Serenity and Compassion – A Rare Song Dynasty Guanyin
Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director Asian Art
This graceful figure of the bodhisattva Guanyin sits in a variation of the pose known in Indian iconography as rajalilasana, or ‘royal ease’. The left leg is pendant, while the right is bent and raised, so that, at just below shoulder height, the bodhisattva’s right arm is able to rest casually on the knee. The torso leans very slightly to the left, giving the impression that the left arm, which is straight, appears to take the full weight of the body. The figure does, indeed, appear completely at ease – relaxed, but retaining a quiet dignity and serenity. This pose is often associated with one of the most popular aspects of the bodhisattva – ‘Guanyin of the Southern Seas’ or ‘Water-Moon Guanyin’. This name is a reference to Guanyin residing on the mythical Mount Potalaka, which was believed to exist in the seas off the southern coast of India. This particular imagery was introduced into China in the 5th century with the first complete translation of the Avatamska Sutra (full name - Mahavaipulya Buddhavata?saka Sutra, The Flower Adornment Sutra ???????), one of the most influential sutras of Mahayanist Buddhism.
The bodhisattva Guanyin, whose name in Sanskrit is Avalokitesvara, is an important figure in the Mahayanist Buddhist tradition. The Sanskrit name derives from two parts – avalokita, meaning ‘seen’ – and ishvara, meaning ‘lord’. The meaning is therefore either ‘the lord who is seen’ or ‘the lord who sees’. In either case it is the presence of the deity amongst the people of the world, and his accessibility, that is emphasised. The full name in Chinese is Guanshiyin ??? – ‘one who hears the sounds [prayers] of the world’. The impression is of an omnipresent deity to whom mortals may turn in times of trouble. Guanyin is a bodhisattva, which means that he is one who has attained enlightenment, but who has deferred entering nirvana and Buddhahood in order to help allay the suffering of others and help them to attain enlightenment. In the Chinese translation of the Saddharma Pu??arika Sutra (Lotus Sutra ?????), the Indo-Iranian Kumarajiva (ca. AD 350-410) refers to Guanyin as the ‘Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion’. With the rise of the Pure Land School of Buddhism in China in the 7th century, Guanyin became one of the most prominent figures in the Chinese Buddhist pantheon. In the Song dynasty, when this sculpture was created, Guanyin was still depicted as an androgynous male, but later in the 12th century the bodhisattva began to be associated with a female manifestation, which gained momentum in the succeeding centuries until Guanyin was seen as the ‘Goddess of mercy’.
In Pure Land Buddhism ??? Guanyin is identified as one of the counsellor-emissaries of the Buddha Amitabha – the Buddha who presides over the Pure Land or Western Paradise, and in a second translation of the three sutras that comprise the Pure Land Sutra, Guanyin is identified as the successor to Amitabha. The same translation notes that any virtuous man or woman who finds themselves in trouble may entrust themselves to the Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara or Mathasthamapraptra, and they will be saved. Representations of Guanyin, therefore, may sometimes be identified by a small figure of Amitabha at the front of the diadem.
This bodhisattva is shown in simple, but princely robes. The lower body and legs are clothed in a paridhana or long dhoti, which falls in elegant, natural, folds and conforms to the shape of the lower legs of the figure. His chest is bare, but a long sinuous scarf crosses it obliquely, is tied on the left shoulder, and is draped over the right arm. The bodhisattva wears jewellery appropriate to his princely rank in the form of a necklace, bracelets, and a diadem in his hair. Typically for figures of this period, the hair is looped around the ears and then swept up into a chignon. Like a number of other surviving wooden bodhisattva figures of this date there are relief designs on the paridhana at the knees of the figure and along the edges of the cloth. It must be born in mind that figures such as this one would have been in a temple for centuries and at intervals it would have been redecorated. Therefore, not only are there several layers of pigment, but these relief designs, which may have been added in the Ming dynasty.
A slightly larger Northern Song Guanyin sculpture in this pose, although seated on a lotus throne, dated to the third year of Yuanfeng (AD 1079), is in the Chongqing temple in Shanxi province (illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji, diaosu bian, 5, Wudai Song diaosu, Beijing, 1988, p. 65, no. 64. Such sculptures, including the current example are particularly associated with North China, especially Shanxi province in the period 10th-14th century, due to the pre-eminent centres of Buddhism at Taiyuan and Wutaishan. Another similar figure, dated c. AD 1025, is in the Honolulu Academy of Arts. A slightly smaller Guanyin in this pose, dated c. AD 1200, is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and is discussed at length by J. Larson and R. Kerr in Guanyin – A Masterpiece Revealed, London, 1985. A slightly smaller figure of Guanyin in similar pose, dated c. AD 1250, is in the collection of Princeton University, where the curators note that the relief decoration on the skirt and scarves of the figure was probably added during the Ming dynasty. A slightly larger Song sculpture of Guanyin in this pose is also in the collection of the British Museum, London (see Buddhism: Art and Faith, London, 1985, no. 296), while a slightly smaller Northern Song figure of the bodhisattva Manjusri in a similar pose, is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum (see Wisdom Embodied – Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010, p. 180, no. A44).
A C14 test (CIO/853-16/PWL, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen) dated 20 June 2016, consistent with our dating, is available on request.