The Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva was created by a group of artisan-specialists, rather than one individual carver. In this lesson students will work as a class, each drawing one specific body part, to create a representation of their teacher.
Intended Age GroupElementary (grades K-5)
Length of LessonOne 50 minute lesson
Standards AreaVisual Arts
Students will be able to:
- describe the artistic characteristics of the Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva, such as hand gestures, the lotus flower, and the eleven heads;
- collaborate with classmates to create a large-scale drawing; and
- work effectively in a team.
- Warm-up: Distribute a piece of paper to each student. Have them fold their paper into thirds. Invite the students to draw a head in the top third of the paper. The head could be a human head, an animal head, or a crazy creature head. Make sure they draw lines for a neck that overlap a little into the middle section of the paper. Fold the top third of the paper backwards so the head is not visible. Have the students pass their papers to the right. Invite the students to now draw a body, connected to the part of the neck that is still visible in the middle section. Again, the body could be human, animal, or completely made up. Make sure the students draw lines for legs that overlap the bottom third section. Fold the paper again so only the bottom third is visible. Pass the paper once more to the right. Invite the students to finish the drawing by adding legs. Pass the papers back to the original artist. Unfold the paper and have fun exploring the creations! This warm-up demonstrates what can happen in a collaborative artwork.
- Show the students the image of the Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva and ask them to point out things that they see in this sculpture. Introduce the Bodhisattva and highlight different aspects of the statue using the About the Art section—topics should include closer looks at the hand gestures, clothing, the lotus flower throne, the crown, the eleven heads, and a discussion of the original colors of the statue.
- Share with students the following paragraph from the About the Art section: "This sculpture was made in the yosegi [yoh-SEH-gee] fashion, a technique that involved carving several separate pieces of wood, then assembling them to form the sculpture. After the pieces were assembled, the detailed carving would begin. Often, each piece of wood was carved by a different artisan-specialist. This kind of assembly line production turned out more large-scale images than a single artisan could, and in a shorter amount of time."
- Ask students: If we had to carve this sculpture, how would we divide up the parts?
- Explain to the students that today they will be experimenting with this idea of multiple artists working together to create an artwork. They will work together to create a large drawing of a person from pop culture (you can have the students decide, or you can decide – it just has to be a human figure. Ideas could be super heroes, characters from popular shows or movies that your students like, famous athletes, etc.). Find an image(s) of this person, and display them where the whole class can see them.
- Begin by having students draw an outline of the body on butcher paper (or you can do this beforehand).
- Divide your students into six groups and explain that each group will be given a different part of the body to draw. Ask them how you could divide the large drawing into six sections (you could divide it into: head; right arm; left arm; torso; right leg; and left leg). Draw lines on the large image and then cut it into sections.
- Distribute sections and have the students work in their groups to draw their particular body part. Be sure that they look closely at the images you provide to make an accurate representation.
- When the students are finished, have them work as a team to tape the body parts together, assembling the different pieces to create a whole. Compare the students’ drawing to the subject. What is similar? What is different? Was it difficult to create only one part of the body? What was it like working together on a big artwork? Do all of the parts work well together?
- Butcher paper
- Colored markers or colored pencils
- Scotch tape and scissors
- Ability to find and display an image/images of a figure from popular culture for the whole class to see (see lesson for details)
- About the Art section on the Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva of Compassion (included with the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
- One color copy of the sculpture for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Visual Arts
- Invent and Discover to Create
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Envision and Critique to Reflect
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
This sculpture was most likely made by multiple artisans who were called busshi [BOO-shee] (Japanese sculptors of Buddhist images). It was made during Japan’s Heian period (794-1185 CE), an era characterized by a great flowering of literature, art, and religious thinking. During the Heian period, sculptures were made almost exclusively of wood. This sculpture was made in the yosegi [yoh-SEH-gee] fashion, a technique that involved carving several separate pieces of wood and assembling them to form the sculpture. After the pieces were assembled, the detailed carving would be finished. Often, each piece of wood was carved by a different artisan-specialist. This kind of assembly line production turned out more large-scale images than a single artisan could, and in a shorter amount of time. This sculpture was also painted with brilliant colors, but the paint has worn off over time, leaving the wood exposed in certain areas.
What Inspired It?
The word bodhisattva [boh-dee-SAHT-vah] means "one whose essence is enlightenment.” A bodhisattva is an important figure in the Buddhist religion. In Buddhism, all living beings take part in an ongoing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, known as the Wheel of Life. All deeds, good or bad, are carried from past lives into future lives. This cycle continues until sufficient knowledge and spiritual experience leads to enlightenment, or nirvana [neer-VAH-nah]. A bodhisattva is a being who has achieved nirvana but, instead of passing out of the Wheel of Life, chooses to remain in the world to help others. Bodhisattvas exercise compassion by sharing the wisdom they have gained during their many past lives.
This sculpture is a representation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion (called Kannon [KAH-known] in Japanese), who was one of the most popular bodhisattvas in Heian Japan. The name Kannon means “the one who hears their cries.” Believers appeal to Kannon for help in achieving enlightenment and protection from disaster. This sculpture was an object of devotion, probably placed in a Buddhist temple complex where devotees could make offerings to the bodhisattva.
There are thirty-two different forms of Kannon; this sculpture depicts the form called the Eleven-Headed Kannon. Only five of the eleven small heads remain on the top of the sculpture. The eleven heads are said to originate out of the despair that the bodhisattva felt at seeing countless individuals who had not found salvation. This grief caused his head to split into ten fragments which then formed into additional heads. The additional heads symbolize his awareness of the needs of all conscious beings—humans, animals, and insects.
Jeweled crowns are typical of bodhisattvas and suggest royal stature.
The bodhisattva’s expression is meant to express gentleness or kindness. The eyes are almost closed and may convey a sense of calm.
The proportions of this sculpture mirror the fashions of the upper class during the Heian Period. The padded hips, slightly bulging belly, full arms, rings of flesh on the neck, and long, pierced earlobes are all signs of wealth and nobility. Being thin as a sign of beauty is very much a creation of the modern world. In the past, in most cultures, beauty was associated with having plenty to eat and being a bit on the fleshy side.
The lotus plant symbolizes purity emerging from an imperfect world. Lotus flowers grow from the mud at the bottom of a pond and eventually bloom on top of clear water.
Although the wood grain would not have been visible originally (it would have been hidden under brightly colored paint), its lines follow the forms of the face and body with precision.
These hand positions are called mudra [MOO-drah] and are a kind of hand-sign language. One hand is held down with palm open and the fingers gently cupped. The other hand is raised with thumb and middle finger together. These two hand gestures together might have suggested appeasement, or bringing peace and calmness to the world. However, it is possible the hands were replaced over the years, as hands are fragile and tend to break off of sculptures.