UNIVERSAL LIGHT FROM A WESTERN SAGE: NOTES ON A GOLD SAL TREE PAINTING Luo Wenhua In the 45th year of Qianlong period (1780), the sixth Panchen Lama attended the emperor’s 70th birthday celebration in Beijing. The Panchen Lama's eastern tour was an event of national importance and from the moment the decision was made, there were many interactions between the two heads of states and their ministers, and later numerous gifts were exchanged. This sal (sala in Sanskrit) tree painting is one of the important artefacts that marked this historical event. This sal tree painting is executed using the carved-ink technique whereby ink of the indigo paper is cut away and infilled with gold paint. It is a hanging scroll framed in blue-ground brocade, consistent with other Buddhist works made in the Palace workshop. Measuring 218 cm. high and 101 cm. wide, it depicts a sal tree growing between two rocks, surrounded by flowering plants. The tree has a gnarled trunk splitting into two branches bearing verdant leaves. The trunk and branches are infilled with gold paint, and the leaves are either painted in outlines only or infilled. The painting style of the rocks has Chinese influences. Professor Patricia Berger interprets the two rocks – one large and one small – as symbolising the Buddha and his disciple the Panchen Lama in conversation, an interesting reading that imbues the painting with further connotations. The sal tree (shorea robusta) in India is a symbol intimately associated with Buddhism. It represents the forests in which the Buddha entered parinirvana, one of the eight holy places in Buddhism. Additionally, one of the Buddhas of the past, the Visvabhu Buddha, also attained enlightenment under a sal tree. The sal tree is also known as the ‘seven-leaf tree’, since its leaves are digitate with seven leaflets. However, only two upper leaves on the current painting are depicted with seven leaflets, while others have more. There is a seal impression Guxitianzi zhi bao (Treasure of the Son of Heaven at seventy) in-between the branches. This seal was commissioned especially for the emperor’s 70th year birthday. On the right side of the painting there are two seals yu heqi you (Extending like harmonious qi) and yijing miao kanhui (Quietude makes the mystery fathomable). On the left side there is a rectangular seal shebi ouzhi jixian (Dabbling in brushwork at occasional leisure). Above the sal tree there are inscriptions in Chinese, Tibetan, Manchu and Mongolian, each followed by a circular seal Qian and a square seal Long. At the lower left corner there is a seal Gongqinwang (Prince Kung), indicating that was once in the collection of Prince Kung. This painting was recorded to be in the collection of Li Yizhao, a businessman during the Japanese occupation, however, no further information relating to Li has been uncovered. It is evident, nevertheless, that the current sal tree painting was passed down from the Imperial collection to Prince Kung, and later came to private hands in the Republic period, and onward to Japan in the 30s or 40s. The inscription is followed by a two-line postscript which can be translated: ‘In early 11th month of Qianlong gengzi year, Imperial painting of longevity wish to sage-monk Panchen, together with an ode.’ The ode can be translated: Sal tree from the land of Brahmans, its leaves regenerate daily, Like the great toon tree in mythology, enjoying limitless longevity. Visvabhu Buddha, the third of the Seven Past Buddhas, Attained enlightenment under this tree, his heart showing the way. It is also said that Damo, meditating under the tree, Pointing straight to transmission by heart, the Six Paramita. The sage monk arrives from the West, to propagate the Yellow Sect. It happens to be his birthday, the clear sun shines universally. With this painting of a spiritual tree, to increase his longevity, The seven leaflets proliferating, likes his years multiplying. On the day of nirvana, the Buddha’s earthly body was cremated, He is no different from the Buddha, in his ability to achieve the limitlessness. The beginning of the poem compares the sal tree to dachun (great toon tree, Cedrela sinensis), a tree mentioned in Zhuangzi’s Xiaoyaoyou: ‘There was once a great toon tree in ancient times, its spring lasted 8000 years, and its autumn lasted 8000 years’. The connotations to ‘longevity’ and ‘evergreen’ are unmissable – and the Emperor was referring to the Panchen Lama, ‘the sage-monk arrives from the West, to propagate the Yellow Sect; it happens to be his birthday, the clear sun shines universally.’ This ode was also recorded in the Qinggaozong yuzhi wen (Compilation of compositions by Gaozong Emperor), titled ‘Painting a sal tree for Panchen Lama’s birthday and composing an ode’, where an epilogue was added which details the background for the painting. Qianlong emperor wrote: “Yesterday I composed an ode to a sal tree painting, in which I quoted the poem of Tang calligrapher Li Yong (678-674), who wrote in On Sal Tree – on the day of nirvana, the Buddha’s body was cremated – and I suddenly realised it was not suitable to talk about cremation in a poem intended for Panchen’s birthday. But then I thought, without the cremation of the Buddha, there would not be the reincarnation of Panchen. Panchen is a reincarnated of the living Buddha, and he is here reincarnated because of the cremation. Only his dharmakaya (truth body) is never destroyed”. Summarising from historical documents on 6th Panchen’s trip to Beijing, we can deduce the chronological order of events on the making of the sal tree painting. After Qianlong Emperor celebrated his birthday in the Summer Palace in Chengde in 1780, the Panchen Lama accompanied him back to Beijing. Qianlong remembered that Panchen’s 42nd birthday was approaching (11th day of 11th month), so he commissioned the sal tree painting in anticipation, and composed the ode. Unfortunately, before the painting could be presented, Panchan Lama passed away on the 2nd day of the 11th month. According to the Records, on the 14th day of the 10th month, the Imperial Office of Fulfilment which was in charge of the making of imperial paintings in the palace, the Ruyiguan, already completed the framing of the original version of the sal tree painting on rice paper, so the Qianlong Emperor probably finished the painting and the ode in the beginning of the 10th month, and the carved-ink version was completed around the 5th day of 11th month. Thereafter, this painting became an important memento commemorating the 6th Panchen Lama, and the Emperor had it reproduced on numerous occasions. There appear to be three types of sal tree paintings in the Qianlong period: the carved-ink; the carved-ink with cinnabar infill; and the carved-ink with gold infill. For example, the one in the Tibet Museum (fig. 1) and the one in the Palace Museum are both carved-ink (decoration left blank); while the one in the Prague National Gallery (vm.158) (fig. 2), the one sold in China Guardian in 2000, and the current example are all carved-ink with gold infill. No examples of carved-ink with cinnabar infill have been found. Only the Tibet Museum example and the current painting retain the original Qianlong period border. The carved-ink technique can also be found on other Qianlong period works such as the set of paintings of Seven Buddhas, and the Palden Lhamo thangka edited by the preceptor Changkya. On the 5th day of the 11th month of Qianlong 45th year, the Emperor decreed to have court painter Yang Dazhang to ‘emulate the original painting and its texture’ to paint 10 copies of carved-ink paintings, ‘where there are white leaves, use yellow gold, with the stalks in ink; where there are red leaves, use red gold, with the stalks in white; the trunk is to be filled in red gold; the rocks textured by yellow gold; and the moss picked out in red gold.’ The instructions were very detailed and particular. It is recorded that on the 4th day, 12th month of Qianlong 45th year, ten carved-ink paintings of sal tree with gold infill were framed: “Frame four of the sal tree paintings in brocade border, fitted with the four pairs of jade scroll weights that were handed in, and fix with beaded hanging rings; at an opportune hour, offer them in the Buddhist storage box of Fori Pagoda, Huiyao Pagoda, Yihe Studio and Yunzhen Studio. The other six are to be framed with normal gold borders, and fitted with zitan scroll weights.” Thereafter, four of the paintings were fitted with yellow silk covers and reviewed by the Emperor. The four were then offered to the palace in Jehol, the Xumifushou Temple, the Xiangshan and the Wanshoushan temples. The six were offered to Longxing Temporary Palace, Longxing Main Temple, Wutaishan Pusading, Shuxiang Temple, Temporary Palace and Tailu Temporary Palace. The production of carved-ink sala tree paintings was the largest recorded, and they were mainly offered to important temples in the Palace and places that Panchen have visited, such as Wutaishan and Temporary Palace. After the parinirvana of Panchen, the Qianlong emperor decreed to have a cenotaph erected at the Xihuang Temple, and named it Qingjing Huacheng Pagoda (Pagoda of the Phantom City of Purity). The sala tree painting and the ode was carved as a stone stele and erected to the west of the Pagoda. The ink rubbing of this stele was published by Franke and Laufe. In the 46th year of Qianlong, the Emperor hanged a new carved-ink sal tree painting with gold infill in the Zifu Fanxiang Hall located in the Summer Palace. This Palace was where 6th Panchen once recited sutra and was one of his memorial hall. From the records, there are no more than 11 copies of the carved-ink sal tree paintings with gold infill, and the current painting belongs to this group, and was once offered in one of the imperial Buddhist halls mentioned above. To summarise, these are the important points about the current painting: 1. This sal tree painting was produced by court painters following the original painted by the Emperor himself, and was made between the 45th and 46th year of the Qianlong reign (1780-1781); 2. The current painting is in very good condition; 3. The current painting retains the original Imperial frames and borders; 4. It is a record of an important historical journey of the 6th Panchen Lama to Beijing, and is full of Buddhist symbolism as well as rich in historical significance; 5. There are only five published examples, the current painting being one of them.
DATED QIANLONG CYCLICAL GENGZI YEAR, CORRESPONDING TO 1780 AND OF THE PERIOD