This exceptionally well-painted brush pot is rare, not only for its large size, but for the choice of its decorative theme. Porcelain brush pots decorated in underglaze blue with scenes of figures in a landscape became very popular amongst the Chinese literati in the 17th century. Often the inspiration for the scenes was taken from woodblock-printed illustrated editions of plays and histories, or illustrations of famous poems. The current brush pot, however, is exceedingly rare in depicting a Tibetan Lama accompanied by monks apparently in an audience with a high Chinese official. The incense burning on the stand and the gesticulations of the official suggest that the meeting is not accidental and may be of considerable significance.
Tibetan, or Lamaist, Buddhism came to prominence in the Kangxi period under the auspices of the emperor himself. The Kangxi Emperor was only the second Manchu emperor to rule China after the Manchus 'crossed the Great Wall,' following the reign of his father, the Shunzhi Emperor. Since this dynasty was one in which China was ruled by foreigners, the Manchus, emperors had, on the one hand, to prove to their Chinese subjects that they held the Mandate of Heaven to rule; while, at the same time, dealing with China's frequently aggressive neighbors to the north and west. Most of the military challenges to the Manchus traditionally came from Inner Asia, with the Mongols being particularly troublesome. Much of the Manchus' success came from military supremacy, but, in the late 17th and 18th centuries, diplomacy was also employed to achieve the same ends. This was cemented by marriages between Manchus and the Mongol tribes - indeed the Kangxi Emperor's grandmother was a Mongol princess. The Manchus, like the Mongols, converted to Tibetan Buddhism. In 1642 the Mongol leader Gui Khan had made the Fifth Dalai Lama the secular as well as the religious ruler of Tibet. This power was expanded by the Fifth Dalai Lama and his influence became such that he could act as peace-maker between Mongol tribes and could even order the movements of Mongol armies outside Tibet. The Qing court's relationships with the Mongols and the Tibetan Dalai Lama were therefore intertwined.
Although it is often said that the Qing dynasty emperors patronized Tibetan Buddhism only for political reasons, this does not seem to have been the case with the Kangxi emperor. He was largely brought up by his grandmother, to whom he was devoted. As noted above, she was a Mongol princess, named Bumbutai, and an adherent of Tibetan Buddhism. It is probably due to her that the Kangxi emperor was the first Qing emperor to demonstrate a personal religious commitment to Lamaism. Bumbutai, who claimed descent from Genghis Khan, wielded considerable influence during the minority of her own son, the Shunzhi Emperor, and when the Kangxi emperor came to the throne, also as a minor, she received the title Grand Empress Dowager. Bumbutai guided the Kangxi Emperor, especially after his mother died in 1663, and retained a strong influence over him.
Such was the Kangxi Emperor's devotion to Lamaist Buddhism that during his reign a Sutra Recitation Office was set up and housed within the palace in the Zhongzhengdian (Hall of Central Uprightness). This office was the first to be solely devoted to Tibetan Buddhist affairs, and was part of the inner court's Department of Ceremonial, supervised by imperial princes. The Zhongzhengdian was to become the center of Tibetan Buddhist activities at court, and not only conducted the recitation of sutras but also supervised the casting of Buddhist images and religious ritual objects. Like succeeding Qing emperors, the Kangxi Emperor portrayed himself as a bodhisattva-ruler - a reincarnation of Manjusri (the Bodhisattva of Wisdom) - and it is therefore not so surprising to find a depiction of a meeting between a high Lama and a Chinese high official on a brush pot made for the literati during his reign.