Yes, I've a passport clotted with stamps from the worlds of golden Buddhas (Thai and Khmer in particular) but I learned about "opening the eyes of the Buddha" from Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje's luminous, gruesome tale of his embattled Sri Lanka. Anil is a diaspora Sri Lankan forensic anthropologist who returns on behalf of a human rights organizations to investigate a series of murders. When she and her companion find a skeleton in an abandoned cave, Anil thinks that if the head can be reconstructed the unknown victim can be identified. They are directed to Ananda, a highly regarded artisan who has the privilege of painting the eyes on the Buddha, an act that brings the statues to life. She thinks that his hands could also return bone to flesh. At a point in the story, Ananda speaks about his sacred work:
Do you know the tradition of Netra Mangala? It is a ritual of the eyes....It is always the last thing done. It is what gives the image life. Like a fuse. The eyes are a fuse.....Without the eyes there is not just blindness, there is nothing. There is no existence. The artificer brings life sight and truth and presence. (2000, p 97)
Constructing a buddha statue is a sacred task. I think of painting Eastern Orthodox icons or inscribing a Torah scroll as cases where distinctive materials and careful attention to ritual processes are required to honor the sacredness of the object one creates. These processes connect the present to the past in what Hervieu-Legér calls a "chain of memory." Signaling sacred times is thus important to this the ritual task. The buddha's sculpting begins at an auspicious day and hour, and the statues are often modeled on earlier versions as this offers a continuity of original presence. The statue is filled with relics, texts and precious materials and possibly gems. On an auspicious day, the sangha consecrate or "ordain" the statue by chanting the sutras used when a a monk is ordained. This reminds me of the Catholic notion of "apostolic succession" in which Bishops ordain a priest by a "laying of hands" to pass on the Holy Spirit that carries back in unbroken succession to Jesus laying his hands on Peter.
The culminating act that transforms a Buddha statue from inert to presence is done by painting a 'dot' to make a pupil. The pupil is the light of life.
This process, according to Bernard Faure, bestows the statue with an aura. He thus suggests that it is best to consider the buddha statues as icons, religious objects with transcendent character, an object with aura. He takes Walter Benjamin's notion of the aura of art objects, in his The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In Benjamin's argument, the original work of art is endowed with some indivisibility that cannot be reproduced. Faure's application of aura to Buddhist icons that are reproduced thus needs some consideration. The aura of an object offers "the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be" ("WA," p. 222) since unapproachability is the nature of a cultic object. Faure considers Buddhist icons particularly in Chan Buddhism of Japan and China. His explication of the construction process helps us understand how the Buddha gains an aura.
The aura of Buddhist icons has to do with the deposit of relics within them and their ritual consecration: the term aura means "breath," and the consecration is an "installation of the breaths" (pranapratistha). In some cases, this aura also has to do with the beliefs in the divine power of the material element, stone or wood, as in the ichiboku (one-piece) sculpture in Japan: "The god in the unworked stone or stock continues to reside in the worked stone or stock."(91) This is also true, for instance, of the "miraculous" logs, found in many legends. In other cases, the wood is empowered during consecration ceremonies that take place once carving is initiated.(92) Finally, the aura is often explained as resulting from an unbroken line of mimesis and contact between the first icon and its later reproductions -- the power of this first icon, the Udayana image, itself owing to its resemblance to and contact with the Buddha himself. The importance of the initial view of the Buddha can also be explained in terms of verisimilitude. This is also true for the Chinese representations of the eighteen arhats, whose prototype was initially seen by the poetmonk Guanxiu in a dream. In all cases, the existence of a direct link, historical or metaphysical, with the ultramundane prototype is essential in order for it to become present in the icon -- hence the critical role of textual iconographies as a source of models.
Just as the vera eikon was imbued with the power of Christ through the impression of his face, the efficacy of Buddhist icons derives from their initial contact with the Buddha. This contact, however, does not have to be with the Buddha in the flesh, since his body was already, in a sense, merely an icon or a trace, an embodiment of the truth or dharma. Other traces or substitute bodies may have a similar effect. The Buddhist tradition seems to have hesitated between two models, one that insists on the superior value of the original or historical Buddha, and another that, in an almost Derridean fashion, undermines that foundation with its emphasis on the notion of traces. After the death of the Buddha, the sacred places where his paradigmatic life had unfolded and where his stupas remained came to play a similar role in the production of presence.
This website offers the various originary renditions of the living Buddha - in sandalwood (see below), metal and painting. Of course, these are set within a notion of his Dharmakaya, his non-phenomenal Buddha nature which is everywhere, but the stories themselves are quite specific about the longing for the presence of the guy not just his idea. Like holding a photograph of the person you love.
B. The First Wood Carving of the Buddha
...the first Buddha statue was carved during the summer retreat one particular year when the Buddha disappeared from his disciples. When the disciples realized that the Blessed One was nowhere to be found, they started asking around, but no one knew where he was. They then went to ask Ananda if he knew the whereabouts of the Buddha, but Ananda was also in the dark. Ananda suggested that they should solicit the help of Aniruddha, who was foremost in supernatural vision. Using his supernatural vision, Aniruddha found out that the Buddha had gone to Trayastrimsas Heaven to teach the Dharma to his deceased mother, Queen Maya. Why did the Buddha leave for Trayastrimsas Heaven without letting anyone know? There were three reasons. First, the Buddha had always wanted to teach the Dharma to his deceased mother to thank her for bringing him into this world. Second, as the Buddha was always around to teach them, some of his disciples had grown complacent and lax in attention to his teachings. Third, there had been some quarrels within the Sangha, and the Buddha wanted those involved to have time to reflect on their behavior.
Among those who missed the Buddha thae most was King Udayana of Kausambi. The king was most reverent toward the Buddha, and he missed the presence of the Buddha so much that he fell ill. The royal household put their heads together to find a way to make the king feel better. They all agreed that the best way was to find the best sculptor in the land and have him sculpt a statue of the Buddha. They hoped that, in the absence of the Buddha, they could pay their respects to the statue instead. The king was very pleased with the idea, and he immediately asked Maudgalyayana, who was foremost in supernatural power, to help them. Using his supernatural power, Maudgalyayana transported a sculptor to Trayastrimsas Heaven so that he might study the magnificent appearance of the Buddha. After three visits to the heaven, the sculptor finally carved a five-foot tall likeness of the Buddha out of sandalwood. When the king saw the finished statue, he was happy beyond words, and his illness was cured.
After three months, the Buddha returned to our world. On his return, the statue actually came alive and walked to welcome the Buddha home. The Buddha smiled and said, "You must be tired from these three months. For future generations of sentient beings, it will be up to you to remind them of the truth."
Thus, the first wooden image of the Buddha was carved while he was still alive, before his entering parinirvana. The statue coming alive to welcome the Buddha symbolizes that the Buddha is always present among us. When we see statues of the Buddha, we are in essence seeing the Buddha.
Swearer, Donald, Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand, Princeton University Press, 2004.
Faure, Bernard, The Buddhist Icon and the Modern Gaze, Critical Inquiry, Spring 1998, Vol 24, No. 3
_____________Visions of Power: Imagining Medieval Japanese Buddhism,
Translated from the French by Phyllis Brooks, Princeton U Press, 2000
Ondaatje, Michael, Anil's Ghost, Alfred Knopf, 2000