It has been a swirl of ancient bronzes and pottery shards and Chinese dynasties this fall at the Asian Art Museum. And what's most interesting within my stacks of flashcards for tomorrow's exam? Buddhism. Or the story of how a thoroughly Indian religion because Chinese.
|Seated Buddha (338) B60B1034|
When Buddhism actually showed up in China is a matter of debate. We first find Buddhas popping up in China in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, but as Stan Abe warns, "Those may look like Buddhas, but they're not actually Buddhas." We may see an image of a Buddha on a tomb wall, but that doesn't mean the artists who carved him, or the patrons who sponsored that carving, knew what a Buddha was. And how did Buddhism end up in China? Michael Sullivan states our 338 Buddha, the most famous piece in the museum's China collection, was based on a small Indian prototype from Gandhara. But our 338 Buddha appears to be a badly interpreted prototype, hence the heavy, double-shouldered robe and inventive meditative hand mudra. Michael Knight, our own Chinese curator, parries. Our 338 Buddha was not copied from an Indian piece, instead created from an idea in the mind of a monk. Fotudeng was this Chinese Buddhist monk who "had an idea of a Buddha." Trained in Kashmir, Fotudeng was a renowned meditation teacher and magician who lived to the ripe old age of 118. He also happened to be quite cozy with the new ruling family of the Later Zhao dynasty, and as a government official had the opportunity to found many Buddhist temples. Did our Buddha spring forth from a meditative idea of Fotudeng? Or is he a not-quite-accurate copy of an Indian Buddha? I'm starting to lean toward the Fotudeng idea, as strange as it might sound. It's poetic to think that the image of the Buddha would spring from a meditative idea in a practitioner's mind.
|Avalokiteshvara (484) B60B637|
Beyond the 338 Buddha, there's a lot of flinging about of the adjectives "awkward" and "lack of quality control" with early Buddhist images in China. Case in point is a small bronze statue of Avalokiteshvara (or as we refer to him in China, Guanyin). Guanyin ends up winning the bodhisattva popularity contest in Chinese Buddhist history (as the most widely portrayed bodhisattva in China), although you might not be able to tell that from this statue. This Avalokiteshvara is squat, blocky, has a great deal of exposed skin, and is described by its label as "exotic." Which all supports Abe's idea that the Buddha was a visual element the Chinese picked out because it was exotic and attractive. The museum label for this piece also supposes "a local lack of understanding" or severe lack of quality control in certain regions of China in 484 CE. His mandorla, or body halo, strangely cuts off mid-thigh. To me it looks like we've got a Guanyin with no shirt hanging out in a miniskirt. Which I suppose ties in with Guanyin's flexible appearance of gender, but a bodhisattva in a mini-skirt? Might work at Paris Fashion Week next season if it hits, but I don't think that's quite what we're going for. The least we can do is give the guy some gauzy scarves to drape around his torso.
|Mahasthamaprapta (550-577) B60S32+|
But fear not. There's some really beautiful Buddhist Chinese art to be had for this exam. My favorite is the head of the Buddhist deity Mahasthamaprapta, or as the Chinese would call him, Dashizhi. Perched high on a column in the gallery, you get a sense for how big the rest of him must have been. His features are round, serene, and youthful, a mark of Northern Qi sculpture (whose rulers were crazy about building Buddhist rock-cut cave complexes, one of which may have been the original home of our Dashizhi). But who is this Dashizhi? A representation of the power of wisdom, translated roughly as "the arrival of the great strength." (Thank you Wikipedia, because my Sanskrit never got me much beyond "maha.") He's a big man in the Pure Land School of Buddhism, which focuses on Amitabha Buddha. Pure Land Buddhism springs from Gandhara originally, and proposes that Amitabha created a Pure Land of Bliss after five eons of meditation called Sukhavati. Sukhavati is "a land of beauty surpassing all other realms" where believers are instructed by Amitabha and other bodhisattvas until they reach enlightenment. I vote for the Pure Land. Personalized instruction from bodhisattvas in the most beautiful place in the cosmos? I bet there's a lotta gauzy scarves there. And I believe we have also identified yet another important meditative idea, although Amitabha's Sukhavati might be a slightly larger idea than Fotudeng's.
|Maitreya (551) B60S279|
It can't all be pure lands and bliss, however, because that makes for a very uninteresting story. How about a little millenarianism to shake things up? Enter our marble Maitreya, dated 551. There'd been a lot of unblissful things happening in China, including the movement of the entire capital city of Luoyang to the south in 535 due to the collapse of the Northern Wei empire. On top of that, as Amy McNair tells us, the Daoists had messianic prophesies flying about when the Buddhists decided to sit down and do the math on how long dharma was actually supposed to exist in the world. Although their dating of the life of the Buddha was a little off, they came to the decisive conclusion that the world would end in 552, one year after this statue was made. So we have Maitreya, our Buddha of the future, hanging out in the pose of a pensive prince "waiting" for his time as a Buddha. End of the age of one Buddha coming? Hurry up the next one! Meanwhile, our Maitreya waits under his dragon flower tree for his time to come.
|Stele of Maitreya (687) B60S36+|
But how better to end a good story than with a little sex and a little slander? And yes, I'm talking about that roundish stone thing at left. Empress Wu, who for the record called herself Emperor Wu, is one adept woman. She entered the imperial harem of one emperor as a fifth ranked consort, outfoxed his empress, but when the emperor died was sent to the convent. So she decided to become the empress of the following emperor. And when the second emperor died? She declared herself emperor. And ruled. She moved the capital, expanded Chinese territory, and patronized a great deal of Buddhist art at Longmen. She had only two problems. The first is that Confucianism bars women from ruling. So she switched to Buddhism and declared herself the subject of the prophesy of the Great Cloud Sutra, saying that Maitreya will come in the form of a female deity. Problem solved! The second one is a little trickier. Folks had, and have, a very low opinion of her. Sullivan is almost beside himself in calling her "cruel and pious," and "had the shocking effrontery to declare herself 'emperor.'" All her contemporaries and a number of current scholars are bent out of shape about whether she killed her children, and how many other people she killed and in which ways she dispatched them. Poison? Witchcraft? Torture? Incest? It's all been thrown at her. Seems to me most of the male emperors we've been talking about are absolute paragons of virtue in comparison. Wu Zetian undoubtedly had many issues, but she also did have images of Maitreya commissioned in great numbers. And this one, from 687, comes after she had "usurped the throne" in 685. The inscription, interestingly, "is offered for the purpose that the Heavenly Emperor and the Heavenly Empress control all the myriad states." And so our story concludes with an empress who styles herself Maitreya and Buddhism firmly entrenched in legitimizing the Chinese state. I'd say Chinese Buddhism has arrived.