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Mahayana Buddhism, Maitreya and Swat

To understand some of the symbolism of the three and four Buddhist Hares and their meaning it is important to understand the concept of Mahayana Buddhism. Kanishka is credited in playing a part in instigating the Fourth Great Buddhist council, which was held in Kashmir. It is said that he gathered five hundred monks who set about translating the Buddha’s words from Pali into Sanskrit. It is around this time that the division occurred between the Hinayana and the Mahayana, the Lesser and Greater vehicles relating to the Buddha’s teaching – the Mahayana embracing wholeheartedly the concept of the Bodhisattva, an enlightened being who has delayed his full enlightenment to be on earth and help lesser mortals. The Dalai Lama is one such being as he is the embodiment of Avalokitesvara or in Tibetan Chen Regzig. ‘Lord who looks down’ – the embodiment of Compassion. There are many different forms of Avalokitesvara. Sometimes statues have four arms; sometimes a thousand arms and heads. His mantra is the well known mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum, which means far more than just ‘Oh Jewel in the Lotus’.

Mahayana Buddhism makes it theoretically possible for everyone to become bodhisattvas and to take the bodhisattva vows. With these vows, the devotee makes the promise to work for the complete enlightenment of all sentient beings by practising the six perfections of giving, moral discipline, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom. It is a path open to layman as well and not just monks. It is better in their eyes to practise for the benefit of others, rather than just for one’s own enlightenment: compassion and altruism rolled into one.5

Then there is the concept of the Maitreya, the Buddha to come, the future Buddha. Buddhists have an almost geological or astronomical idea of time. The present Buddha is the one we know about who lived and died around 2,500 years ago. There is the past Buddha who is way back in ‘Jurassic’ time, and then many still believe that the future Buddha or the Maitreya will return when his teaching is most needed, rather like the Messiah and the Second Coming. The Maitreya also refers to the Buddha within your own self which can be released when the practitioner reaches perfection through years of meditation. Maitreya keeps you on the straight and narrow.

A thousand years ago the cult of the Maitreya was very important in Ladakh and Western Tibet and was the subject of many larger than life statues, rock carvings and wall paintings even in Hunza and Gilgit. The concept of the Mahayana Bodhisattva path and visual display of its teaching and integration with the past lives of the Buddha is therefore crucial in understanding the art and doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism and in particular the paintings of Alchi and Basgo. Here the Three/Four Hares symbol occurs only in Maitreya temples. They are painted on depictions of textiles, either on the dhoti or loin cloth of the Maitreya, and on the ceilings of stupas and temples. In other words the Three and Four Hares would appear to have an important underlying link with Mahayana Buddhism, and the Maitreya in particular.

Also there may well be a tantric element to the Three Hares symbol. Tantra is believed to have evolved in the region of Swat in modern day Pakistan, close to the Afghan border. Swat which was once within the old North West Frontier Province is now technically part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in Malakand Division.

It is from Swat that one of the earliest Three Hares symbols occurs in the form of a terracotta plaque dated to the Shahi period 9th-10th centuries AD. It was found at Barikot6 in 1990. Barikot was identified by both Aurel Stein and Professor Tucci as the ancient town of Bazira and in its day Barikot apparently even rivalled Taxila for the number of temples and its Buddhist teaching. Italian archaeological teams have been working there since 1984. The best reference to the Three Hares plaque and its context comes from a paper by Dr Anna Filigenzi of Naples University.7 Dr Filigenzi provides archaeological material in context for the Three Hares and a broad look at Buddhist Art at that time and shows its links back to Iran and Central Asia. She also mentions the Kizil caves. Anna Filigenzi was director of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Afghanistan in 2004 and has been a member of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan since 1984.

Terracotta plaque from Bari Not, Swat

Terracotta plaque from Bari Kot, Swat, N.W. Pakistan, 9th-10th centuries AD, Shahi period. Size 8cm diameter. Source: Swat Museum Saidu Sharif, NW Pakistan

The terracotta plaque was found in what might well be described as a small fire temple. Fire ritual was common in Iran and the Shahi period8, linked with Kabul and Kapisa. The Shahi period whose Kings succeeded the Kushanas ruled over much of what was Gandhara. The terracotta seal is probably from the end of the Buddhist Kabul Shahi period. Both Buddhists and Hindus lived alongside each other for over five hundred years. The early Buddhist kings may even have been Tibetan. At that time Ladakh also controlled much of what is now Western Tibet.

The use of the plaque is not yet determined and it may even be a similar to Tibetan ts’a ts’a9 which are funerary figures often in the shape of a Buddha, and made after a cremation. After cremation a small portion of the remaining ash and crushed bone is mixed with clay, moulded into Buddha figures and then fired. These are deposited in sacred spots. Sometimes around old statues. Usually eight are made from each cremation. The rest of the ashes then tipped into the river. Many ts’a ts’a can still be seen today in Ladakh.

The Three Barikot Hares share ears but are not running. They are lying down quietly almost as if they are deer meditating. Their ‘paws’ do look a bit like hooves. Also on the plaque are what look like two sets of flames or possibly vegetation and a surround of thirty dots which may correspond to days of the month. Time and ritual are often linked. If it is a fire temple this will have possible connections with Buddhist Vajrayana Fire rituals that are still carried out today in Ladakhi and Tibetan monasteries.

In those days Swat was known as Uddiyana, which means ‘garden’ or ‘orchard’ in Sanskrit, and had strong links with India.10 Today Swat is still scattered with the remains of many important Buddhist sites. There are stupas from the time of Ashoka 2nd century BC. Also there may well be a Tantric element to the Three Hares symbol, as Tantra is believed to have evolved in Swat. A dakini is a ‘sky goer’, an enlightened female practitioner who imparts pleasure and divine knowledge at the same time. Uddiyana is also known as ‘paradise of the dakinis’. The Buddhist background story to the Three Hares is therefore a complex web both intellectually, spiritually and historically.

In Tibetan folklore hares are also regarded as being very wise and quick-witted embodying wisdom, featuring in many folk tales. Hares are also consulted on questions of fertility and are linked to the moon. So from Kanishka’s white hare in Peshawar there is a slender thread reaching back to the early Buddhist teachings and another slender thread leading all the way through Ladakh to the caves in Dunhuang.

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