Seated in peaceful contemplation, this superb figure embodies a profound spirituality achieved through the remarkable plasticity of drapery and form, the unencumbered serenity of the face and the near-perfect fusion of body and glaze. It represents the historical monk known as Damo in China, Daruma in Japan and Bodhidharma in India, whose teachings eventually became the foundation of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. The pose of this figure perhaps recalls the nine years Damo spent in a cave, facing a wall and meditating (Denise P. Leidy, Donna Strahan, et al., Wisdom Embodied, Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010, p. 162). Damo is also often depicted standing barefoot on a reed leaf, representing the episode when he crossed the Yangtze River in this manner to evade pursuers. Variously described in early texts as a monk of Central Asian or Persian origin, and later as of South Indian or Tamil origin, ibid., p. 162, the face of the figure, with broad, flat nose and heavy-lidded oval eyes, reveals the features of a person of non-Chinese origin.
The figure bears the rare mark of Chen Shixin, an unrecorded artist of obvious exceptional skill, who presumably worked in the Dehua region in the early part of the seventeenth century. Two very similar figures, seated on mats and exhibiting the same facial features and luxurious treatment of the garment, but without potter's marks, have been published: one in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ibid., pp. 162-63, no. 43, and the other with a crackled glaze from the Eumorfopoulus Collection, now in the British Museum, London, illustrated by R.L. Hobson in The George Eumorfopoulus Collection Catalogue, vol. IV, London, 1924, pl. LIX, fig. D286, and by Jessica Harrison-Hall in Catalogue of Late Yuan and Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, p. 515, no. 17:14. The workmanship shown on these two figures is so similar to the present example that it is possible that they were also created by the potter Chen Shixin. All three can be firmly dated to the early part of the seventeenth century based on stylistic similarities, particularly in the treatment of the robe, to standing figures of Damo bearing the mark of the famous Dehua potter He Chaozong. One such standing figure in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji; gongyi meishu bian, vol. 3, Beijing, 1988, p. 51, fig. 142, and another is illustrated by John Ayers in Blanc de Chine, Divine Images in Porcelain, New York, 2002, p. 76, fig. 27. Although the details of He's life remain obscure, the existence of at least two Dehua figures bearing his mark and a cyclical date has led scholars to place his work in the early part of the seventeenth century (see Ayers, Blanc de Chine, p. 74. no. 25, for a figure of Guanyin inscribed with a cyclical date corresponding to 1619; see, also, Robert Blumenfield, Blanc de Chine, The Great Porcelain of Dehua, Berkeley, 2002, p. 165, figs. A & B, for a figure of Guanyin seated before an aureole bearing an inscription that includes a cyclical date of 1618). A figure of Guanyin with a He Chaozong mark that can also be used as a benchmark for dating this figure of Damo, modeled in a similar seated pose on a reed mat and exhibiting similar treatment of the robe, is in the Museé Guimet, Paris, and illustrated in Oriental Ceramics, The World's Great Collections, vol. 7, Tokyo, 1981, col. pl. 31, p. 159, no. 31.
A third, smaller Dehua figure of Damo, now in the Natural History Museum, Chicago, modeled without a mat but with great similarities in the face and robe to the present figure, bears the mark of Lin Chaojing and is illustrated by P.J. Donnelly in Blanc de Chine, London, 1969, pl. 140D. A member of the Lin family of potters, Lin Chaojing is reported to have worked in the Ming dynasty, specializing in the human figure (Robert Blumenfield, Blanc de Chine, The Great Porcelain of Dehua, Berkeley, 2002, p. 138).