G.K. Chesterton, with his usual wit, candor and insight, said in Orthodoxy, which I read over this past summer, the following:
Even when I thought, with most other well-informed, though unscholarly, people, that Buddhism and Christianity were alike, there was one thing about them that always perplexed me; I mean the startling difference in their type of religious art. I do not mean in its technical style of representation, but in the things that it was manifestly meant to represent. No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive. There cannot be any real community of spirit between forces that produced symbols so different as that. Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances. The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards. If we follow that clue steadily we shall find some interesting things.
It is interesting to me that Manichaeism, which was for centuries a popular Christian church opposing itself to the Catholic Church, has left remains of itself in China and around eastern central Asia where it moved when it lost the cultural war for the heart of the Roman empire to Catholicism. Now, Manichaeism is itself recognized, with good reason, as being one of the forms of early Christian Gnosticism, and thus it is interesting to wonder whether one of the clues about how different Manichaeism was to Catholicism might be previewed in the religious art that they produced. If I had to have guessed, I would have guessed that Manichaeism would have produced icons of saints with closed eyes. To my surprise, I found that every piece of Manichean art we have left pictures people either with eyes open, or at least never with eyes shut. What makes this even more interesting is that the art we do have comes, as I understand it, almost exclusively from Turfan and surrounding cites/areas. As an article in the Encyclopedia Iranica states:
With the exception of a rock-crystal seal (Klimkeit, p. 50) in the collection of the Bibliothиque Nationale de France in Paris(INT. 1384 BIS, FIGURE 1), no other item of Manichean art is known from Sasanian Mesopotamia, where the religion had originated. Nor are there any artistic remains from the Mediterranean region, where Manicheism was present from the 4th to at least the 6th-7th centuries. The same is true for western Central Asia and Persia, where Manichean communities existed up to the 10th century. The vast majority of the Manichean art known today derives from eastern Central Asia, where this religion was supported by the ruling elite of the Turkic-speaking Uighurs, between the mid-8th and early 11th centuries (Clark, pp. 83-123; Moriyasu, 2003, pp. 84-112).
For a good example, see this piece of art. Thus, I anticipated wrongly that the icons and art leftover from Manichaeism would have presented saints with closed eyes, and I had even anticipated that if the majority of these were from Asia then somebody might argue that they had pictured saints with their eyes closed because their art was culturally tempered more than it was ideologically tempered. It is thus surprising indeed that their art, even in the heart of Asia, pictured saints with such widely open and alert eyes. It is interesting because it seems to show two things: first, that their art was not culturally tempered more than it was ideologically tempered, and second that the ideology by which it was tempered must be closer to Catholicism than I had, perhaps rashly, imagined.
Gnosticism, of course, has some parallels with Buddhism, but it obviously has many more parallels with Catholicism. Upon reflection, it should not have surprised me that Manichean art pictured their saints with open eyes since the Manicheans themselves believed that salvation came through knowledge (Gnosis) which comes by enlightenment and illumination. Buddhism seeks Nirvana, while Gnosticism seeks knowledge of the Pleroma, and those are about as different as could be.
Interestingly, I think I can identify what overlap I saw between Gnosticism and Buddhism which, I assumed, could account for the iconographic display of closed eyes. Chesterton himself spells out the following:
It is just here that Buddhism is on the side of modern pantheism and immanence. And it is just here that Christianity is on the side of humanity and liberty and love. Love desires personality; therefore love desires division. It is the instinct of Christianity to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces, because they are living pieces. It is her instinct to say “little children love one another” rather than to tell one large person to love himself. This is the intellectual abyss between Buddhism and Christianity; that for the Buddhist or Theosophist personality is the fall of man, for the Christian it is the purpose of God, the whole point of his cosmic idea. The world-soul of the Theosophists asks man to love it only in order that man may throw himself into it. But the divine centre of Christianity actually threw man out of it in order that he might love it. The oriental deity is like a giant who should have lost his leg or hand and be always seeking to find it; but the Christian power is like some giant who in a strange generosity should cut off his right hand, so that it might of its own accord shake hands with him. We come back to the same tireless note touching the nature of Christianity; all modern philosophies are chains which connect and fetter; Christianity is a sword which separates and sets free. No other philosophy makes God actually rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls. But according to orthodox Christianity this separation between God and man is sacred, because this is eternal. That a man may love God it is necessary that there should be not only a God to be loved, but a man to love him. All those vague theosophical minds for whom the universe is an immense melting-pot are exactly the minds which shrink instinctively from that earthquake saying of our Gospels, which declare that the Son of God came not with peace but with a sundering sword. The saying rings entirely true even considered as what it obviously is; the statement that any man who preaches real love is bound to beget hate. It is as true of democratic fraternity as a divine love; sham love ends in compromise and common philosophy; but real love has always ended in bloodshed. Yet there is another and yet more awful truth behind the obvious meaning of this utterance of our Lord. According to Himself the Son was a sword separating brother and brother that they should for an aeon hate each other. But the Father also was a sword, which in the black beginning separated brother and brother, so that they should love each other at last.
This is true not only of Buddhism, but of early typical Gnosticism. The cosmogonic stories told by Gnosticism and Buddhism are not, in this respect, so far apart from each other, and both are placed at an arm’s length from normative Christianity. Regardless, however, it is clear that this ideological overlap did not put Manichaeism in a position to develop art depicting saints with closed eyes. Therefore, I think Manichean art helps show us that religious iconography is ideologically tempered according to religious doctrine more than it is culturally tempered, and in addition what makes it the case that Catholicism and Manichaeism depict their saints with open eyes is that they believe that there is some objective truth the discovery of which is itself salvific, a truth to which we are invited. Buddhism just doesn’t have the resources, then, to produce images of Bodhisattvas with widely open eyes.