Gallery 19

Seated Buddha

Pakistan or Afghanistan, Gandhara region, 2nd-3rd century A.D. Gray schist
Gift of Cobey Black, in Memory of Brigadier General Edwin Black, 1986

(5491.1)

The historical Buddha Shakyamuni (ca. 563 B.C.-ca. 483 B.C.) reportedly forbade his followers from worshiping his image, and the earliest Buddhist art represents him instead with various symbols, such as the wheel of the Dharma (symbolizing the “turning” or transmission of Buddhist teachings) or a parasol (signifying nobility). The first depictions of Shakyamuni do not occur until centuries after his death, most notably in the region of modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan traditionally known as Gandhara, under the rule of the Kushana Empire in the first to third centuries A.D.

Gandhara was situated along important trade routes connecting the entire Eurasian continent, and had been conquered by Alexander the Great (356 B.C.-323 B.C.), leaving behind a strong Hellenistic influence on the arts and culture in the region. Consequently, Gandharan images of Buddha have many similarities with Greco- Roman art. In turn, Gandharan Buddhism spread throughout Central Asia and into China, and as late as the fourth century A.D. Buddhist art in China still reveals a strong international flavor resulting from the Hellenistic elements transmitted together with the Gandharan style.

Like most individual Gandharan Buddhist images, this fragmentary sculpture was intended for the niche of a stupa (a real or symbolic funerary mound commemorating the Buddha and his important followers), or otherwise placed against a wall, so the back is flat and uncarved. The Buddha’s hands are in the Dharmachakra, or “Wheel of the Dharma,” mudra, sometimes called the “teaching mudra” since it represents the transmission of Buddhist teachings.


Standing Bodhisattva

Pakistan or Afghanistan, Gandhara region, 3rd century A.D. Gray schist
Purchase, 1975
(4308.1)

As Buddhism spread across the northern Indian subcontinent and into Central Asia, it developed a complex pantheon of many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The term Bodhisattva (literally “enlightened existence”) was originally used to refer exclusively to the historical Buddha Shakyamuni (ca. 563 B.C.-ca. 483 B.C.) in his many incarnations before achieving full enlightenment in his final manifestation as the Buddha of the present kalpa, or “world-age.” However, it eventually came to be believed that in addition to innumerable Buddhas that simultaneously existed throughout the countless worlds of complex Indian cosmology, there were other spiritually advanced beings already on the path to enlightenment to whom Buddhist believers could turn for aid in their own spiritual quest, many of whom were referred to by the honorific title of Bodhisattva. In art, these Bodhisattvas are distinguished from Buddhas (who are usually unadorned as a sign of their final freedom from attachment) by their rich jewelry and noble dress, symbolizing both their spiritual advancement and their continued presence in the world.

Among the most popular Bodhisattvas that developed in the Gandhara region was Maitreya, who was believed to have been recognized by Shakyamuni as the Buddha who would succeed him in the next kalpa, during a remarkable age of peace and prosperity in which Buddhist teachings would flourish. In the meantime, Maitreya awaited his appearance in the world and eventual full enlightenment in a celestial realm into which those who faithfully believed in him could also be reborn. As millenarian apocalyptic beliefs grew under the constant warfare and turmoil of the time, Maitreya attained a huge following who believed that his final incarnation was imminent, preceded by disasters on a massive

scale that would destroy the entire world, but in the process cleansing it for the paradise that would follow. This millenarianism spread from Gandhara to Central and East Asia, where it colored Buddhist doctrine for centuries.

The identification of most Gandharan Bodhisattva sculptures remains tentative, and this figure may either be Shakyamuni in a previous incarnation, Maitreya, or another of the many Bodhisattvas whose worship was developing in the early centuries of the first millennium. However, given the widespread popularity of Maitreya and his close association with Gandhara, where his cult first started, there is a strong possibility that the Academy’s sculpture may depict this deity in his celestial abode, awaiting the time when he can turn the “Wheel of the Dharma” to alleviate suffering and bring all sentient beings to enlightenment. 


Anonymous

Guanyin

China, Northern Song (960-1126)

or Tangut Xia (1038-1227) dynasty, first half of the 11th century

Wood with traces of pigment

Purchase, 1927

(2400)

This is a superb early example of one of the most popular

iconographic styles for portraying Guanyin (Sanskrit

Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The tenth and

eleventh centuries saw an increasing naturalism in Chinese

Buddhist sculpture, particularly in depictions of Guanyin, who around

this time started to be most commonly shown in the position of “royal

ease” (maharaja lalitasana), often sitting on an outcropping of rock

that suggested this Bodhisattva’s island-mountain home of Potalaka.

The sculpture originally might have been placed on such a rocky

throne, perhaps as part of an entire sculptural wall suggesting a

divine grotto. The naturalism of Song-dynasty sculpture led to

increasingly feminized images of Guanyin, but in fact the deity

remains male in the Academy’s sculpture.

This Guanyin was acquired in 1927 from the renowned collection of

Matsukata Köjirö (1865-1950). Matsukata was a prominent

industrialist, and president of the Kawasaki Shipbuilding Company.

He is best known for his collection of European painting and

sculpture, which forms the core of the National Museum of Western

Art in Tokyo, Japan.

According to early information in the museum’s archives probably

originating with Matsukata, the sculpture was discovered in 1919 at

the site of an abandoned Tang dynasty (618-906) temple called

“Chang-chiao ssu [sic],” located at the upper reaches of the Yellow

River in a region that would have been controlled by the Tangut Xia

dynasty, a non-Chinese kingdom that was at once a rival to, but also

influenced in culture and politics by, the Chinese Northern Song

dynasty. While this would make the Academy’s Guanyin one of the

most significant examples of Tangut sculpture to have survived,

historical records have not confirmed the existence of this temple,

and so the origins of the sculpture remain a mystery. 

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