Sunday, May 8, 2011

Chinese Buddhist Sculptures; their purpose and function

Dear Reader,
Following up on the last post about Chinese Buddhist Sculpture and Fakes, I am now going into the purpose and function of these beautiful works of art.
As many of my readers are aware, but some may not be, Buddhism believes that the world is illusion and the source of suffering, that desire is the cause of pain, and to transcend the world and escape from the world is the highest good. Buddha, through meditation and his middle path, arrived at through years of different practices, attained nirvana, the state of full release from this world. Such an unworldly religion would seem to be antithetical to the creation of art, and for the first few centuries it was aniconic, with no images of the Buddha per se, his presence was represented by a footprint, the wheel of Dharma, the Bodhi Tree under which he attained enlightenment, and an empty throne. It was only in the Gandhara, which was influenced by Greece and Rome as Alexander the Great had gotten that far into India and ties developed between the two worlds, that images of the Buddha started to be created. Legend has it that the King Udayana, who was a disciple of the Buddha, after the Buddha passed into parinirvana, found his absence unbearable and commissioned the first statue of him. According to the legend all subsequent statues of the Buddha were based on that original image.


Standing Buddha
Gandhara, 3rd Century A.D.
Grey schist, Height: 38 inches.
(from my personal collection, sold in 2008)


The above image, of a Buddha I owned for a few years, and then sold, is the prototypical Gandhara Buddha. Characteristic of this style are the Western style drapery which is naturalistically rendered with the body revealed underneath it. Also typical are the un-Western proportions, dictated not by nature but by scripture, as you will read later here.
However, given the emphasis on the internal and personal experience of the follower, who through meditation was attempting to follow the Buddha into Nirvana, the role of art is hard to understand. However as Buddhism developed over time it broadened and incorporated other beliefs into it, and different schools of practice developed. The Mahayana, "Great Vehicle", made room for images, and in China, is explained best in the essay Merit-Cultivation Practices and Image Making in the Northern Dynasties, by Wendi Leigh Adamek, published in Treasures Rediscovered, Chinese Stone Sculpture from the Sackler Collections at Columbia University, in 2008. A remarkable catalog, this essay is one of the best explanations of Buddhism and the role of art in it that I have read to date.

According to Adamek:

"As noted at the outset, it is helpful to see Buddhist images in light of the complex links between faith and doctrine. From the devotional perspective, not only the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas but also the scriptures themselves functioned as manifestations of the Dharma (Buddhist teachings), with a salvational power that was accessible to all devotees. This soteriological (from Soter, savior) or salvific, function does not run counter to the Buddhist doctrines of no-self and emptiness....According to this doctrine, ....there are no individual beings....All that appears to us is an illusion....
In the Huayan school of Buddhism, this is explained through a visual analogy: it is as if the universe is a vast net with glittering jewels hung at every intersecting point. Every jewel is reflected in all other jewels, and all the jewels are reflected in each. In reality, however, there are no jewels and no net; in other words there are no beings and no time and space. .....
Ordinary beings perceive the illusory manifestations produced by the interrelation of all phenomena and believe them to be real. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, however, are those who have realized the ultimate lack of reality of these phenemena. Buddhas (fully realized) and bodhisattvas (on the path to Buddhahood) are no longer bound by appearances, and they are able to work with conventional truth in order to help other beings overcome the illusions that produce suffering....
Devotion to Buddhas and bodhisattvas and to the images that represent them elicits a response, moving the salvific figure to deploy the power of his or her merit to relieve the sufferings of the devotee. Note that according to this view of reality, both the cosmic Buddhas and the images that represent them are illusions, but they are illusions created through merit and thus have the power of "skillful means."....
The Two Truths are two perspectives on the same reality/effect. The seemingly specific and illusory nature of images and merit on the conventional level is not different from unlimited, absolute emptiness. The two levels are inseparable, but they appear to refer to each other."


This is heady stuff, think about it for a moment; if all is illusion, time and space don't exist, then the Buddha is both in the image and in his "Pure Land" at the same time, these images both truly reflect the beings represented even though they are illusions. That the enlightened ones see through the illusion of this world, and can work with it, mean that truly, when you see halos around their heads, and flames shooting around them, these beings radiate power, the power to transform the world. As fire is a transforming agent, it destroys, melts, changes what it touches, so the Buddha's presence does to the world around him. Think of the movie the Matrix, when Neo sees the matrix and can then work with it, he transcended the rules of the matrix. The Matrix is one of my favorite movies as it is one of the best popular culture representations of this Buddhist idea.

Another aspect of Buddhist belief emphasized visualizations as a way to get closer to the Buddha and enlightenment. There were specific exercises and guides to visualization meant to help the believer in this. Images were an aid in this visualization, and were created according the the scriptural descriptions of the Buddha. There were two sets of attributes, the 32 Signs of the Great Man, and 80 secondary characteristics. Not to list them all, here are few to give you an idea of the scriptural description that shaped the images of the Buddha we see here:
Level feet, long slender fingers, arched insteps, hands reaching below the knees, well retracted male organ (that is why he appears almost feminine in the body), Golden hued body, Ten-foot aura around him, and many more, but lastly, Fleshy protuberance on the crown of the head (the ushnisha).


Standing Buddha, China, Northern Wei (386-534)
Gilt bronze, Height: 55 1/4 inches
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC



One of the characteristics listed is finely webbed toes and fingers, which some early sculptures show, but later that unnatural feature is dropped. If one were really to create such a figure following the enumerated features, the result would be quite strange, freakish actually. However, the artists managed to find a harmonious medium, using some but not all of the prescripted attributes, but it explains why the figures are not naturalistic, and sometimes appear awkward or even provincial to a Western eye. In the East, the artists were interested in depicting a spiritual reality, not the physical reality we all refer too. The image above of a superb gilt bronze statue at the Metropolitan Museum has the webbed hands, which are huge, on overly long arms, and very unnatural proportions. But it is beautiful and very expressive. Interesting it is dated by an inscription on the back to the year 486 A.D., which makes it a relatively early Chinese Buddhist sculpture.

In summation, while Buddhism's goal is non-being, an escape from reality, achieved through meditation and other practices, the images created were aids on the path, and can be understood in the context of the scriptures and beliefs. The early flowering of Buddhism in China from the Fifth through Eighth Centuries produced some of the worlds greatest sculpture, the equal in its majesty, to Egyptian or Khmer Cambodian sculpture with which it shares an austerity and elegance.

1 comment:

Antique Buddhas said...

Chinese Buddha statues are some of the most popular and I am surprised and excited to see this many Giant Buddha statues i.e. Big Buddha of Yungang, Big Buddha of Lushan, Leshan Buddha statues, Spring Temple Buddha of Vairochana Buddha etc. The list goes on and on yet there is no words to actually explain my feelings.