Buddha’s birthday image processions in LUOYANG, 503 – 528 CE

Situated east of Xi'an on the Yellow River, the Northern Wei capital of Luoyang is considered a cradle of Chinese civilization and the peony capital of the world. It was also the eastern beginning of the ancient Silk Road. Acceptance of Buddhism by reigning emperors circa 500 C.E. led to the establishment of more than one thousand temples and monasteries in the region, all of which joined in creating image processions commemorating the Buddha's Birthday. These joyous annual celebrations are the subject of our triptych painting.


About the painting

The Emperor
As the ruler of the Northern Wei capital of Luoyang, China, Emperor Xuanwu (circa 500 C.E.) embraced Buddhism as his religion. To celebrate Buddha’s birthday, 1,000 local temples paraded their finest statues through the city on specially designed carriages, carts, or litters. In our triptych mural, Emperor Xuanwu is shown offering long-stemmed lotuses to each carriage as it passes by his palace.

Lotus Flower
The lotus has a special symbolic meaning to Buddhists and is often shown in temple art and statuary. Just as this flower emerges clean and beautiful from swampy waters, people of all backgrounds can aspire to purity of spirit and behavior through the study and practice of Buddhism.

Incense Burner
The burning of fragrant incense is a lovely tradition in many religions. For Buddhists, the transformation of dried plant material into smoke symbolizes the “impermanence” of all people and things in this world. It reminds us to make good use our time by seeking truth, developing wisdom, and helping others.

Buddhist Flag
The Buddhist flag contains several symbolic color bands which represent the following virtuous qualities:
Blue – Universal Compassion for all beings
Yellow – Choosing the Middle Path (moderation)
Red – Blessings
White – Purity and Liberation
Orange – Developing Wisdom

Chanting Beads
Chanting beads are used by Buddhists during ceremonies and at home to keep count of prayers. Longer strings contain 108 beads, while wrist bracelets usually contain a multiple of this number, such as 18, 27, or 54 beads. Wearing a “mala” of prayer beads dignifies the appearance and is also useful in making prayer offerings to the Buddha.

Buddhist temples and monasteries are attended by a religious order of monastics who vowed to serve others through selfless wisdom and compassion. They have spent a great deal of time studying the truths spoken by Buddha more than 2,500 years ago and now serve as our teachers. The Mahayana Buddhist tradition ordains both males (monks) and females (nuns) to do this important work.

Triple Gem
Buddhist practitioners agree to honor three “treasures” which form the foundation of the religion and keep it relevant in today’s world. The three jewels that comprise the Triple Gem are: 1) the wisdom of the Buddha, 2) the truths of his spoken Dharma, and 3) the Sangha of monks and nuns who serve as present-day teachers.

One of the figures represented in our triptych mural is Bodhidharma, the Persian monk who is credited with bringing many of the Buddha’s teachings from India to China. He is known as the First Patriarch of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism of China.

The apsara shown in our triptych mural is one of many legendary celestial dancers who strews golden petals over those entering Luoyang to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday.

The Buddha’s Birthday Education Project uses a 6-tusked white elephant as our logo. It reminds us of a similar elephant that visited Queen Maya in a dream some 2,500 years ago to announce the birth of her future son who would become the Buddha.

TIMELINE: Begun in May/June 2011 and completed October 1, 2011
FINISHED DIMENSIONS: 3 x 6 feet, opened; 3 x 3 feet closed

Stretched canvas panels
Sketching pens/pencils
Acrylic art paints
Flat and round brushes
Metallic paints & Markers
Door Panels
Liquid and hot glues
Plywood panels
House and spray paints
Wooden knobs
Lion head door pulls “Jewels,” bindi, glitter

68 Human Figures , 10 Statues, 12 Animals


Literary Evidence
A Record of Monasteries in Luoyang 洛陽伽藍記
Gold-colored flowers reflected the dazzling sunlight 金花映日
Bejeweled canopies over the carriages for the images floated in the clouds 寶蓋浮雲
Banners were as numerous as trees in a forest旛幢若林
Incense smoke was as thick as a fog 香煙似霧
Indian music and the din of chanted Buddhist scriptures moved heaven and earth 梵樂法音聒動天地
Variety shows were performed to crowds 百戲騰驤
A throng of renowned monks and virtuous masters carried a staff each 名僧德眾負錫為群
Buddhist devotees held flowers resembling a garden in bloom 信徒法侶持花成藪
Carriages and horses choked traffic 車騎填咽繁衍相傾


A Record of Buddhist Monasteries in Lo-Yang
The Ching-Ming Monastery … At the time, the nation liked to pray for happiness, [so] on the seventh day of the fourth month all images in the capital were assembled in this monastery, numbering more than one thousand, according to the records of the Office of Sacrifices, Department of State Affairs. On the eighth day, the images [were carried] one by one into the Hsüan-yang Gate, where the emperor would scatter flowers in front of the Ch’ang-ho Palace.
At this moment, gold-colored flowers reflected the dazzling sunlight, and the bejeweled canopies [over the carriages] for the images floated in the clouds. Banners were [as numerous as trees] in a forest, and incense smoke was [as thick as] a fog. Indian music and the din of chanted Buddhist scriptures moved heaven and earth alike. Wherever variety shows [were performed], there was congestion. Renowned monks and virtuous masters, each carrying a staff, formed a throng. The Buddhist devotees and their “companions in the law” holding flowers resembled a garden in bloom. Carriages and horses choked [traffic] and jostled each other. A foreign monk from the Western Regions saw it, and he chanted and said it was [the same as the Buddha’s land as he had witnessed it].

Source: Xuanzhi 楊衒之 Yang, A Record of Buddhist Monasteries in Lo-Yang 洛陽伽藍記, trans. Yi-t’ung Wang (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), 126–127.

Photos of the painting were taken by Chi-Cheng Chang. Northern Wei Painting is painted by Nancy Cowardin. Written by Nancy Cowardin.



Download files:

1. Triptych with 3 panels images and a whole painting image files

2. Triptych Hotspot html file

3. Nancy's voice recording about the Triptych mp3 file

4. Buddha's Birthday Parade in Northern Wei description literary text file

5. Buddha's Birthday Procession in Luoyang text file