha to transform into nirmāṇabuddhas to save sentient beings. All Buddhas are said to possess such power. My study suggests that the special iconographies with this motif either exemplify individual Buddhas emanating nirmāṇabuddhas or illustrate important aspects of the nirmāṇabuddha concept.