Diving Deeper into Buddhism – Western Paradise

View this object on our collections website.
Subjects: Social Studies
Object Types: Sculpture, Stone
Time Needed: 90 minutes
Contributed by: Lesley Younge, Middle School Teacher, Whittle School and Studios, Washington, DC


Students already familiar with Siddhartha Gautama, the Historical Buddha, will deepen their understanding of Buddhist beliefs and artwork. They will analyze and interpret works of art that reveal how people around the world live and what they value. They will identify how works of art reflect times, places, cultures, and beliefs.

Essential Questions

  • What other stories are told in Buddhism beyond Shakyamuni, the Historical Buddha?
  • How are beliefs in Buddhism similar to or different from beliefs in other faith traditions?
  • Why are beliefs about the afterlife important in Buddhism and other religions?
  • How do works of art capture and communicate the development of Buddhist beliefs in China?
  • How has art inspired Buddhist believers and scholars throughout history?


Siddhartha Gautama, a prince born approximately 2,500 ago, is recognized as the Historical Buddha, or “Awakened One.” His enlightenment freed him from the cycle of rebirth, and his teachings became Buddhism’s foundation. The religion spread with a phenomenal pace. Buddhism reached China around the second century CE and grew into a variety of schools. One of the Buddhist schools that emerged in China—the Pure Land school—focused on Amitabha, the celestial Buddha of Infinite Light. Followers of this school believe that Amitabha took a special vow to create the Western Paradise, or Pure Land (Sukhavati). Those who call upon Amitabha are reborn from lotuses into this heavenly realm where they perpetually practice the dharma. Images of Amitabha and his palace-like monastery are especially popular in China, Korea, and Japan.

Devotional worship to Amitabha and hopes of being reborn in his heavenly dwelling grew quickly in China. Believed to be one of the earliest surviving depictions of Buddhist paradise, the sixth-century relief titled “Western Paradise of the Buddha Amitabha” at the Freer Gallery once appeared above the interior entrance to a Chinese Buddhist cave at Xiangtangshan in Hebei province. Originally painted with striking mineral pigments and gold, it would have been the last thing a worshiper saw before leaving the sacred space.

This monumental limestone carving depicts a heavenly realm brimming with Buddhist deities. Framed by towering pagodas, the roughly symmetrical composition emphasizes the central figures—in particular, Buddha Amitabha (in Chinese, Amituo), who raises his right hand in a gesture of teaching. He sits on a large lotus blossom behind a square pool, alongside which are his two chief attendants, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin) and Mahasthamaprapta (Dashizhi). Based on the prominence of these three figures, we know that the setting is Sukhavati, Amitabha’s Western Paradise, or Pure Land. In the pool, lotus blossoms open to reveal the fortunate who are being reborn into this heavenly realm.


Amitabha: literally, “Infinite Light”; the Buddha of the Western Paradise. Widely revered in Mahayana Buddhist traditions, Amitabha enables his followers to be born into his paradise and attain Buddhahood in one lifetime.

Avalokiteshvara: literally, “The Lord who Looks Down [from on High]”; the widely worshipped bodhisattva of compassion, who protects and saves all beings.

bodhisattva: an enlightened being who chooses not to proceed to Nirvana but instead remains on earth to guide others in their paths toward enlightenment.

Buddha: literally, “Awakened One”; a being who has awakened to the true reality of existence and is thereby liberated from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. A Buddha teaches others the path to Enlightenment.

deva: literally, “divinity,” “heavenly being”; the most pleasure-filled among five rebirth destinies. Rebirth as a deva is granted for good deeds performed during the previous lifetime.

dharma: the Buddha’s teachings or doctrines.

Enlightenment: a moment of great wisdom and understanding; the highest level of consciousness, believed to be achieved through meditation and adhering to the basic moral teaching of Buddhism.

kalpa: literally, “age”; a period of time spanning four different stages of the universe: formation, existence, destruction, and non-existence. This period is composed of many intermediate kalpas.

Mahasthamaprapta: literally, “One who Has Attainted Great Power”; bodhisattva who represents wisdom. He is usually depicted with Buddha Amitabha and bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. His crown is often decorated with a small water vessel.

Nestorianism: a Christian sect that originated in Asia Minor and Syria around the fifth century CE.

Nirvana: a spiritual state of perfect peace beyond selfish attachments to worldly possessions; reaching Nirvana frees one’s soul from the Buddhist cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

Pure Land: also called Western Paradise, or in Sanskrit as Sukhavati; one of the auspicious places in which to be reborn.

Siddhartha Gautama: the given name of Shakyamuni, literally “Sage of the Shakya Clan,” the Historical Buddha. He lived in northeastern India sometime after the fifth century BCE.

three evils: greed, hate, ignorance.

Upata: literally, “exuberance,” “satiety.”


  1. Provide students with a blank drawing paper, and project or have students access the high-resolution digital image of Western Paradise of the Buddha Amitabha. You can also distribute image copies.
  2. Separate students into large or small groups, and have them examine the artwork, answering Describe and Analyze questions.
  3. Have students choose a small section to sketch. Share the sketches and discuss as a group. What parts of the artwork stand out to them?
  4. In groups, have students examine the readings on Sukhavati, the mythical place known in Buddhist scripture as “The Pure Land” or “Western Paradise.” Each group may have the same reading or choose different ones. Another option is a jigsaw discussion activity in which students read different texts and share insights with each other.
  5. Have students return to the artwork and reinterpret what they see based on their new knowledge from the readings. What do they notice now? What else would they add to their drawing? Give them time to sketch further and perhaps annotate their drawing with quotes or information from the readings.
  6. Distribute and have students fill out the Connect, Extend, Challenge sheet. How does this artwork CONNECT to what they already know about Buddhism? How does it EXTEND their thinking about Buddhism? How does it CHALLENGE their thinking?
  7. Returning to a whole group configuration, ask students to develop questions for further inquiry. What are they left wondering? What do they still not know? What do they want to know? How might they continue to dig deeper?

Discussion Questions

  • What type of artifact is this?
  • What shapes and colors do you see?
  • What textures are visible?
  • What images do you see?
  • What story is being told?
  • What is clear? What is unclear?
  • Where do you imagine this artwork was first displayed?
  • What do you think this artwork is made out of, and how was it made?
  • Who do you think created this artwork and for what purpose?
  • What do the materials and the design of this artwork tell us about this time in Chinese Buddhist history?
  • What would have been the purpose of creating a visual image of the Western Paradise?
  • Are there similar objects or images used in other faith traditions you are familiar with?
  • How does this image connect to, extend, and challenge your current understanding of Buddhism?
  • Is the Western Paradise a physical place?
  • Do all Buddhists believe in the Western Paradise?
  • How does modern Buddhist art depict the Western Paradise?
  • What would it be like to encounter this artwork in its original cave? How might seeing it in a museum be different?


Visual Arts
  • Draw, paint, or sculpt your version of a Pure Land or paradise. What would it look like? What would it feel like? How might you depict that in a work of art?
  • Experiment with creating images in relief using clay or other sculpting material. What changes when a picture is three-dimensional? Why might this have mattered to Buddhist artists?
  • Compare and contrast this sculpture to other depictions of the Western Paradise, such as the Mogao cave monastery murals: http://public.dha.ac.cn/quanjing/vr/320/vtour/tour.html.
  • How do different materials and mediums communicate ideas about similar topics?
English Language Arts
  • Write a poem or story that captures your ideas of what a paradise would be and what it would it take to get there.
 Social Studies
  • Research and write a paper comparing and contrasting the paradise doctrines of two different religions. What do other faith traditions say about an afterlife?


Paths to Perfection: Buddhist Art at the Freer|Sackler. Washington, DC: Freer|Sackler, the Smithsonian's museum of Asian art, 2017, pp. 13, 37, 223–27.

DuBose, Hampden C. The Dragon, Image, and Demon: Or, the Three Religions of China: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, Giving an Account of the Mythology, Idolatry, and Demonolatry of the Chinese. New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1887. https://archive.org/details/dragonimagedemon1887dubo/page/n4.

Buddhist cave temples at Xiangtangshan. http://xts.uchicago.edu/

Murals with Pure Land image, visual tour in Mogao grottoes. http://public.dha.ac.cn/quanjing/vr/320/vtour/tour.html

The Art of Buddhism. A Teacher’s Guide. Smithsonian Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. https://asia-archive.si.edu/edu/ArtofBuddhism.pdf