Serenity Stone in
Buddhist sculptures unearthed in China have a transcendent beauty, writes Christopher Allen
THE Lost Buddhas is a selection of 35 from a hoard of several hundred Buddhist sculptures, mostly from the 6th century, that was fortuitously discovered in the Chinese province of Shandong in 1996. Though damaged, the sculptures had not been vandalised or disfigured. They had been carefully buried, in some cases wrapped for protection, in a large pit in the grounds of Longxing Temple, which disappeared without trace more than 500 years ago. This was done at some point in the 12th century, as was proved by the presence in the pit of coins and ceramics from that time.
After eight centuries underground, these ancient figures have emerged in surprisingly good condition, with much of their original pigment and even gilding still intact. They are admirably exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW, in a design by architect Richard Johnson that leads the viewer gradually and almost imperceptibly into closer engagement with the works.
It is essentially a simplified labyrinth: we enter the exhibition by a corridor from the main gallery and with the same lighting conditions, then turn into a second with lower ambient lighting and more specific illumination of the sculptures, and finally reach the core of the exhibition, where the light is quite dim and there is nothing to distract from contemplation.
The high quality of the sculptures is evident from the first piece we encounter, and the initial, fully lit corridor is an opportunity to familiarise ourselves with the style and period. By the second corridor, we are ready to encounter a work as exquisitely refined as the Standing Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. A bodhisattva, in Buddhist belief, is a being who has attained the enlightenment that would entitle him to transcend this existence and become a Buddha, but who elects to remain in our world out of compassion for those of us who are still searching for the way.
Avalokitesvara was a particularly popular figure, whose gentleness was such that he eventually changed into a female deity in later China, his original Sanskrit name replaced by the Chinese Kuanyin ( Kannon in Japan). It is interesting to note, incidentally, that bodhisattvas are usually, as in this case, richly dressed, while Buddhas wear much simpler robes.
Even without any knowledge of the role of bodhisattvas, it is clear this is a sculpture designed to embody and to impart a sense of peace. And even without any expertise in Chinese art or any initiation into Buddhism, attentive viewers will find it is extremely effective.
This is as moving an example as any of the mysterious power of art to communicate across vast distances in time and gulfs of culture and belief. Although this statue is a particularly fine one, the same could be said of many pieces in the exhibition. The carvers have worked within very tight traditions, and yet each piece is quite different in tone and feeling, and even the less perfect ones are highly expressive; a lesson for our time when a desperate pursuit of originality and novelty runs repeatedly into the law of diminishing returns.
The main focus of the sculptor has been on the expression of the face, whose structure is governed by sophisticated conventions. The brow is perfectly smooth. There are no eyebrows, but a precise curved line where the plane of the brow ends and the shallow concave of the eye socket begins. There is no such clear line at the fold of the eyelid, which is thus a more subtle transition.
The cheeks are full and smooth, the ears have the elongated lobes of holiness, the mouth is a fine bow shape, curved into a quiet smile. Most significantly of all, the eyes are always half- closed. The bodhisattva or Buddha does not make eye contact with us, confront us or challenge us in any way, but invites us to imitate him in his interiority, stillness and self- possession.
The body is also still, in fact almost completely immobile. The weight is equally borne by each leg, so that the hips and shoulders are rigorously straight, and the two feet are together, not one in front of the other. Formally speaking, this means that the sculptor preserves a very strong sense of the original limestone block from which the figure is carved, particularly in the lower part.
But this stylistic choice also has an aesthetic and religious meaning. The lower parts of the body are played down, or literally petrified, while the upper parts, and especially the head, are made the focus of attention, for enlightened contemplation depends on silencing the baser drives of the body.
In this regard it is interesting to note too the distinct feminisation of the body, more noticeable in the standing Buddha figures because of their simpler draperies. The waist is slim, the hips sometimes broadened; above all the belly is rounded, emphasising the unexpected hollow beneath. The enlightened being is without libido or desire.
This was, of course, the historical Buddha’s original message, which he preached in India about a millennium before the carving of these sculptures. The life of man is suffering; but suffering is caused by desire and fear, so if we can free ourselves of desire, we free ourselves not only of suffering, but of existence itself. And even though this simple and not inherently religious message was soon converted into a complex theological system with divinities and angels and demons of all kinds, the central idea is expressed with remarkable purity and directness in these early Chinese carvings.
The response they elicit in the spectator is precisely consonant with Buddha’s teaching, but also illustrates more generally the way we experience sculpture, which is less like painting than dance. It is not so much visual as sympathetic or even kinaesthetic. Just as watching dance evokes certain resonances in our own bodies, so we engage with sculpture by mimicking or repeating its stance and attitude — if only virtually — in our own limbs.
In other words, to look at Michelangelo’s Slaves is to re- enact their struggle and sense of imprisonment. And to look attentively at these buddhas is to experience, to be possessed by, precisely the kind of serenity that they embody.
This sensibility is even more remarkable when we consider the historical origin of the iconography. For the first four or five centuries after Buddha’s lifetime, his teaching was transmitted orally and he was never represented in human form. Anthropomorphic images of Buddha seem to have arisen in the first century BC in the kingdom of Gandhara ( in modern Pakistan) which had been Hellenised after the conquests of Alexander the Great. The model for early representations of Buddha, as indeed of Jesus Christ, was the youthful beauty of Apollo.
This is why Buddha is shown wearing what was
originally a Greek robe with pleats, and even more curiously why all the way to Japan, his head is covered with tight stylised curls. In countries where curly hair was unknown, the inexplicable but traditional motif was explained as snails that had crept up on to Buddha’s head to protect him from the heat of the sun.
The Apollonian model confirms the significance of some of the stylistic features already mentioned. Ever since Buddha’s lifetime, Greek sculptors had dropped the weight of the body on to one leg, so that one hip was higher than the other, producing a twist in the pelvic girdle and a counter- twist of the shoulder- girdle. This gives the whole body the subtly animating movement of contrapposto .
And even the most stylised figures of the Archaic period always had one foot in front of the other, in the manner inherited from the Egyptians. The proportions and musculature of the body were studied with great attention. Greek bodies had ideal poise, but they also had material reality. All of this is changed: the body is largely dematerialised, rather than idealised, and all the movement that ultimately expressed an interest in the physical world of desire has been eliminated. The image of the Buddha is the result of a rigorous process of subtraction.
Why these beautiful sculptures were buried remains something of a mystery, but it is certainly related to the difficulties — exacerbated by its very success — that Buddhism encountered in China. The ancient and quintessentially Chinese beliefs are Confucianism, a system of ethics and social duty, and Taoism, a kind of naturemysticism that helps explain the importance of landscape painting in China.
Buddhism assimilated aspects of Taoism to form Chan Buddhism, which became Zen in Japan. Confucianism, though, based on order and hierarchy, was suspicious of Buddhist egalitarianism and its emphasis on personal salvation, and disliked it as a foreign system of belief. And because the Chinese administration was dominated by civil servants trained in Confucianism, the establishment was often hostile.
Added to this were material considerations of the kind that also led to the suppression of monasteries in Protestant regions in the West, and later even in Catholic countries: envy of clerical wealth and what were considered unwarranted tax exemptions. As a result there were periodic persecutions of the Buddhist faith in China during the later centuries, in particular a large- scale closing down of monasteries and temples during the late Tang Dynasty ( AD845) during which more than a quarter of a million monks and nuns were forced into civil life.
The state of preservation of these sculptures and the care with which they had been treated make it clear that they were not dumped in a pit by enemies of Buddhism. Were they then buried to protect them from anticipated vandalism during a wave a persecution? And why did the pit not also contain works from more recent periods than the 6th century? Could these sculptures, as well as being old and damaged, have seemed archaic in comparison with more modern and fluid styles? On the other hand, Chinese culture is extremely conservative and it is hard to imagine that society discarding a sacred image because it had grown old.
Perhaps the answer is that the damage noted by archeologists was caused during the great persecutions of the 9th century, as temples were torn down, burned or simply decommissioned, and their religious images moved and placed in some kind of storage. Sculptures can break in removal, in transport and while leaning against each other or being piled up together. In due course, some would have been restored as cult images when temples and monasteries were reopened, but perhaps there were never again as many altars as there once had been, and no doubt many of these were now occupied by newly commissioned works.
One can imagine all the homeless but venerable statues from a wide region being brought for safekeeping to Longxing Temple, until by the time of the Sung Dynasty their number had grown to such an extent that a mass burial seemed the only pious solution.
Unearthed: Main picture opposite page, a Buddha head; above, standing figure of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara; left, standing figure of Buddha