Seren­ity Stone in

Bud­dhist sculp­tures un­earthed in China have a tran­scen­dent beauty, writes Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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