The content of this exhibition of rubbings is mainly comprised of dedicatory texts found on stone Buddhist steles. As the term itself implies, Buddhist "stone icons" refers to icons and texts carved into stone. Such a process is a very serious and remarkable experience. When a stele or monument is completed, the dedicatory inscription is carved to record the initial process of creation, the date, and the community of Buddhist disciples, and masters that contributed to the making of the monument. Most importantly, there are also the individuals or groups that first conceptualized making the monument. This inscribed dedicatory vow is an initial step in the commitment to the practice of Bodhisattvahood. Such a vow can be called an initial dedication of the will. Vowing to create a Buddhist icon as an offering to the Buddha simultaneously invites the manifestation of the Buddha and supports for their practice. The power this vow generates is directed as an offering towards the Buddha, and beseeches the Buddha to provide blessing. Through the icon, a deep and personal connection is made between the devotee and the Buddha. This is the reason why we call this exhibition of dedicatory texts “A Promise to the Buddha.”
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)