The jar held in the left hand identifies this magnificent figure as the Buddha of Medicine and Healing (Sanskrit, Bhaishajyaguruvaiduryaprabharaja; Chinese, Yaoshifo). Colloquially called the Medicine Buddha, he is considered a healer who alleviates suffering and offers solace to the afflicted through the medicine of his teachings.
The eponymous Bhaishajyaguruvaiduryaprabharaja Sutra, generally called the Medicine Buddha Sutra in English, describes Bhaishajyaguru as a bodhisattva who made twelve great vows. On achieving full enlightenment, he became the Buddha of the Eastern Pure Land of Vaiduryanirbhasa, or "Pure Lapis Lazuli." There, he is attended by two bodhisattva symbolizing the light of the sun and of the moon, respectively: Suryaprabha (Chinese, Riguang Bianzhao Pusa) and Chandraprabha (Chinese, Yueguang Bianzhao Pusa).
According to the Medicine Buddha Sutra, the twelve great vows that Bhaishajyaguru made on attaining full enlightenment are:
To illuminate countless realms through his radiance, enabling anyone to become a Buddha
To awaken the minds of sentient beings through his lapis lazuli light
To provide sentient beings with whatever material needs they require
To correct heretical views and inspire sentient beings to follow the
path of the bodhisattva
To help beings follow the Moral Precepts, even if they previously failed in such attempts
To heal beings born with deformities, illnesses or pain
To relieve the destitute and the sick
To assist women who wish to be reborn as men achieve their desired rebirth
To heal mental afflictions and delusions
To free the oppressed from suffering
To relieve those who suffer from severe hunger and thirst
To clothe those who are destitute and suffering from cold and mosquito bites
Mahayana Buddhism, the predominant form in traditional China, teaches that there are an infinite number of Buddhas, all of whom are deities. The most popular Buddhas, and thus the most frequently portrayed, are Shakyamuni (the Historical Buddha), Amitabha (the Buddha of Infinite Light) and Bhaishajyaguru (the Medicine Buddha).
According to traditional iconographic conventions, the lapis-colored medicine jar that Bhaishajyaguru holds in his left hand contains nectar from the myrobalan fruit. Extended over his right knee, his right hand forms the varadamudra, or gift-giving gesture, and holds a single myrobalan fruit between thumb and index finger.
Although Tibetan Buddhist imagery began to appear in the repertory of Chinese art already in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), Tibetan influence on Chinese Buddhist art became far more pronounced in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), particularly during the Yongle era (1403-1425), when the imperial court looked favorably upon Buddhism and made a concerted effort to build secular and religious alliances with Tibet, even inviting Tibetan monks to the capital, Beijing, to conduct religious services. In images of bodhisattvas, such Tibetan influence manifests itself in the sensuous presentation of the deity, but in images of the Buddha it is apparent in the globular jewel on top of the ushnisha, the relatively square face, the forward-turning ears, the full fleshy cheeks that frame the shallow concave depression that includes the small mouth, which is set in a subtle smile, the refined gestures, the abundant and meticulously rendered details, and the compressed double-lotus base. All of these stylistic characteristics are visible in the present figure as well as in the similar figure of Shakyamuni Buddha, in the British Museum, which is also inscribed with a Yongle reign mark, illustrated by Sheila C. Bills in "Bronze Sculptures of the Early Ming (1403-1450): Tibet in China, China in Tibet," Arts of Asia, (September-October 1994): p. 84, nos. 20/21. As important as Tibetan-influenced works of art were early in fifteenth-century China, particularly in the reigns of Yongle and Xuande (1425-1435), Tibetan-style Buddhism probably was little practiced outside the imperial court, so most such images were made for the court, as indicated by the imperial inscriptions.