This exquisite sculpture represents Avalokiteshvara (Chinese, Guanyin), the bodhisattva of compassion, as indicated by the presence in the headdress of a small seated image of the Amitabha Buddha (Chinese, Emituofo), the Buddha of Infinite Light, who presides over the Western Paradise. Considered a spiritual emanation of Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara is the only bodhisattva in whose crown or headdress Amitabha appears; thus, Amitabha's presence there definitively identifies this figure as Avalokiteshvara. Though Avalokiteshvara appears in many different forms, or manifestations, all show an image of Amitabha in the crown. Avalokiteshvara is sometimes also called Padmapani ("Holder of the Lotus") or Lokeshvara ("Lord of the World").
Avalokiteshvara typically holds such iconographic attributes as a lotus blossom, a vase, a ritual kundika vessel for holy water, or is portrayed in association with a willow branch, a Buddhist symbol of both physical and spiritual healing. Apart from those that constitute the base, two lotus blossoms flank the bodhisattva, one at each shoulder. In addition, in this rare sculpture the bodhisattva holds a book in the proper left hand, which Buddhist scriptures note is appropriate for at least three of Avalokiteshvara's manifestations: Vishnukanta Lokeshvara, Manjunatha Lokeshvara, and Vajrakhanda Lokeshvara. It is possible that this sculpture represents the last-named, Vajrakhanda Lokeshvara. (Jacob N. Kinnard, Imaging Wisdom: Seeing and Knowing in the Art of Indian Buddhism, Oxon, England, and New York, 1999, p. 166, and note 59); and "108 Forms of Avalokitesvara," Excerpt from Benoytosh Bhattacharyya, The Indian Buddhist Iconography, Appendix, 1958, p. 420, fig. 78(A). Images of Vishnukanta Lokeshvara and Manjunatha Lokeshvara are also illustrated, p. 425, fig. 99(A) and p. 424, fig. 96(A), respectively.
A bodhisattva, or "enlightened being," is a compassionate being who has gained enlightenment but who has postponed entry into final nirvana in order to assist other sentient beings in gaining enlightenment. Because they will become a Buddha, once all other sentient beings have attained enlightenment, a bodhisattva is portrayed in the guise of an Indian prince, which the Historical Buddha was before he became the Buddha - that is, in his early life. Gautama Siddhartha (traditionally, 563-483 BCE) was the crown prince of a small state in the foothills of the Himalayas, but then he rejected worldly life, renounced all claim to his inheritance and to his father's throne, espoused the religious life, gained enlightenment and became the Buddha Shakyamuni. Thus, as did the Buddha in his youth, a bodhisattva wears a dhoti around the waist, hips and legs and a scarf over the shoulders and around the arms, and is adorned with a wealth of jewelry, from necklaces and earrings to bracelets, armlets and anklets, as does this magnificent figure of Avalokiteshvara. The long hair typically is arranged in a high chignon on top of the head, the crown encircling the chignon a reference to the Historical Buddha's princely status in his youth.
The Lotus Sutra (Sanskrit, Saddharma Pundarika Sutra) is the scriptural basis for teaching the doctrines of Avalokiteshvara. Chapter 25 of that sutra, which is devoted solely to Avalokiteshvara and sometimes stands alone as the Avalokiteshvara Sutra, presents the bodhisattva as a compassionate being who hears the cries of sentient beings and who works ceaselessly to help those who call upon his name.
Although Tibetan Buddhist imagery began to appear in the repertory of Chinese art by 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. Such Tibetan influence manifests itself in the sensuousness of the art, witnessed in this figure's elegant proportions, S-curved posture, dazzling jewels, refined gestures, abundant and meticulously rendered details and compressed double-lotus base. As important as Tibetan-influenced works of art were early in fifteenth-century China, particularly in the Yongle and Xuande (1425-1435) reigns, Tibetan-style Buddhism probably was little practiced outside the imperial court, so most such images likely were made for the court, as indicated by the imperial inscriptions.
A stylistically similar Avalokiteshvara, which also has a Yongle reign mark, and is shown seated in a similar position with one foot supported by a lotus "growing" from the base, is in the Museum Reitberg, Zurich, and illustrated by Helmut Uhlig in On the Path to Enlightenment, Zurich, 1995, pp. 98-99, no. 52. (fig. 1)