Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asia

The Mother of Buddhism


What is it made of? Copper alloy
Where was it made? Cambodia
When was it made? circa 1200


For Buddhists, knowledge is so important that it is personified as a goddess! This figure’s name is Prajnaparamita. In Sanskrit, an Indian language with ancient roots, the word prajna means knowledge, and paramita means supreme. Prajnaparamita helps devotees understand the true meaning of life. This deep understanding is known as enlightenment.


More than eight hundred years ago in Cambodia, a king declared Buddhism as the state religion. He built a temple that equated his mother with the goddess of knowledge. Buddhists revere this goddess as the mother of all buddhas. By building the temple, could the king have been comparing himself to the Buddha?

This image of the goddess of knowledge has twenty-two arms and eleven heads! She holds a manuscript and a lotus bud in her first two hands, and her twenty other arms fan out like fierce wings.


Buddhists aim to reach enlightenment, or complete understanding of everything. What is one thing you want to know more about? Imagine yourself as Prajnaparamita. What could your supreme wisdom help you accomplish?


The Cambodian artist who sculpted this figure had to figure out how to represent twenty-two arms on a single body. Step into the role of the artist and build a self-portrait of yourself out of clay, adding extra heads and arms. Once you’re done, chat with friends and family about the challenges you had. How did you use your supreme wisdom to problem-solve?

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