This rare and exceptionally elegant sculpture represents a pensive, or contemplative, bodhisattva and is termed a Banjia Siwei Pusa Xiang in Chinese. Such images traditionally are identified as the Bodhisattva Maitreya (Chinese, Mile Pusa). “Maitreya” means “loving kindness” in Sanskrit and may be used to refer to a friend. Considered the successor to the historical Buddha Sakyamuni, and thus regarded as the Buddha of the Future, Maitreya presides over the Tushita Paradise, where all bodhisattvas reside until they enter final nirvana and become Buddhas. Maitryea’s formal iconographic attribute is a small stupa that appears at the front of his headdress or crown; sometimes interpreted as a pagoda in East Asian paintings and sculpture, the stupa symbolizes the eighty-four stupas that were constructed to receive the Buddha Sakyamuni’s relics. In addition, Maitreya may hold a dharmachakra, or wheel symbolizing Buddhist teachings, set on a lotus blossom.
Because he will be the next Buddha, Maitreya occasionally is presented as a Buddha, with short hair, ushnisha, monk’s robes, and without jewelry. More typically, however, he is presented in the guise of a bodhisattva, with a dhoti that hangs from the waist to the ankles, with long hair, with scarves that cover the shoulders and cross over the torso, with a crown or headdress, and often with necklaces, earrings, armlets, bracelets, and anklets. He may be shown standing or seated; when seated, he may assume the lotus posture, or he may sit with both legs pendent, with the left leg pendent and the right ankle resting on the left knee, or with legs pendent and crossed at the ankles, as in this sculpture. Most representations with legs crossed at the ankles date to the late fifth or sixth century, as the pose with left leg pendent and right ankle resting on the left knee had become standard by the late sixth century. In China, Maitreya typically is shown either as preaching, with hands positioned in the abhaya-vara mudra, or as meditating, with one hand gently touching his cheek, as seen here.
This figure lacks specific iconographic attributes, as do virtually all Buddhist images with hand touching the cheek. Even so, “this so-called pensive pose was frequently used for bodhisattvas, particularly in the late fifth and mid-sixth centuries, and often, though not always, identifies the subject as Maitreya.” (Denise Patry Leidy and Donna Strahan, Wisdom Embodied: Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010, p. 13.)
By Chinese calculation of the day, the influence of the Buddha Sakyamuni’s teachings would end in the year 552—roughly 1,000 years after the death of the historical Buddha (traditionally, c. 563- c. 483 BC)—ushering in the mofa, or period of the decline of Buddhist law. Such millennial speculation gave rise to the belief that decline and corruption were imminent and that the appearance of Maitreya as the Buddha of the Future thus could not be far away, which led to a surge in Maitreya’s popularity in the sixth century and the resultant increase in the number of Maitreya images created for worship.
Created during the first half of the sixth century, this sculpture perfectly reflects the late Northern Wei preference for elegant figures that are simply attired and gracefully attenuated. Images of pensive bodhisattvas created before the mid-sixth century may have either the right or the left hand touching the cheek; however, in most such images from the mid- to late sixth century onward, by which time the gesture had been standardized, the right hand touches the cheek. Such contemplative figures follow Indian prototypes from both the Mathuran and Gandharan regions. From China, the iconographic type spread to Korea and Japan, where it proved popular in the late sixth and seventh century.
A closely related sculpture of a pensive bodhisattva, also from Longmen and formerly in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, was sold at Sotheby’s New York, 20 March 2007, lot 503. A stylistically related sculpture from Longmen is in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, and illustrated by R.L. d'Argencé, Chinese, Korean and Japanese Sculpture, Tokyo, 1974, p. 98, no. 37. Two additional stylistically related figures are in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 1943.53.55 and 1963.75, the later of which is illustrated in the catalogue of the China Institute exhibition, Art of the Six Dynasties, New York, 29 October 1975 - 1 February 1976, no. 50.