A Promise to the Buddha - Devotion and Praxis in Buddhist Steles Inscriptions
Exhibition date2014/05/03 - 2015/10/21
Exhibition roomRubbings(Room 205)
The content of this “Promise to the Buddha” can be divided into an offering and a prayer for blessing. How can creating an icon become an offering? Buddhism emphasizes both the dignity and gorgeous adornment of Buddhist images (form-bodies), such that these images become indescribable through mundane speech. The Buddha has 32 Marks and 80 Excellent Characteristics, providing viewers with unsurpassed joy. The viewer becomes visually transfixed and mentally devoted, enabling further study of the Buddhist Path. It can be said that in the transmission of Buddhism, text and image are equally valued. Especially for those at beginning stages, the viewing of gorgeous Buddhist icons is a shortcut to the practice of direct insight.
Buddhism also discusses an ultimate emptiness, that the three temporal realms are singularly constructed in mind, and that the form-body is like an illusion. Thus, the Diamond Sūtra states, "the characteristics of the body cannot be used to perceive the Buddha Tathāgata. . . . The characteristics of the body as mentioned by the Tathāgata are thus not the characteristics of the body." Also, as it is stated in the Heart Sūtra, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” However, eminent monks since ancient times have always had a deep knowledge of the importance of images. The Continued Record of Eminent Monks records that Master Shandao (613-681) of the Tang Dynasty Pure Land School created more than three hundred Transformation Pictures. The Japanese wandering monk Enkū (1632-1695) spent most of his days and nights carving wooden Buddhist statues. While he was wandering, Enkū used the Buddhist images to form connections with other believers. He carved more than 100,000 Buddhist icons, of which some 5,000 have been preserved in a range of Buddhist monasteries. These two monks successfully used Buddhist icons to transmit the Buddhist teachings. As can be seen in the content of the rubbings for this exhibition, regardless of whether it is a single individual’s vow or a group of believers organizing their resources to complete an image, it is clear that they are making an offering to the Buddha, that they are have dedicated their minds to pious practice, and that they act with the same devotional energy as the eminent monks of ancient times. Both laity and monastics actively reproduced Buddhist images. The innumerably repeated processes of making such images count as one of the special qualities of Buddhist Art.
The second type of aspect of “A Promise to the Buddha” is in its prayer for the Buddha’s blessings and protection. Why ask for the Buddha's assistance? Making a vow is the first step for a Buddhist practitioner and can also be called an act of one's own self-power. The Buddha's assistance can be called the other's power. This self-power and other-power mutually comprise both surface and content, and both enliven each other. For those who practice the Bodhisattva Path, the only things to fear in real life are the limitations of self-power and deficiencies of wisdom. Therefore, prayers are made for the Buddha's power of assistance in quickly achieving the Buddhist Path. In the real world, there are ceaseless distractions. Sudden and unexpected disasters are difficult to anticipate. Thus, the everpresent protection of the Bodhisattva Avalokitêśvara is necessary: “A thousand responses to a thousand prayers” satisfy the needs of laypeople throughout the world.
When the Buddha left his home, the initial generation of mind to practice and manifest the Path was done for the sake of liberation from the impermanence of the world and transcending the cycle of birth and death. The Buddha attained complete and perfect enlightenment, and his teachings transformed countless disciples. He finally laid down between twin trees and is said to have entered the eternity, bliss, selfhood, and purity of nirvāṇa without residue. Disciples followed his instructions and cremated the body, and then distributed the relics of the Buddha throughout the realm. Reliquary mounds (stūpas) were constructed as offerings, and the Buddhist teachings were spread. After the Buddha was no longer in the world, the world entered the period of the Semblance of the Teaching. To overcome their deep anxiety over the impending disappearance of the Buddhist teachings, in addition to copying scriptures and preaching the dharma, monastic communities strengthened their worship of Buddhist relics. Emperors who protected Buddhism on earth, such as Emperor Ashoka, promoted Buddhist teachings and made offerings to the Buddha. For instance, Ashoka created 84,000 Buddhist reliquary stūpas. Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty also imitated Emperor Ashoka and actively established reliquary stūpas in each of the states throughout his country.
In an age without a Buddha, practitioners made icons as prayers for future rebirth in the palace of Tuṣita Heaven where the Bodhisattva Maitreya resides. Sometime in the distant future, the Bodhisattva Maitreya will be reborn in the world as the Buddha and will extensively propagate the teachings so that all sentient beings will be enlightened. Practitioners reborn in Tuṣita Heaven will also accompany the rebirth of Maitreya and they will hear the teachings and become enlightened. This is one of the earliest vows of rebirth. By the end of Northern and Southern Dynasties, the Western Pure Land of the Buddha Amitābha gradually replaced Tuṣita Heaven to become the target of rebirth for lay believers nearing death. Amitābha had already made 48 Great Vows before becoming a Buddha. His Pure Land realm of ultimate bliss is adorned with light. It satisfies material needs, it is a place of diligent practice, and—expediently—to attain rebirth there, believers only need to make a vow by reciting the name of Amitābha ten times before facing death.
From looking at the exhibited rubbings, it is evident that devotees came from all classes of society. The emperor, nobility, officials, generals, soldiers, monks, and the masses were not divided into high or low classes. Each of them made their vows from a particular time and place, but they all participated in the common experiences of offerings, study, and practice towards Buddha Path.(translated by Jon Ryan C. Soriano)
Perfect DispositionPerfect disposition, in Buddhist term, refers to both adorning and creating perfect Buddhist images, stūpa (reliquary structures), and monasteries with precious material. For several hundred years before the appearance of Buddha images, believers in India gathered around the stūpas placed atop the remains of the Buddha, which were buried as relics. These believers valued seven precious substances for the decoration of reliquaries: gold, silver, beryl, pearl, crystal, coral, and carnelian. After the Buddha's full enlightenment, the reliquary stūpa came to symbolize dharma, the Buddha's teaching. The countless stūpas throughout Asia represent the veneration that the Buddha's dharma-body receives. The worship of the stūpa through adornment is analogous to offerings made to the formless teachings of the Buddha and the dharma-body. The tradition of adornment continued with the appearance of Buddha images and spread throughout the Buddhist cultural sphere. Ever since the Northern and Southern Dynasties, believers actively carved Buddhist imagery on stone steles and in stone grottoes. They had faith in the merit transference that the sculptures would manifest, as well as on the beneficial recompense in either this world or the next. Donors carefully selected the finest stone, sculptors, and engravings. Sculptures were further embellished with gold and other colors. Finally, the donors would select an auspicious occasion for the unveiling ritual, even perhaps coinciding the event with the Eight Precepts Ceremony and an appropriate stele inscription to commemorate this meritorious event. These stone Buddhist images were painted in multiple colors and gilded. Some Bodhisattvas were depicted with a complex array of silk ribbons, celestial garments, jeweled crowns, necklaces, and armlets, achieving a phenomenal state of adornment. In this way, the perfect disposition of the Buddha image was not limited to decoration and worship, but also had a deeper significance. The primary reason that donors made images was to gain their own merit. Furthermore, the magnificent Buddhist images set up in temples, stone grottoes, and boulevards gave public viewers the chance to closely appreciate the statues and led to the merit of enlightened minds. Donors carved out Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in golden, shimmering images, representing the ultimate perfection accomplished through innumerable devotional practices in Buddha’s previous lives. Such perfect disposition far surpassed anything imaginable in mundane thought. Additionally, the appearance of such dignified and perfect images allowed viewers to have something like a vision of sages returning to visit our world. Believers are captivated, raptured, and made piously reverent. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas manifest efflorescent Reward Bodies, which display the perceptual objects of their practice and motivate believers to emulate them, as they stride along the Bodhisattva path. Because all sentient beings possess a Buddha-nature, it only takes the vigorous, continuous practice of Buddhist teachings and the accumulation of good deeds to realize the wisdom inherent in one's mind and to become an adorned Bodhisattva. (TT)(translated by Jon Ryan C. Soriano)
Praise the Fruit of ActionTo "praise the fruit of action" means to advocate for meritorious deeds in order to establish of beneficial effects. "Practicing good deeds to receive better results" is the principle logical statement of karma—put another way, good causes produce good effects. One story in the Collection of Varied Jewels Scripture (or Saṃyuktaratnapiṭaka Sūtra) effectively explains how the rewards of merit and the relationships of causation work. A long time ago there were two poor brothers. All day long, the elder brother prayed to the god of fortune for wealth. The younger brother simply planted crops. The god revealed itself to the older brother and said that by not planting things and only praying, his actions were in vain. Instead, practicing generosity and using wealth to benefit others will achieve a valuable effect. Not initially practicing good deeds and only praying to the gods for riches is like praying to the gods for fruit trees to bloom in the winter, or climbing a tree to look for fish. The return for a good deed is like fruit, it will naturally ripen and will not depend on prayers and rituals. In sum, all rewards are determined by actions, and merely relying on prayer to a higher power is useless. When devotees pray, they must also respect the way cause and effect works in this story, or else they will have unrealistic expectations. According to Buddhist teaching, the practices of real generosity and adherence to morals are a kind of personal training; these are made manifest in the creation of devotional images and the writing of scripture, or the establishment of temples and shrines that can allow Buddhist teachings to circulate far and wide. Having all sentient beings personally experience the Buddhist teaching is the best way to cultivate good causes. In such a way, these good deeds can produce merit, leading to beneficial effects in the future. This particular kind of image-making record describes multiple creative activities, including the creation of images or the construction of temples and shrines; images are diverse, there are different scales of temple construction, and different effects of merit are expected. Although creative activities and the motivations for prayers are different, these epigraphs often show that donors were clear about the concept of causation. They knew that to end suffering they had to depend on wondrous good deeds, and that the best way to do that was to write scriptures and create images. With an abundance of good deeds, future benefit can be expected. (TT)(translated by Jon Ryan C. Soriano)
Worldly BenefitWhen Śākyamuni was young, he personally witnessed the fact that all sentient beings cannot avoid the sufferings of birth, old age, infirmity, and death. Because of this, he fixed his mind on giving up his royal position and becoming an itinerant ascetic practitioner. He searched for the supreme wisdom of enlightenment. Thus, he went through six years of ascetic practice and finally achieved perfect insight. He then began to preach to his disciples in order to share this supreme wisdom. For the Buddha, the initial stage of mindfulness when seeking refuge in the teachings is comprised of benefiting sentient beings. The core of the Mahayana practice of the Bodhisattva Path is to openly lead sentient beings away from suffering and towards joy. There are many ways to benefit others with joy, regardless of whether this entails the Four Immeasurable States of Mind: kindness, pity, joy, or composure; the Four means of Attraction: generosity, affirmation, altruism, and cooperation; or the Six Perfections: generosity, morality, patience, effort, concentration, or insight (wisdom). These are all dharma gates of Bodhisattva practice. When Buddhist practitioners walk, stand, sit, or lie down, every movement is directed towards the idea of benefiting sentient beings. Only in that way do they practice the Bodhisattva Path. At the same time, they constantly pray that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas support them with liberation from worldly suffering and with strengthening of their will to practice, simultaneously seeking enlightenment for themselves and others. According to Buddhists, the greatest worldly reward is the joy in single-mindedly learning about the Buddha Path and the early attainment of great wisdom, that of constant joy and purity of self. However, those who can rely on such a reward and avoid suffering in mundane existence are very few in number. Buddhist scriptures talk about the powerful and great vows made by many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to benefit sentient beings. For instance, Amitābha Buddha leads sentient beings to rebirth in the Western Realm of Ultimate Bliss through the recitation of 48 Great Vows. The Medicine Buddha (Bhāiṣajyaguru Tathāgata) made 12 Great Vows to manifest the complete perfection of sentient beings, such as, causing sick people to meet with good physicians; causing those seeking long life to have long lives; and causing all those suffering from hunger, thirst, cold, and imprisonment to be comforted. The vow that is most widely disseminated is that of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, which assists those who suffer or who are in hardship. This belief has been deeply cherished by the populace. The Universal Gate chapter of the Lotus Scripture and the sixth fascicle of the Śūraṃgama Scripture both praise Avalokiteśvara’s practice and salvation. The power of this teaching is unending. For Avalokiteśvara to benefit the sentient beings of the dharma-realm, a limitless variety of expedient means are used. As such, Avalokiteśvara has six transformations: Noble Avalokiteśvara, Eleven-headed Avalokiteśvara, Thousand-armed Avalokiteśvara, Horse-headed (Hayagrīva) Avalokiteśvara, Buddha-mother (Cundi) Avalokiteśvara, and Wish-fulfilling Wheel (Cintāmaṇi-cakra) Avalokiteśvara, as well as 32 transformation bodies. Thus, there is the saying “a thousand responses to a thousand prayers.”(YC)(translated by Jon Ryan C. Soriano)
Buddhist PracticeOne may say that there are 84,000 ways to practice the Buddhist teachings, but at root it really comes down to lifestyle. The great Bodhisattvas are steadfast and single-minded in every breath they take. They all practice generosity, morality, patience, effort, concentration, and insight (wisdom)—the Six Perfections. Many Buddhist scriptures explain the best way to practice the Bodhisattva Path. For example, the Śūraṃgama Scripture presents 25 dharma gates (means of teaching); the Scripture of Perfect Enlightenment has 12 Bodhisattvas advising on how to practice the dharma gates; in the famous Gaṇḍavyūha Chapter of the Flower Ornament Scripture, the young Sudhana wanders through several lands piously requesting for the advisement of 53 different tutors, women and men, young and old, to learn how to become a Bodhisattva. Related scriptures on monastic precepts more rigidly standardize the norms and habits of practitioners. The Bodhisattva Path was established during the life of Śākyamuni Buddha, whose Buddhahood was a manifestation of the final stage in that path. Thus, the accomplishments of the Buddha have been continuously praised in text or in visual form. Presented in the exhibition, “Dedicatory Inscription by a Group of 90 Monks and Laity, 543CE" includes images such as the "Prince of Queen Māyā Bathed by Nine Dragons" or the "Prince Attaining Enlightenment and Receiving the Razor from the Gods to be Shaved ." These images describe the Buddha's birth as a prince to his realization, escape from the palace, tonsure, and itinerancy. According to the Buddhist concept of causation, Śākyamuni achieved complete fruition within his own lifetime. This is amazingly uncommon, but it was the culmination of all the Bodhisattva practices he had accumulated throughout numerous lifetimes. As such, there are many Jātaka tales of his past lives, vividly recounting his previous practices and experiences. The same stele also describes stories from his previous lives, such as "Bodhisattva Mānavaka presenting money to the princess to buy flowers" in which flowers are presented to the Buddha, or "500 ladies send the prince to retire in the mountain" in which the prince (Sudāna) unceasingly gives alms to the masses, causing the king to eject the prince from the palace and send him to a faraway mountain range. In all, the Buddha and Jātaka tales carved on the stele do not diverge from the essence Buddhist Practice. In other words, the carvings promote the spirit of the Bodhisattva. The most unique expression of Buddhist practice is self-sacrifice for the purpose of the Buddhist teaching. Popular examples include the stories of Prince Mahāsattva "giving his body to feed the tiger" and the young ascetic of the Himalayas "offering his body to hear a verse." The latter story comes from the Sagely Practice Chapter of the Great Complete Enlightenment (Mahāparinirvāṇa) Scripture, which was transmitted for generations across vast territories. In this exhibition, the stele from Maowen, Sichuan, entitled " Dedicatory Inscription of the Amitayus and Maitreya Buddhas by the Monk Xuansong of the Southern Qi Dynasty" has an image of this story carved in relief on its side. The story also appears in Anyang, Henan, at the Xiaonanhai Stone Grotto of the Northern Qi Period, on the main wall (561CE). More than a century later, the story spread even further to Nara, Japan. On the Tamamushi Shrine, which was consecrated in the Golden Hall of the Hōryū-ji temple complex, the Himalayan Bodhisattva story is painted on one side of the object. (YC)(translated by Jon Ryan C. Soriano)
Buddhist RenaissanceBelief in Buddhism has been increasing gradually since the Northern and Southern Dynasties. There are many monastic groups, and temples and shrines exist in great numbers. Furthermore, Buddhist development has not merely depended on groups organized from monastics and laity. The eminent monk Dao-an from the Eastern Jin Dynasty has already shown that “without relying on the political ruler, the Buddhist teachings are difficult to establish.” Buddhist development depends on imperial promotion and support in order to become prosperous. Buddhism and the state are inseparably linked and form a community with a single destiny. Whenever an emperor adjusts religious policies for economic or political reasons, large monastic groups and innumerable believers are inevitably affected. These events become hardships for the Buddhist community and are also known as Buddhist persecutions. The first Buddhist persecution occurred in the Northern Wei Dynasty under the reign of the Taiwu Emperor (Tuoba Tao, 408–452). The second persecution was in the Northern Zhou Dynasty when Emperor Wu (Yuwen Yong, 543–578) enacted a statewide militarization policy. He ordered monks to return to normal life, confiscated temple properties, and destroyed temples and shrines. Northern Buddhism was on the verge of collapse. The Sui Dynasty unification occurred not long after. The Sui Dynasty Emperor Wen (Yang Jian, 541–604) was a pious Buddhist since his childhood. Once in power, he overturned the previous anti-Buddhist policies and encouraged the restoration of temples and icons. Notably, Emperor Wen established large-scale state monasteries in battlefields throughout the 45 states in which he led campaigns against other warlords. Furthermore, in his later years, he sent relics from the court to these official monasteries three times. He established 111 “Renshou (reign-era, 601-604) Reliquary Stupas” throughout his realm. From the appointing of monks to deliver the relics, to the establishment of a long series of reliquary stupas, these actions were all standard orders based on Emperor Wen's systematic planning. The systematic actions Emperor Wen took to venerate Buddhism represented, on the one hand, the rulership's centralized conversion of the entire state to Buddhism, and, on the other hand, a manifestation of worldly power over Buddhism as an idealized wheel-turning (cakravartin) king. The title of “Buddhist Renaissance” is particularly used in reference to Emperor Wen’s consecrations of three reliquary sites, which reveal the emperor’s devoution to Buddhism and his desire to use Buddhist teachings to educate the realm. After experiencing the trauma of war and Buddhist persecution, Sui Dynasty Buddhists continuously followed Emperor Wen in determining the realm and rejuvenating Buddhism through the creation of sculptures and stele inscriptions. They expressed their feelings of gratitude and their hope in the continuous growth of the imperial court's support for Buddhist teachings. Emperor Wen instituted a system of one temple per state and the distribution of relics all around the country. This caused both nobles and commoners throughout the kingdom to cooperate in their activities, deeply influencing later generations. For example, according to the exhibition’s " Record of Restoring the Buddha Relic at Minzhong Temple,” monks restored the Sui Renshou Relics that were displaced during the Buddhist persecution of Tang Dynasty Emperor Wuzong (814–846). Starting with inscriptions dating back to the Renshou Reliquaries, there are descriptions of the relics encountering lighting and fire, as well as Buddhist persecutions. The objects remained solid and unharmed, a sign of their great auspiciousness. In particular, the stele texts expressly warn readers about the threat of another Buddhist persecution and are very thankful for the current regime’s respect for Buddhist teachings and the overall Buddhist efflorescence. In sum, the Renshou Reliquary stupas can stand as evidence of the secular rulership’s support for the Buddhist teachings, a renaissance of Chinese Buddhism, and a warning about the possibility of another Buddhist persecution. (TT)(translated by Jon Ryan C. Soriano)
Rebirth in the Pure LandAccording to historical data in the Record of Eminent Monks and the Tales of Rebirth in the Pure Land, by the time of the Northern and Southern Dynasties, there were already more than a few monks who believed in the Amitābha Buddha and who prayed for rebirth in the West. Among them, the most famous is the Eastern Jin Dynasty monk Huiyuan (334–416). Huiyuan assembled the White Lotus Society near Mount Lu, where they practiced pratyutpanna-samādhi, which involved visions of Amitābha Buddha, and awaited rebirth in the Western Pure Land. Even though numerous Buddhist sculpture inscriptions from this period record the widespread belief in Śākyamuni Buddha and Maitreya Buddha (or Bodhisattva), in actuality, belief in Pure Land Buddhism was increasingly popular and had developed particular characteristics. According to these inscriptions, many devotees expressed their regret in their inability to personally meet Śākyamuni Buddha in their lifetimes because of his passing, and Maitreya Buddha, who has not yet appeared. These texts reveal a strong desire to see the Buddha and hear the teachings despite being in a period without a Buddha. A monk named Tanluan (476–542) from the end of the Northern Wei Dynasty also held the same feeling of regret. A karmic opportunity allowed him to receive the teachings of the monk Bodhiruci (who went to China in 508). Tanluan then turned to promoting the essence of Pure Land Buddhism. In opposition to Śākyamuni Buddha, who had already entered nirvāṇa without residue, Amitābha (Amitāyus) Buddha residing in his Pure Land in the West, is a Buddha of the present who currently expostulates the teachings. Those who want to be reborn in the Pure Land rely on the power of Amitābha’s Vow. At the end of this life-cycle, one can be reborn in the Pure Land and see the Buddha. One need not wait hundreds of millions of years for the coming of Maitreya. By the Tang Dynasty(618-907), the widespread propagation of the teachings by eminent monks such as Shandao (613-681) enabled great advancements in the development of these beliefs. Pure Land Buddhism received mutually great responses from both monastics and laity. Images of Amitābha could be seen everywhere at this time. Many beautiful and glorious pictures of the Pure Land appear on the painted walls of Dunhuang Grottoes, in Gansu. The objects selected for the current exhibition are rubbings from the Northern and Southern Dynasties and Tang Dynasty. When comparing the two periods, formal differences between two stages of Pure Land belief become clear. These differences reflect the different cognitive positions and hopes that believers held. Regarding the images and textual characteristics of Pure Land-related steles from the earlier stage, many feature the Buddha of Immeasurable Life ( Amitāyus Buddha). References to or carvings of Avalokiteśvara and Mahāsthāmaprāpta as the two attendant Bodhisattvas are uncommon, and Amitābha(Amitāyus) is the primary and sole object of veneration. Portrayals of the Pure Land are also missing. In the later stage, textual and iconic depiction of Pure Land on steles are richer. Furthermore, some inscriptions describe the beautiful appearance of the Pure Land and record the names of the Three Sages of the West. The inscriptions also provide details of monastic practices in Pure Land. Some dedicatory texts even anticipate the end, in which Amitābha and his two attendant Bodhisattvas come forth and welcome the devotee to be reborn in the Pure Land. Compared with the more focused aspirations towards Amitābha for rebirth in the Pure Land found in the Northern and Southern Dynasties, Tang Dynasty steles contain vivid description of the Pure Land for believers, reflecting their ardent yearning for the Buddhist realm of the Pure Land. (TT)(translated by Jon Ryan C. Soriano)