Tag Archives: Buddhism

Om in art and daily use

Doors with Aum sign, Varanasi

Doors with Aum symbols, Varanasi. By ampersandyslexia via Wikimedia Commons


Devanagari Aum. By Andriy Makukha and AnonMoos via Wikimedia Commons

Om or Aum is a supercharged word and a mystical sound. Much has been written about it and many have heard the word chanted or sung. When “Aum” is produced, it vibrates in particular chakras or energy centers in the body. “Its initial sound ‘aa,’ vibrates within the muladhara, the chakra at the base of the spine,” said Gurudeva and the Himaylan Academy. “The second sound of this mantra, “oo,” vibrates within the throat and chest chakras,” he continued. “The third sound, “mm,” vibrates within the cranial chakras, ajna and sahasrara,” the Third Eye and top of the head. Om or Aum is an ancient Sanskrit word, a primal mantra that is often chanted at the beginning of other mantras. Said three times, it is a blessing, along with a prelude. The meaning is abstract and tied to Eastern thought. “Aum is explained in the Upanishads as standing for the whole world and its parts, including past, present and future,” said Gurudeva. “It is from this primal
vibration that all manifestation issues forth.” While the word is rooted in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, Gurudeva clarifies that it may be used by anyone, regardless of their religion. Looking at the symbol above, you can see there are different visual elements. “Its three letters represent the three worlds and the powers of creation, preservation and destruction. In common usage in several Indian languages, aum means
‘yes, verily” or ‘hail,'” concludes Gurudeva.


Statue of Ganesha in the form of an aum. By Hinduism Today Magazine and Himalayan Academy Publications via Wikipedia

About five or six years ago, I created some tiles with Hindu symbols at Gillian McMillan’s  ceramic studio here in Port Moody. I lived across the street from her at the time. As it turned out, I gave them to some of my Hindu friends, but I still remember them well. The symbol for Om lends itself well to design. You can stretch it, condense it, fatten it, or constrain it. It is neat to work with, really. Some years back, Gurudeva and the Himalayan Academy put together a fantastic collection of Oms, each one a work of art. To see the color, black-and-white, and  poster galleries, click here. You won’t be disappointed! Some of my favorite Oms are ones that incorporate the form of Ganesha, the Hindu god who is half elephant, half human. To create an Aum-Ganesha combination, the Om is constrained enough to illustrate both god and symbol. Working with Oms in clay is a form of meditation itself: the acts of devising a design, determining materials, making decisions about relief, creating, firing, and glazing. Oms are powerful sacred art and when you’re working with a mystical symbol that long, it is bound to affect you…. My experiences and spiritual growth led me to create Oms, not just chant it. The chanting experience is very special, though, and incredible if it’s with a whole room of people. When you are chanting Om, it vibrates through your entire body, creating a hum, literally, along with meditative state. Of course, meditation has many health benefits, too, such as lowering blood pressure and relieving stress. To be certain, chanting Aum can hurt no one and help everyone. However, to experience the full benefit of chanting, as with the practice of yoga, one must go beyond North American confines and learn its true form, the one for which it was developed, spirituality, not just for stress relief or exercise. Believe me, yoga is not about  current trends or snazzy exercise clothing…. Back to Oms, however. The versatility of the design means the the Om symbol can be worked with many ways. In addition, different languages have their own symbolic representation of Om, as is the case with this example above, in Tamil, or Tibetan, to the left. Below, you can listen to a mantra being chanted, one which prefaced by Oms. While I prefer Oms that are longer, deeper, and more drawn out for full vibrational effect, this is still very nice. You’ll hear the powerful the Gayatri Mantra, with Ravi Shankar and George Harrison.

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The Laughing Buddha: Hotei, Pu-Tai, Maitreya

School of Katsushika Hokusai, Hotei. From Hokusai School Collection of Drawings. Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎) (1760–1849) Ink on paper. 10 1/2 in. x 7 1/2 in. Via Wikimedia Commons

Laughing Buddha

Pu-tai, a chinese monk who, for his contented nature, was and is well known as the “Laughing Buddha.” To laugh is – following many Zen Masters – the most ancient meditation. “Hotei, Pu-Tai, Maitreya, all known as the Laughing Buddha.” By maurizio jaya costantino via Wikimedia Commons


A gigantic statue of laughing Hotei, or (in Chinese folcklore) Maitreya in Hat Yai Municipal Park (สวนสาธารณะเทศบาลเมืองหาดใหญ่). Hotei is one of the Seven Lucky Gods. The place is located on Kanchanawanit Road, is six kilometers from the city center on the Hat Yai-Songkhla highway. It is the major recreation for the people of Hat Yai and surrounding areas as well. By Hannah 50 via Wikimedia Commons

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Seated Buddha, Tang dynasty, circa 650

"From Hebei, Tang Dynasty. The MET Seated Buddha, Tang dynasty, ca. 650 China Dry lacquer with traces of gilt and polychrome pigments; H. 38 in. (96.5 cm); W. 27 in. (68.6 cm) Rogers Fund, 1919 (19.186) Buddhist images executed in dry lacquer were highly valued by the Chinese because of their costly and time-consuming process of production. There are so few surviving examples that this seated Buddha is especially precious. To fashion the body of the image, the craftsman made a rough form of the sculpture in clay and then applied at least three layers of hemp cloth, each secured with a paste made of raw lacquer (the sap from the lac tree, Rhus verniciflua) and a fine powder of bone, horn, shell, ceramic, stone, or carbon. Each layer had to dry thoroughly before the next could be added. The clay core was then removed from the lacquered image. The head and hands were likely modeled separately, using the same technique as that used for the body, and then attached to the sculpture. The surface was finished with several coatings of pure lacquer and then painted. Portrayed as a youthful figure, the Buddha sits in the full lotus position, with his legs tightly interlocked, though the lower part of the sculpture is missing. The position of the damaged arms suggests that the hands performed the "contemplation" gesture. The columnar form and lean gracefulness of the figure recall the style of Buddhist sculptures of the late Six Dynasties, but the attempt to render anatomical differentiation and, in particular, the emotional impact of the Buddha's expression are distinguishing features of early Tang style. The traces of brilliant red and blue, vividly combined to form a stylized floral pattern in the hem of the undergarment crossing the chest, and the remains of shimmering gilt on the surface are evidence of the sumptuous effect of this once colorful figure. IT IS VERY OLD." By Rosemania via Wikimedia Commons

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Ceramic incense burners and fragrant smoke

Pre-Columbian incense burner, Costa Rica (Carlos Museum)

Pre-Columbian incense burner

The use of incense is an ancient practice and it has long been used as an aid to spiritual practice, altering one’s frame of mind or perceptions. There are many references to incense in sacred texts and it is associated with divinity. Heady mixtures are also burned as  offerings in temples and churches. In times past, ingredients were precious enough and dear enough to limit use among the masses, but it was widely used by nobles in dynastic eastern cultures, along with the priestly classes. In very ancient times, the use of incense would have accompanied ritual sacrifice. As a child and teenager, I breathed in the incense at church and looked forward to the exotic scent of myrrh. Smudging for purification is another spiritual practice. While it may not be thought of as incense, sage and sweet grass create scented smoke and these natural substances are sacred to members of First Nations.

Huonghoa, Silk painting. Incense and fruit sellers. Artist : Phạm Sỹ. Via Wikimedia Commons

Incense is also used for social or cultural purposes. A big fad in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, incense was tied to Eastern mysticism and burning it became the ‘in’ thing to do. As well, incense masked odors or was thought to enhance recreational drug use. During the hippie heyday, most incense probably came from India. (Writing about this just made me think of Timothy Leary, who I saw in a much more watered down version in the mid-1980s.) Sold on a large-scale, like at Pier 1, or in shops that specialize in such goods, incense can be found with accoutrements for myriad spiritual practices.

Pagoda incense burner, Johann Freidrich Eberlein, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, c. 1735-1740

A form of aromatherapy, incense can influence your moods, perk you up or relax you. Yet, if you breathe air laden with incense over a long period of time, it can be dangerous  for your health because of carcinogens. While I can appreciate an incense deemed to be organic, it, too will burn and release chemicals. Just because something is ‘natural’ or organic doesn’t give us a green light for wholesale use. As the Buddhists say, moderation in all things… Temperate use and good ventilation are important when burning incense. If you plan on making an incense burner out of clay, make sure your vessel can easily disperse the smoke, which carries the scent. Holders either have openings or are flat and the shape determines the form you use, sticks or cones. You can pretty much turn any piece of greenware, vessel or sculpture, into a simple incense burner by just tunneling a little hole in it, wide and deep enough to hold the wooden wand on a stick of incense. Burning does create ash, so want to make sure it’s safe and will catch the residue. There are some nice incense burners offered on Etsy and I especially like this flat one called “Don’t Be So Blue,” by Heritage Valley Pottery. There are any number of ways to use incense…to aid meditation, to spruce up a mid-winter home. Gone are the days when patchouli reigned supreme, but I still enjoy sandalwood…

Stele Ra-Horakhty Louvre N3795

Upper tier: the priest Padiuiset burning incense in honour of Ra-Horakhty-Atum; Lower tier: offering formula to Osiris. Coated and painted wood, ca. 900 BC (22nd Dynasty). Louvre.

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