This week’s picture shows a seated Buddha carved from grey limestone during the third quarter of the sixth century by an unknown artist working in the province of Shandong, in eastern China. The sculpture is part of a remarkable hoard of about 400 stone Buddhas and Boddhisatvas (enlightened mediators working for universal salvation) discovered in October 1996 during the course of works to level the playing fields of the Shefan Primary School, in the city of Qingzhou. Together with 34 of the hundreds of sculptures found alongside it, this ineffably peaceful and meditative figure can currently be seen at the Royal Academy of Art in London, where a new exhibition entitled “Return of the Buddha” opened just a couple of days ago.
During the last decade, accelerating urbanisation across China has resulted in many significant finds of ancient art and architecture. Buddhist cave-temple complexes on the Silk Road have also been explored with renewed energy by scholars. A recent survey of the field goes so far as to dub this “the Golden Age of Chinese archaeology”. As well as rescuing an incomparably large cache of sixth-century Chinese Buddhist sculpture, the Qingzhou find also confirmed the site on which the once celebrated Longxing Temple – razed in the mid-fourteenth century – formerly stood. The eleventh-century scholar Xia Song gives a tantalising description of it: “The grounds fall steeply to the hollow at the banks of the Yang River. The buildings soar, as if they were floating above double walls.” Nowadays all that remains, visible only in aerial photographs, is the faintest outline of the temple’s foundations beneath a patch of green where children play. Buddhists are taught to expect the disappearance of their own faith’s monumental structures. “All things are impermanent,” the Buddha said in his last injunction to his disciples. “Work out your salvation with diligence.”
The majority of the sculptures discovered at Qingzhou were crafted between 529 and 577. Their profusion can be explained by the great expansion of Buddhism in China, where the number of monks and nuns had risen from about 77,000 in the year 450 to some two million by 525. The sculpture shown here was made after 550, when northern China was ruled by the Northern Qi dynasty. The Qi were not indigenous to China, being nomadic in origin, and this was reflected in the prevailing styles of art created under their rule. The previous rulers of northern China, the Northern Wei, were also a people of non-Chinese nomads, but they had adopted Chinese customs with great enthusiasm, promoting a heavily sinicized type of Buddhist art in which the figures have distinctly Chinese facial features, are clad in heavy robes (as worn by Chinese monks) and modelled in somewhat low relief. By contrast, the masterpieces of the Northern Qi period show this later nomadic dynasty’s independence and reluctance to assimilate Chinese ways. So the maker of this sophisticated, exotic and extremely sensually carved figure looked not to China for his inspiration but back along the Silk Road to India, home of Buddhism and birthplace of Buddhist art.
The Buddha is seated on a round lotus base, its double row of petals overlapped delicately by the folds of his drapery. (Two lotus flowers are traditionally said to have bloomed at the moment when Prince Siddhartha, the first Buddha, attained enlightenment.) The figure’s eyes are almost but not quite closed. A beatifically calm and infinitely enigmatic smile plays about his lips, outward sign of the ecstasy, or redemptive state of self-annihilation, to which he has attained. The protuberance on top of his head, reminiscent of the shell of a lychee, is the usnisa [italics; macron on the “i”], another sign of the Buddha’s intellectual illumination (and also, incidentally, the origin of the halo, which Christian painters borrowed from Indian Buddhist art in about the fourth century). Remarkably, considering the extreme antiquity of the figure and the fact that it has spent the best part of a thousand years buried underground, extensive traces of original gilding can still be seen on its face, neck, torso and right hand. This too marks the Buddha’s divinity and sanctity. According to the Vibhasha [italics], an early Buddhist text, “Around the body of the Buddha there is always a light, a fathom wide, on all sides, which shines constantly day and night, as brilliantly as a thousand suns.”
The figure’s left hand, palm towards the viewer, is lowered in a position known as the varada mudra [italics; macron on the final “a”], indicating “Your wish is granted”. The right hand is missing but would almost certainly have been raised in the abhaya mudra [italics; macron on the final “a”], which means “fear not”. The identity of the person who commissioned this sculpture is unknown, but the nature of his (or her) “wish” is enshrined in Buddhist doctrine or dharma: the desire to escape from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth and to enter instead nirvana, state of blessedness. The act of paying for a representation of the Buddha to be created was thought to buy a quicker route to that ultimate spiritual destination. But sculptures such as this one were above all a focus of practice. The figure literally embodies that special form of “right-mindedness” which is held by dharma to be the one true path to enlightenment. He is meditating and, also, demonstrating the way to meditate (an effect enhanced by the sculpture’s near human scale).
There is an impressive sense of balance about this Buddha, who holds the lotus position with such poise and lightness that it is not hard to imagine him levitating. Despite the figure’s apparently total inactivity, the sculpture also creates a powerful and intriguing mood of suspense. I think this has something to do with the unerringly sure way in which its unknown creator has conveyed a particular moment in the rhythmical cycle of meditative breathing. The Buddha has exhaled to the full – his diaphragm, emptied of air, is flat – but has not yet begun his in-breath. The impression is that he has breathed everything out of himself, not just air but also all craving, greed, desire and pain: all the needs and limitations of the self that bind man, in Buddhist belief, to the unregenerate cycle of life and death. In that frozen moment between exhalation and inhalation, the sculptor seems to imply, we can ourselves hope to lose ourselves – and catch, however fleetingly, a glimpse of the secret that makes the Buddha smile.