statue “The Bodhisattva of Compassion (Guanyin) Seated in Royal Ease,” from China, 1000-1100, a gazer is first struck by the what might be termed the ‘royalty’ of the piece. In other words, the sculpture is extremely ornate yet lifelike in its quality. The construction and the Mahayana Buddhist religious ideation behind the work stress the removal of the deity from human nature, yet its compelling interest in human nature. It is created from Polychromed Wood, and has a shining, almost painted appearance that gives its skin an almost human texture. It stands approximately 95 x 65 inches (241.3 cm) and was created in the Shanxi Province during the Liao Dynasty (A.D. 907-1125).
The statue specifically depicts the Bodhisattva Guanyin, the Chinese Buddhist deity of compassion and mercy, seating on a crag of rock, as if she were seated on a mountain, high above the gazer’s eye level. However, Guanyin does not appear entirely ‘above’ the gazer in terms of her attitude. In fact, the position of the Guanyin conveys the impression that the Bodhisattva might at any moment awake from a state of deep contemplation and step down from the carved lotus rest to meet the individual staring at her statue.
This Bodhisattva’s worldly ornaments, such as her high tiara and rich necklaces in sumptuous detail, contrast with the usual images of the Buddha, Siddharta Guatama, who tends to be depicted in more plain, fleshy terms. Guanyin’s soft skin, contour of the body, and beguiling charm of the smile create an aura of beauty rather than humanity.
The wood of her statue is finished so that the statue looks as if a light from a great height shines it down upon her head. However, rather than the more conventional sainted ‘halo’ of Western art, this Bodhisattva is supposed to be shining with the compassion of an awakening from entrapment the suffering of the material world into an altered state of understanding and consciousness. (Saunders 19)
Such Buddhist notions, along with Buddhism itself originated in India. The historical Buddha, an Indian prince known as Siddhartha Guatama, was born in the foothills of the Himalayas about 560 BC. Early in his life, he set out on a quest for inner peace that became the Buddhist tradition. Indian Buddhism today is usually known as part of the strain of Theravadan Buddhism. Robinson & Johnson, Chapter 1)
Buddhism reached China from India by the first century. However, it did not flower until the Six Dynasties period (220 — 589), when political and economic troubles encouraged its full acceptance. The unstable nature of China’s history during this period made a religion that stressed the transient nature of human existence and emphasized human suffering as the basis of its core tenants of belief extremely attractive. The religion spread and was incorporated and actually developed even stronger roots in China. The Chinese version of Buddhism, however, rather than stressing the monastic point-of-view of early Buddhism, developed into its own form of Buddhist worship. Rather than the austerity that characterized early Buddhism in China blended with the ornate customs of ancestor worship indigenous to the area. Local deities were also incorporated into the Chinese version of Buddhism. The use of a greater loveliness and humanity to pay respect to the nature of the Bodhisattva thus reflects the homage paid to ancestral humanity in China as a part of worship.
The statue also reflects the shift from monastic Theravadan Buddhism to a more popular form of Buddhist worship, known as Mahayana Buddhism. Rather than monks dominating Buddhism as was characteristic of Theravadan Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism stresses not the Buddha but various Bodhisattva’s (Buddhist deities’) involvement in the daily life of human beings. Unlike Buddhas, who have attained a complete state of Enlightenment, in Chinese art Bodhisattvas still remain apparently concerned about the world of the living, rather than removing themselves from human life and its various sufferings. (Robinson & Johnson, Chapter 1)
This is why the Bodhisattva Guanyin appears to be ready to leave her rock. She is ready to descend into the world of humanity to be of use and give compassionate air. The lotus incorporated into the statue is a symbol that dates back to Indian Buddhism, for the lotus is a beautiful flower (enlightenment) that arises in the mire (the horrible conditions of suffering in the human world.) However, Guanyin does not appear, in this incarnation to merely remain with her lotus, she is willing to become a part of the nature of human existence once again, to bring more souls into a state of Enlightenment, because of her great compassion. (“Buddhism: History and Diversity of a Great Tradition.” The Philadelphia Museum of Art. Exhibition Catalogue.)
The image of Guanyin has its roots in Indian iconography. However, only when Guanyin came to China did her image take on a female form. In China, even before Buddhism, compassion was traditionally represented in female form. This stress upon the feminine nature compassion caused Guanyin to be standardized in iconography as a beautiful woman. (“Buddhism: History and Diversity of a Great Tradition.” The Philadelphia Museum of Art. Exhibition Catalogue.) Furthermore, unlike statues of the Buddha, which were often used simply during occasions of meditation, the statue would often be used during times of public festival, in a communal setting. The ‘coming together’ of individuals in collective Buddhist worship, in a near-secular setting, as opposed to the cloistered nature of the monastery, reflects the new ideals of Mahayana Buddhism and its emphasis on the Bodhisattva’s concern with the lay worshipers of the new faith.
The piece was designed to be displayed at a temple, perhaps in a temple in the home of a wealthy individual, or less likely but still possible, within a temple for public use. Although ancestor worship is a critical part of Chinese religion, tying in with the Confucian tradition that became blended with the Buddhist tradition, one cannot simply assume that the temple was merely for the pleasure of the dead. The compassion the nature of the deity responds with, and the interventionist stance struck by the deity as it is about to leave its rock and lotus, suggests that the living’s need for understanding plays a role in the use as well as the construction of the work.
Again, this also reflects the political circumstances under which the statue was created. Because of the tumultuous times of the dynasty when it was created, there was a need for a religious faith that provided not simply a connection with the dead, such as Confucianism. There as a need for a new philosophy that provided a more useful and psychologically healing way for the living to survive, was critical for dwellers in China during this time. The construction as well as the posture of the statue demonstrates this in a compelling fashion.
Photograph of the statue available at http://www.nelson-atkins.org/collections/asia)
Buddhism: History and Diversity of a Great Tradition.” The Philadelphia Museum of Art. Exhibition Catalogue.
Saunders, Dale. Buddhism: an Outline of its Origins. Toiko, Charles Tuttle, 1964
The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (fourth edition) by R.H. Robinson & W.L. Johnson (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1997).
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