PROPERTY FROM THE BILLOWING PINE ART CENTER COLLECTION
THE BUDDHA MAITREYA
PREACHING IN HIS KETUMATI PARADISE
Robert D. Mowry
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus,
Harvard Art Museums, and Senior Consultant, Christie’s
Presented in the guise of a monk, this magnificent gilt bronze sculpture represents a Buddha as indicated by the robes, ushnisha, benevolent countenance, distended earlobes, small snail-shell curls of hair, and webbed fingers. The ushnisha , or cranial protuberance on top of the head, symbolizes the expanded wisdom that the Buddha gained at his enlightenment, and it serves as the Buddha’s diagnostic iconographic feature as only Buddhas possess an ushnisha. The gilded
surfaces not only make the sculpture appropriate for representing a deity but symbolize the light that, according to the sacred texts, or sutras, radiates from his body.
The Buddha holds his right hand in the abhaya-mudra, a preaching gesture in which the hand is raised, palm outward, in the attitude of “do not fear”. (A ritual hand gesture, a mudra- symbolizes a particular action, power, or attitude of a deity.) The left hand is lowered in the varada-mudra, or gift-giving gesture, in which the open hand rests on the left knee, palm outward. Many different Buddhas, including Sakyamuni, Amitabha, Maitreya, and Vairocana, among others, hold their hands in the abhaya and varada mudras; although it does not identify any
particular Buddha, this combination of mudras indicates that the Buddha is preaching.
The asana, or yogic posture, in which the Buddha sits identifies this image as Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, who is known in Mandarin Chinese as Mile1 (In Sanskrit, the name “Maitreya” means “the Benevolent One.”) Though not specifically so prescribed in the sutras, when portrayed as a Buddha, Maitreya typically is shown seated in so called Western style, with both legs pendant and with the feet resting on a lotus blossom or, as in the case of this sculpture, with each foot resting on a separate lotus blossom. Inscriptions identify a few images of the Buddha with legs pendant as the Buddha Sakyamuni,2 but the majority of such images, when named by inscription, are identified as Maitreya. In fourth- to early sixth-century China, Buddhist artisans used the names Sakyamuni and Maitreya somewhat interchangeably, indicating both that the distinction between the two had not yet been clearly drawn and that their respective iconographies had not yet been firmly set.3
Religious beliefs about Maitreya apparently developed around the third century, about the same time as those of the Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light, who presides over the Sukhavati Pure Land Paradise, often called the Western Paradise.4 By the fifth and sixth centuries, Maitreya worship was flourishing in China as evinced by the proliferation of monumental sculptures and numerous smaller carvings of Maitreya at major Buddhist sites like Yungang (in Shanxi province)(fig. 1), Longmen (in Henan), and Dunhuang (in Gansu). And by the mid-sixth century, Maitreya had been clearly differentiated from other Buddhas and his iconography firmly established.
Maitreya’s position in the Buddhist pantheon in unique. He is worshipped both as a bodhisattva in this age and as the Buddha of the next age, that is, as the Buddha of the Future. (A bodhisattva is a benevolent being who has attained enlightenment but who has postponed entry into nirvana in order to assist other sentient beings in gaining enlightenment.) Whether depicted standing or, more often, sitting“Western style” on a throne with legs pendent and ankles sometimes crossed, Maitreya presents a pose strikingly different from the more typical images of the Buddha. While his characterization, his role, and his popularity have varied, sometimes significantly, from text to text, culture to culture, and century to century, his basic position in the Buddhist pantheon has been consistently anchored in his identification as the anticipated successor to Sakyamuni, the Historical Buddha.
The earliest images of Maitreya as a bodhisattva, in both India and China, characteristically present him standing and draped in the robes of an Indian prince of old. Richly attired, he is represented with his hair arranged in a tall chignon, or bun, atop his head and with long strands of hair cascading over his shoulders. He also wears ornamental scarves, a dhoti of rich silk brocade, and a wealth of jewellery that includes earrings, necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and anklets, and he typically holds a small jar known as a kumbha in his lowered left hand.5 The small stupa or pagoda that appears at the front of his chignon or headdress emblemizes the repository in which the Buddha Sakyamuni’s relics were interred, thus firmly associating him with Sakyamuni and identifying him as the Bodhisattva Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future who will succeed the Sakyamuni. By the fifth and sixth centuries in China, the Bodhisattva Maitreya often sits with legs pendant and ankles crossed, as seen in many representations in the Buddhist cave temples at Yungang6 and Longmen; by the sixth century in China, but earlier in India, sculptures of the Bodhisattva Maitreya occasionally also portray him in contemplative mode, sitting with the left leg pendant, the right ankle resting on the left knee, the head bent slightly forward, and the fingers of the right hand gently touching the right cheek.7
By contrast, the combination of ushnisha, monastic robes, seated pose with legs pendant, and preaching mudra indicates that the present gilt bronze sculpture represents Maitreya in his role as earthly Buddha of the next age. When he finally descends from the Tushita Heaven, where he and other bodhisattvas currently reside, Maitreya will become a Buddha and will preside over the Ketumati Pure Land Paradise. According to the sutras, the world will be in a blissful and peaceful state when Maitreya finally appears as the presiding Buddha: there will be no thieves or robbers, no disease or danger of fire, and no famine because rain will come in due season and crops will be plentiful.
Fifth- and early sixth-century, Chinese images of Maitreya typically portray him as a bodhisattva, often seated in the “cross-ankle” pose, and waiting in the Tushita Heaven to make his descent to earth to succeed Sakyamuni as the next Buddha. By contrast, the generally slightly later images of Maitreya as a Buddha, characteristically seated in Western fashion, were intended to show that he already has descended, has progressed from bodhisattva to Buddha, and is preaching in the Ketumati Paradise, or Pure Land he will realize on earth.8
Two basic trends have significantly moulded the development of Maitreya worship in China: the so-called “ascent” (Shangsheng) and “descent” (Xiasheng) modes. The ascent mode, which derives from the Scripture on Contemplating the Ascent to be Born in Maitreya Bodhisattva’s Tushita Heaven, emphasizes the devotees’ rebirth in the Tushita Heaven, where they will encounter Maitreya in his bodhisattva form and listen to his preaching in his present otherworldly realm. According to the Scripture on Contemplating the Ascent, devotees who have acquired sufficient meritorious karma will, on their death, be reborn in the Tushita Heaven, Maitreya’s celestial residence, and when the hour arrives, they will descend together with Maitreya into this world to attend the preaching assemblies he will hold. The descent mode is based on the Scripture on Maitreya’s Descent and Birth), the Scripture on Maitreya’s Great Attainment of Buddhahood, and the Scripture on Maitreya’s Descent, Birth, and Attainment of Buddhahood. These three sutras describe how Bodhisattva Maitreya will descend
to earth from the Tushita Heaven, will achieve full enlightenment and become a Buddha, and will preside over an earthly paradise usually known as Ketumati and traditionally believed to be near Varanasi (ancient Benares), India.9
Early in the sixth century Buddhist monks calculated that roughly 1,000 years had passed since the Historical Buddha Sakyamuni had lived (c.563–c. 483 BC). Realizing that “a millennium” was at hand, Buddhist theologians speculated that the era of Sakyamuni might be coming to an end, which resulted in increased worship of Maitreya as the Buddha of the Future.10 In that context, Buddhist devotees began to favour the several “descent and attainment of Buddhahood sutras” over the “ascent sutras” that had earlier been popular, with a resulting increase in the production of images of Maitreya as a Buddha in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. Given that Maitreya is to succeed Sakyamuni as the presiding Buddha, stone steles of those centuries often pair those two Buddhas, depicting Sakyamuni seated in yogasana pose on the stele’s
front face and Maitreya seated in Western fashion with legs pendant on the back face, as witnessed by two steles from the Fujita Museum, Osaka, sold at Christie’s, New York, on 15 March 2017 (lots 530 (fig. 2) and 531 (fig. 3).11
This majestic, gilt bronze sculpture originally sat on a rectangular, plinthlike throne which likely stood at the centre of a gilt bronze altar in the form of a small table with four legs and cusped apron panels. Additional figures, hierarchically scaled and symmetrically arranged, would have
accompanied the Buddha, the grouping including an odd number of figures with the Buddha at the centre flanked on either side by a bodhisattva, perhaps with a monk or disciple tucked between the Buddha and each bodhisattva, and perhaps with a guardian figure at each outer
edge of the assemblage. Akin to angels, celestial figures termed apsaras likely hovered above, venerating the Buddha, playing musical instruments, or making offerings of alms or flowers. A late seventh- or early eighth-century, gilt bronze Maitreya altar group in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, suggests the context in which this sculpture originally appeared (B60 B8+).12
At the time it was created, either a gilt bronze halo or a gilt-bronze mandorla would have appeared behind this sculpture, the lotuspetal-shaped aureole suggesting light radiating from the Buddha’s body and thus signaling his divine status. (Symbolizing divinity, a halo is a circle, or disc, of light that appears behind the head of a deity; a mandorla is a full-body halo.) The small interruption in the curls of hair on the back of this sculpture’s head indicates the point where the halo or mandorla was secured in place. If not pierced, the aureole would have been engraved with a lotus blossom at its centre and tongues of flame around its periphery (compare Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, no. F1914.21); if reticulated, the aureole likely incorporated openwork floral
designs arranged in a scrolling arabesque perhaps with an open lotus blossom featured en face directly behind the Buddha’s head. The apsaras mentioned above would have been attached to the top of the aureole.
As evinced by the Gupta-period sculpture at the front of the stupa within Cave 26 at Ajanta, in Maharashtra, India, which dates before 480 C.E. (fig. 4),13 images of Buddhas with legs pendant were created in India by the fifth century. Such Indian images likely were the inspiration for the Chinese sculptures of the Buddha Maitreya seated with legs pendant that had appeared at Yungang by the second half of the fifth century.14
Large-scale, even monumental, sculptures of Maitreya as a Buddha were created at several Buddhist cave temple sites during the Sui dynasty (581–618 C.E.), particularly at Maijishan (in Gansu province), and many more during the Tang dynasty (618–907 C.E.), including at Longmen and Tianlongshan(in Shanxi province). Of these sculptures, the one closest in style and general appearance to the present gilt bronze sculpture is that in Cave 5 at Maijishan; though not dated by
inscription and variously attributed to the Sui and Tang dynasties, the Maijishan Buddha’s square face, slender body, and placement of both feet on a single large lotus blossom argue for its probable date of creation in the Sui or first years of the Tang. Even the treatment of this monumental Maitreya’s eyebrows finds kinship in the similar treatment of those of the
present gilt bronze Maitreya; in both cases the eyebrows’ arched edges are chamfered, resulting in a narrow, beveled indentation just above or just below the arch and a concomitant shift of planes.
Ascribed to the Sui dynasty, a painting on the western wall of Cave 405 in the Mogao complex of Buddhist grottoes at Dunhuang (in Gansu province) presents the Buddha Maitreya seated in Western fashion with legs pendant and flanked on either side by a standing monk, or disciple, and a standing bodhisattva (fig. 5); the Buddha holds his hands in the abhaya and varada mudras, indicating that he is preaching.15 With its squared face, its outward gaze, its hands gracefully posed
in the proper mudras, and its feet resting on a separate lotus blossoms, the Maitreya in the Dunhuang wall painting exhibits a close affinity to the present gilt bronze Maitreya, suggesting that the two works were produced within a few decades of each other. In neither example are the
Buddha’s robes so copious that they fall in voluminous folds over the legs or around the feet; moreover, in each case, the Buddha’s robes rest lightly on the legs, revealing their presence but not emphasizing their form.
The present gilt bronze sculpture likely dates to the first half of the seventh century, that is, to the end of the Sui or beginning of the Tang. The arrangement of the hair in small, snail-shell curls favors a Tang date for the sculpture as do the three strongly articulated folds of flesh around the neck and the pair of lotus blossoms positioned to receive the Buddha’s feet. At the same time, the slightly rectangular face and the slender body with narrow shoulders—as opposed to the full, round faces and fleshy bodies of classic Tang Buddhas—suggest a late Sui to early Tang date, as do the eyes and associated eyebrows and the elegant presentation of the robe with its few folds asymmetrically disposed. The treatment of the robe finds parallels in a Sui-dynasty, gilt bronze Maitreya seated in western fashion with legs pendant and formerly in the Nitta Collection,16 though the present sculpture probably is a little later than that Sui example.
Perhaps the sculpture closest in style to the present Buddha is that within a niche in a small stone stele dated by inscription to 687 C.E. and in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (B60 S36+)(fig. 6). The stele depicts the Buddha Maitreya seated in Western fashion with legs pendant and flanked on either side by a monk, or disciple, and a bodhisattva. Both the present gilt bronze Maitreya and that in the stele claim a tall ushnisha, a rectangular face, three clearly articulated folds around the neck, and a slender body with narrow shoulders. Even so, the treatment of the eyes and eyebrows differs significantly in the two sculptures. The 687 C.E. Maitreya on the stele exhibits large, downcast eyes set under bulging lids, and its crisply defined eyebrows result from the sharp intersection of forehead and eye socket planes, all of which anticipate the mature Tang style of the eighth century; by contrast, the eyes of the gilt bronze Maitreya look directly ahead, the eyelids only partially closed, and the more complex eyebrows display the chamfered edges and beveled indentations that accentuate the eyebrows and that
embody the Sui to early Tang style. In addition, the arrangement of the present gilt bronze Buddha’s robe with just a few folds asymmetrically arranged contrasts with that of sculptures from the second half of the seventh century and later—including the robes of the Maitreya on the
San Francisco stele—which typically boast a number of linear folds— sometimes termed “string folds”—that cascade between the figure’s legs in a series of descending arcs. The robes of such sculptures from the mid-seventh century and later generally cling tightly to the legs, underscoring their corporeality; by contrast, the robes of the present gilt bronze Maitreya lie delicately on the legs, revealing their presence but not emphasizing their form, suggesting a date for the sculpture’s creation earlier than the second half of the seventh century.
Other known gilt bronze images of the Preaching Maitreya Buddha are either earlier or later than the present example. The other gilt bronze Preaching Maitreya formerly in the Nitta Collection and previously mentioned above, clearly dates several decades before the present sculpture.17 By contrast, with its full, round face, large eyes, well articulated barrel chest, and clinging drapery that emphasizes them figure’s corporeality, the previously mentioned gilt bronze Preaching
Maitreya Buddha and associated altarpiece in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, likely dates to the late seventh or eighth century18 (B60 B8+)(fig. 7), just as the gilt bronze Preaching Maitreya Buddha in the collection of the Capital Museum, Beijing, surely also dates to the eighth century.19
Large in scale for an early Chinese gilt bronze sculpture, this majestic image represents the Buddha Maitreya preaching in his Ketumati Paradise, following his descent to earth from the Tushita Heaven to succeed the Buddha Sakyamuni as the presiding Buddha. Simply yet brilliantly composed, the sculpture focuses attention on the Buddha’s face, with its serene countenance and compassionate expression, and on his hands, with their preaching mudras. In perfect harmony, the elegant style and clear statement of purpose—the preaching of wisdom and compassion—combine to make this a great masterwork of Chinese Buddhist sculpture.
1. For information on Maitreya, see: Lewis Lancaster, “Maitreya” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd rev. edition, vol. 8, edited by Lindsay Jones, Mircea Eliade, and Charles J. Adams (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA), 2005; Joseph M. Kitagawa,“The Many Faces of Maitreya: A Historian of Religions’ Reflections,” in Maitreya, the Future Buddha, edited by Alan Sponberg and Helen Hardacre (New York: Cambridge University Press), 1988, pp. 7–22; Alan Sponberg and Helen Hardacre, eds., Maitreya, the Future Buddha (New York: Cambridge University Press), 1988; Dorothy C. Wong,“Maitreya Buddha Statues at the University of Pennsylvania Museum,” Orientations, vol. 32, no. 2, 2001, pp. 24-31; Dorothy C. Wong, Chinese Steles: Pre-Buddhist and Buddhist Use of a Symbolic Form (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press), 2004.
2. See the Buddha Seated with Legs Pendant in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, which is identified by inscription as Sakyamuni (B60 S495) illustrated in Rene-Yvon Lefebvre d’Argence et al., Chinese, Korean and Japanese Sculpture in the Avery Brundage Collection (San Francisco: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco), 1974, pp. 184-185, no. 87.
3. Angela Falco Howard et al., Chinese Sculpture in The Culture and Civilization of China series (New Haven: Yale University Press; and Beijing: Foreign Languages Press) 2006, p. 228.
4. Shi Daoyu, “Early Chinese Belief in Maitreya Focused on [Monk] Dao’an [312-385],” Zhengguan Zazhi, no. 20, 25 March 2002, pp. 142-226.
5. See the Chinese, early fourth-century, gilt bronze sculpture of a Standing Maitreya Holding a Small Jar in the collection of the Fuji Yurinkan, Kyoto illustrated in Angela Falco Howard et al., Chinese Sculpture, fig. 3.26.
6. See the sculpture representing Maitreya Seated with Ankles Crossed in the roomshaped niche on the west wall of the antechamber of Cave 20 at Yungang illustrated in Shanxi Provincial Association for Cultural Relics Work and Shanxi Yungang
Grottoes Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Relics, Yungang Grottoes (Beijing: Xinhua Shudian), 1977, pl. 69.; also see the sculpture of Maitreya with ankles crossed in a niche on the east wall of Cave 10 at Yungang illustrated in Dorothy C. Wong, Chinese Steles, p. 98, fig. 6.6.
7. See the Northern Qi marble sculpture representing the Pensive Maitreya in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, accession number F1911.411; also see the similar sculpture in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San
Francisco, accession number B60 S279.
8. Zhiru, “The Maitreya Connection in the Tang Development of Dizang Worship”,Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 65, no. 1, June 2005, p. 111.
9. Zhiru, “The Maitreya Connection in the Tang Development of Dizang Worship”, pp.106-107.
10. For information about the increased interest in Maitreya in the sixth century, see: J.Leroy Davidson, The Lotus Sutra in Chinese Art: A Study in Buddhist Art to the Year 1000, (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1954.
11. Also see the Northern Zhou stele, dated by inscription to 573, with an image of the Buddha Sakyamuni on the front face and an image of Maitreya with legs pendant on the back face illustrated in Matsubara Saburo, Zhongguo Fojiao Diaoke Shilun
[The Path of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture], vol. 2 Nanbeichao houqi · Sui [Later Six Dynasties and Sui] (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kobunkan), 1995, p. 363, 1995, p. 363.
12. See: Rene-Yvon Lefebvre d’Argence et al., Chinese, Korean and Japanese Sculpture in the Avery Brundage Collection, (pp. 192-193, no. 92.
13. Walter M. Spink, Ajanta: History and Development in the Handbook of Oriental Studies series, Section two, South Asia, v. 18 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2005), p. 6.
14. See the two sculptures representing Maitreya Seated with Legs Pendant in Cave 20 at Yungang; one sculpture appears on either side of the Maitreya Seated with Ankles Crossed mentioned in note 6, above: Shanxi Provincial Association for Cultural Relics Work and Shanxi Yungang Grottoes Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Relics, Yungang Grottoes (Beijing: Xinhua Shudian), 1977, pl. 69.
15. See National Research Institute on Dunhuang Art (now, Dunhuang Research Academy), Chinese Cave Temples: Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, vol. 2 (Beijing: Wenwu Chubanshe), 1984, pl. 97.
16. See National Palace Museum, ed., The Crucible of Compassion and Wisdom: Special Exhibition Catalog of the Buddhist Bronzes from the Nitta Group Collection at the National Palace Museum (Taipei: National Palace Museum), 1987, pp. 172, pl. 75.
17. See note 16, above.
18. See note 12, above.
19. See Mei Ninghua and Tao Xincheng, compilers, Buddhist Statues I in Gems of Beijing Cultural Relics Series (Beijing: Beijing Publishing House), 2001, p. 58, no. 20 and text, p. 3, no. 20.