Tag Archives: Buddhism

Friday Fave: Buddhist Stele

Buddhist Stele with the "Thousand Buddhas"; China, Northern Wei dynasty, dated 461 CE; sandstone with traces of polychrome pigment; Gift of Marietta Lutze Sackler; S1991.157

Buddhist Stele with the “Thousand Buddhas”; China, Northern Wei dynasty, dated 461 CE; sandstone with traces of polychrome pigment; Gift of Marietta Lutze Sackler; S1991.157

For my first assignment as a summer intern at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, I was asked to research this monumental Chinese Buddhist stele, which is being considered for a future exhibition on Buddhist art. Steles were created to commemorate the Buddhist faith and proliferated during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535 CE). At the bottom of this stele, the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni sits cross-legged with hands in dhyani mudra, flanked by bodhisattvas and ascetic figures.

The stele’s repetitive pattern is known as the “Thousand Buddhas” (qianfo), characterized by rows of small Buddha figures on the front and back. It’s one of the most important motifs in Northern Wei Buddhist art. According to scholars, it reflects the notion that the cosmos is filled with innumerable realms, which are all simultaneously inhabited by Buddhas. The motif supports the omnipresence of Buddha and Buddha-nature. Many experts propose that the motif is related to the practice of visualization and recitation during Buddhist practice. While there is room for debate on the meaning of the Thousand Buddhas, the inscription provides a concrete example of the hopes of the stele’s sponsors, including their good wishes for the emperor, hope for the spread of Buddhism, and request for peace.

After about a month of reading and researching, I was finally able to view the stele in Sackler storage. It is a remarkable experience to see an object after learning about its many details. It reminded me of meeting a penpal for the first time or reuniting with a childhood friend. I was immediately able to relate all of my research to the physical object in front of me. For instance, I knew to look for the bodhisattva to the right of Shakyamuni who holds a bottle of healing water, indicating that he is Avalokiteshvara. Once I finally saw the stele in person, a wave of complete comprehension and appreciation washed over me. What began as a simple research project evolved into a rewarding, thought-provoking experience.

Monks at an Exhibition

At the welcoming ceremony for “Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples”; photo by John Tsantes

Monks from Tokyo’s elite Pure Land Buddhist temple Zōjōji came to the Sackler Gallery on the evening of Saturday, April 21. They performed a ceremony to protect the paintings in Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples and to ensure the success of the exhibition. A blessing and consecration typically occurs when Buddhist institutions lend works of art to secular institutions.

In the Pure Land tradition, the lotus (a primary Buddhist symbol), is the vehicle upon which souls are reborn in the Western Paradise. The image of lotus petals showering down from the heavens is a symbol of the blessings of the Amida Buddha. During the ceremony at the Sackler, Hasuike Koyo, chief secretary of  Zōjōji, scattered oversized and colorfully painted paper lotus petals around the exhibition space to indicate the temple’s fond prayers for our endeavors.

The out-of-this-world scrolls by Kano Kazunobu in Masters of Mercy were created from 1854 until the artist’s death in 1863. The Sackler exhibition marks the first time that the scrolls have been shown in the West. It runs through July 8, 2012. Learn more about Japan Spring at the Freer|Sackler.