The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism teach that although life is suffering (dukkha), suffering is caused by desire (tanha), and therefore, if we can eliminate desire, we can eliminate suffering. Desire includes craving for and attachment to a sensuous experience—attachment to beauty (subha), and in particular, to the beauty of the body, can lead to sensual or sexual desire (subhanimitta). Following the Eightfold Path of right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration, one can begin to let go of attachment and move toward absolute enlightenment, nirvana (or nibbana).
Living in accordance with the principles of the Eightfold Path includes efforts to avoid temptations that lure one toward desire. Buddhism provides specific guidelines for right practice—monks (bhikkus) avoid attachment to physical comforts by wearing simple clothing, usually robes, without adornment; eating whatever food is provided willingly to them by members of the laity; and remaining celibate. Laypersons can elude desire by avoiding excesses—while humans must eat to survive, they should neither starve themselves nor overindulge in food or drink. Although they should be pleased by the beauty inherent in all living beings, they must do so without attachment to that beauty. A well-known Buddhist parable tells the story of Queen Khema, wife of an Indian maharaja, who was infatuated by her own beauty. The Buddha, however, presented her with a vision of a beautiful nymph, and showed the nymph gradually changing from a magnificent youth to an infirm, shriveled old creature. Seeing the transformation, Queen Khema realized the vanity of her false pride, and the impermanence of corporeal beauty, and thereafter sought to lead an enlightened life.
Buddhism’s rejection of physical gratification as a means to happiness should not be misinterpreted as asceticism. The Buddha did not dismiss or renounce beauty as a part of existence. To the contrary, the Buddha spoke often of beauty and espoused recognition of beauty as an incentive for more enlightened living. The beauty of nature—of flowers, the moon, animals, trees, and mountains, for example— is a common theme in Buddhist texts. In the Theragatha (Verses of the Elders), verse 1,063, Maha Kassapa, one of the Buddha’s closest disciples, wrote of the beauty of nature: These rocks with hue of dark-blue clouds/ Where streams are flowing, cool and crystal-clear/With glow-worms covered (shining bright)/These rocky heights delight my heart.
The lotus flower, in particular, has special meaning in Buddhism as a being that holds great beauty. The lotus grows from the mud and mire at the bottom of a lake, yet blossoms into an immaculate, fragrant flower, unfolding its sparkling petals toward the sun. Thus the lotus symbolizes the possibility of spiritual flowering of human consciousness, moving from ignorance to nirvana: “The lotus will grow even in rubbish thrown away. It will delight the heart with its sweet smell and beauty” (Dhammapada, verse 58).
Various meditations instruct practitioners to visualize the beautiful body of the Buddha, usually translucent, with supreme light emanating from his being. When the Buddha began to be portrayed in art, his form reflected great beauty through ideal, harmonious physical proportions, and a gentle, calm face with a slight smile—the Amida Buddha, or Buddha of the Infinite Light, who has reached nirvana.
In Buddhism, beauty is an intrinsic quality of all things, not a subjective attribute restricted to a few. Seeing beauty subjectively values some beings or things over others, judging some to be more beautiful. Beauty, the Buddha taught, should not become the basis for individual likes or dislikes, as this leads to attachment—rather, we find joy in the beauty around us without attaching external value to it. Buddhism recognizes that all beings are part of a whole, and the whole is beautiful. Beauty is without any specific form, and in effect could be called formless, yet it also serves as a unifying force. Because all beings are interconnected, all beings have intrinsic beauty.
Peace and Love, Jim