Buddha, the golden legend
Wednesday 26 June 2019: Buddha, the golden legend, visit-conference by Sylvie Ahmadian, lecturer at the National Museum of Asian Arts - Guimet.
Sylvie Ahmadian recalls first of all that Buddhism, born in 5nd s. in northern India, spread to Asia along different routes. The Buddha's teaching traveled to Sri Lanka and from there spread to Southeast Asia (this is Buddhism Theravada, also called Hīnayāna or Small Vehicle). At the same time, a diffusion was made under the Kushan, towards Mathura and Gandhara, around the 2nd s. BC. From there, he followed the caravan routes to China, then to Korea and Japan (this is Buddhism). Mahāyāna or Big Vehicle). The Mahāyāna will also spread around the 7nd s. of our era to Sumatra and Java. Finally, a third school, the Vajrayāna (also called Tantric Buddhism) takes shape at 7nd s. in northern India, in Nalanda. It will be a great success in the Himalayan world, reach Mongolia and will be adopted by the emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
The first part of the exhibition is dedicated to the Buddha's past lives which are commented on in a set of writings: Jātaka. These tales, numbered 547, have a moral value and serve as examples.
A set of dried earth sculptures from Tumshuq des 6nd-7nd s. (Xingiang) illustrates three of the past lives. That illustrating the Shankhacharya Avadāna, shows the boddhisattva sitting in meditation surrounded by two apsara. We can see that birds have made their nest in his bun and the boddhisattva would have vowed to stay still until the chicks could fly. A long manuscript Burmese painted on paper (Mandalay, 1869) tells the story Nemi JātakaKing Nemi was so wise that the gods invited him to heaven, however, the king asked to visit the different hells and heavens. Throughout the scroll, he is seen seated in Indra's chariot, above fearful torments or palaces studded with jewels.
Then comes Siddhārtha Gautama's life from birth to parinirvana. Many sculptures evoke his birth. The work in gilded copper inlaid alloy (Nepal, 19nd s.) shows Queen Maya holding the branch of a tree studded with turquoises and coral (symbol of fertility and abundance), in the posture of tribhanga (triple flexion), the face lit up with a slight smile. The child appears, hands joined, coming out of his right side, so as not to be defiled and without hurting her. However, Maya will die seven days later.
The child, from birth and after having been bathed, will take seven steps in the cardinal directions. Then he would have uttered a "roar" to proclaim his primacy in the world. A lacquered and gilded wood sculpture (Vietnam, late 18nd s.) shows the future Buddha, standing on a lotus flower surrounded by dragons leaping out of the waves (in the Chinese world, dragons have replaced the Nāga who bathe the child).
The prince will grow up at the court of his father, King Śuddhodana. As the sage Asita, having observed the thirty-two distinctive marks of a being of exception, had predicted that he would be a universal sovereign (cakravartin) or Buddha, the king, unwilling to see his heir seek a spiritual path, offered him a life of pleasure in the palace of Kapilavastu. According to the wishes of his father, Siddhārtha Gautama will take a wife and have a son. However, driven by curiosity, the prince will leave the palace nightly four times and successively four meetings: a decrepit old man, a patient, a dead man cried by his family and an ascetic. Realizing that his destiny was to find the way to escape old age, sickness and death, Siddhārtha decided to leave the palace clandestinely and devote himself to his spiritual quest. This "great departure" has been illustrated many times and a limestone bas-relief from an Amarāvatī stupa (2nd s.) is particularly interesting. We see a horse whose hooves are supported by geniuses to smother his steps and carrying an invisible rider protected by a parasol (symbol of royalty). We understand that this is the future Buddha, because in the early days of Buddhism, the artists did not represent the blessed but suggested by symbols such as the wheel of the law, an empty throne, a parasol, etc. It should be noted that the horse is seen going to the left, which implies that the narration was around the stupa having the right-hand wall according to the principle of ritual circumambulation.
Having stripped himself of all his princely attributes, Siddhārtha will cut his long hair and send his faithful squire Chandaka and his horse Kanthaka back to the palace. He began his spiritual quest with great religious without finding an answer to his questions. He will begin a long period of asceticism which he will leave convinced that this is not the right way. Going to Bodhgaya, he went into deep meditation and intense internal fighting (symbolized by the assaults of Mara, the demon of death). Siddhārtha will awaken to a higher consciousness. The Shakyamuni ascetic (another name of Siddhārtha meaning sage of Shakyas) has been the subject of many representations. A drawing in ink and red pigments on paper, by Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889), shows the future Buddha in a pose close to that of royal relaxation, pose reserved normally for boddhisattvas, as the scepter Nyoi that he holds in his right hand. The drawn features and the hollowed body are not without evoking the emaciated Gandharan images. A common representation in Southeast Asia is to figure Shakyamuni in meditation on the rings of a Nāga which protects him from his hood with multiple heads. This is the case of the Khmer sandstone sculpture (11nd s.) in the style of the Angkor Baphuon. This evokes the episode where the king of Naga Mucilinda, during a terrible storm, raised the future Buddha and protected him from his hood.
A silk painting of 10nd s. from the Mogao Caves (Dunhuang) describes the onslaught of Mara, the demon of death and chaining in the cycle of rebirth (samsara). Shakyamuni sits on a multicolored throne (the Vajrasana or diamond throne), sheltered under a tree forming a canopy. Impassive he makes the gesture of "the taking of the Earth to witness" (bhūmisparshamudrāwhile around him an army of demons swarms. In the lower part, the seven treasures of a ruler cakravartin are figured: the wheel, the wife, the minister, the white elephant, the white horse, the chest symbolizing the treasurer and the gem confiding desires.
A Gandharan sculpture (4nd-5nd s.), from Pakistan, shows the Awakened making the gesture of setting in motion the wheel of the Law (dharmachakramudrā). This gesture evokes the first sermon, in the gazelle park of Sarnath, where he reveals the four truths:
- Birth is suffering, old age is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering.
- Suffering exists because there are causes that cause it to appear. So it makes perfect sense to know what these causes are.
- Once the origins are known, we act on the causes to eradicate them, until reaching the "final liberation".
- The fourth noble truth is that of the path leading to the cessation of suffering, it is the noble eightfold path.
On certain representations, gazelles are figured at the bottom of the throne on which the Buddha sits, the wheel of the Law can also be carved there. Another Gandalan shale relief (1er-3nd s.), also from Pakistan, presents Shakyamuni surrounded by his disciples, sitting under the fig tree, touching a wheel on the triratna in the shape of a trident which evokes the three jewels of Buddhism (Buddha - the awakened one, Dharma - all the lessons and Sangha - the whole community), says triratna resting on a second wheel framed by gazelles.
As a result of the preaching, a secular and religious community develops and its followers will be the propagators of the Law. Among them, the two great disciples, Mahakashyapa, often represented as an austere and elderly person, and Ananda, younger, characterized by his gentleness, his humility and his prodigious memory, ensure the transmission of Buddhism.
A Gandian shale relief (1er-3nd s.) appearing three seated monks, in the style influenced by the Greco-Roman art, could make think that they are real portraits.
Two statues of Ananda and Mahakashyapa are characteristic of the statuary of the Sui period (581-618). Carved in marble and almost life-size, they still bear traces of the polychrome that adorned the monastic garment. These two statues were to frame a central image of the Blessed. From the 6nd In China, these two disciples will be part of a group of five characters: Shakyamuni in the center surrounded by two Bodhisattvas, each accompanied by one of the great disciples.
The arhat (literally those who deserve to be honored) will take an important place in the development of the faith and seven of them were chosen by the Buddha to perpetuate the Buddhist Law until the arrival of the Buddha of the Future, Maitreya . Although issued from the doctrine Hīnayāna, they will be adopted by Buddhist followers of Mahāyāna and it is in Tibet, China and Japan that we find the most evidence of their veneration. Three arhat enamels from the rose family were probably commissioned by Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) during his 80nd birthday (1790) and were part of a set of eighteen statues surrounding a Buddha. These three statues represent a technical tour de force of Jingdezhen ovens. In the same way, the emperor engraved jade plates representing the sixteen arhat, three of which are at the Guimet Museum. The sages are drawn in the style of the monk poet, painter and calligrapher Guanxiu (832-912). These plates also belong to the technical virtuosity: the fineness of the engraving is enhanced by an application of gold leaves and Indian ink for certain details.
The liturgical mantle of Buddhist monks is called kesa (kashaya in India) in Japan. Legend has it that Shakyamuni asked Ananda to design a garment like rice paddies for his disciples. This explains why the coat is made of pieces of fabric assembled in patchwork. Some can be incredibly rich like the one from 18nd s. and from China, which is composed of three bands of embroidered silk satin with applications of gold thread, coral and pearls. Another, Japanese from the end of 18nd s., consists of a patchwork cut in a sumptuous fabric used for the making of theater dresses No..
The first teachings were made orally and the Buddha's words were recorded in writing only from 1er s. BC. JC in Sri Lanka. The codification of the Chinese canon would date from 5nd s. and the first xylographic edition of 10nd s., under the Song (960-1279). In South-East Asia, the manuscripts are oblong and often written on palm leaves (ôles) pierced with one or two holes to assemble them and are protected by two wooden blankets. A Burmese manuscript (kammavaca, literally "words of deeds"), from the 19nd s. is particularly valuable because it is written in black lacquer in the style called tamarind seed on ivory blades.
According to legend, Shakyamuni traveled for forty-five years to dispense his knowledge. During these wanderings many miracles and spectacular conversions took place. The most famous is the miracle of Shravasti where the Buddha rises in the air, the water flows from his feet, flames spring from his shoulders. A gandharienne stele in shale of 3nd-4nd s. illustrates this episode well. It should be noted that under the Kushan, Greco-Roman art is also influenced by nearby Iran: sun-shaped halo, leaping leogryphs, etc.
A gilded bronze sculpture of the Wei Dynasty of the North (386-535) shows the Buddhas Shakyamuni and Prabhūtaratna. The latter, a Buddha of the past, had expressed the wish to be able to listen to the preaching of the Lotus Sutra and Good Faith, one of the founding texts of Buddhism. This charming representation of the two Buddhas, sitting next to each other, embodies the promise of universality, beyond time and space, dear to Buddhism Mahāyāna.
Un thangka Tibetan from 19nd s. is the sermon on the vulture peak at Rajagriha. In the Lotus and True Sutra Law, Shakyamuni reports that, although he entered nirvana, he resides eternally on Vulture Peak, Pure Land populated by gardens, trees studded with jewels, flowers and fruits. In the center, the Buddha is enthroned under a flowering tree adorned with beads, holding a blooming lotus in his right hand. He is surrounded by monks, boddhisattvas and deities. Another thangka of the same series depicts the descent from the sky of the thirty-three gods: the Blessed is here figured on his descent from this heavenly stay where he had gone to teach the Buddhist Law to the deities, especially his mother who , who died soon after his birth, had not been able to benefit from the education of his son on earth.
At the end of his life, the Buddha entered the nirvana in his eightieth year at Kushinagara, capital of Malla kingdom. This episode, called the parinirvana (complete extinction), is quite often represented as on the Gandian shale relief (Pakistan, 1er-3nd s.). We see Shakyamuni lying on his right flank surrounded by his weeping disciples. After the cremation ceremony, the monarchs of the neighboring kingdoms demanded a share of the ashes and, thanks to the intervention of the wise Brahmin Drona, a war of relics was avoided. These were shared equally among the eight different states. Each king had a stupa erected, a funeral mound intended to house the remains of the Blessed One. Originally, probably a pile of stones, these stupas took from the 2nd s. av. JC a hemispherical shape placed on a base and were built in perennial materials as in Sānchī. The overall shape of this type of monument has evolved a lot in time and space and stupas were erected to house relics but also to commemorate a holy person. A valuable example was made during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). Under the Qing, Tibetan Buddhism having become the official religion in China, this large stupa (H. 97cm) has the typical shape of the chorten Tibetan and was made of gilded copper and inlaid with turquoises; it was probably intended for an imperial chapel.
The last part of the exhibition is dedicated to the different representations of the Buddha according to the regions. Carved in high relief on a red sandstone balustrade post from Mathura (1er-2nd s.), the Buddha sketches the gesture of the absence of fear (Abhayamudra) with his right hand while the left holds a piece of his clothes. The head stands out on a scalloped circular nimbus surmounted by a parasol, badge of dignity. If theurn is visible at the junction of the eyebrows, the cranial protuberance (ushnisha) is evoked only by a twisted bun. It is under the Gupta (320-550) that the Buddha's representation criteria will be fixed in India and spread throughout the world. A sandstone statue from Sarnath (end of 5nd s.) is characteristic of this style: the diaphanous rendering of the garment emphasizes, frames and marries the slender and refined forms. Of the thirty-two signs of the eminent man, this image has the lion's chest, the antelope legs and the three folds of beauty on the neck.
A crystalline rock stele from Bihar, Pala period (8nd-12nd s.), the Buddha Māravijaya (winner of Mara) appears in the act of taking the Earth to witness. Sitting on a lotus throne, he is protected by an umbrella and is framed by two boddhisattvas. Two apsaras have flower garlands on each side of his head. A Khmer head, sandstone, in the style of Bayon (12nd-13nd s.), reflects the serenity and gentleness of the time. The beautiful bronze Buddha head from the Ayutthaya period (Thailand, 16nd s.), shows the Buddha in majesty, adorned with a helmet diadem in harmony with the contemporary royal pomp. A Korean sitting Buddha, from the Koryo period (11nd-12nd s.) makes the gesture of preaching (vitarka-mudra). It is gilded wood and has a special feature: a bare and empty hull is detached at the base of theushnisha on black hair bristling with tight curls. This would be a legacy of Liao (907-1125). Another bronze Buddha Māravijaya of Burmese origin and 19nd s., shows that the artists had still retained a great mastery of their art. The sculpture is very fluid and very sober, but the folds of the garment give a dynamic to the work.
We must mention a contemporary work by Takahiro Kondo (born in 1958) called Reduction. After the devastating earthquake of 2011, the artist wanted to respond with his art to disaster. He creates from 2014 a series of sculptures after a molding made on his body sitting in a yogic position. The glaze gintesikai, characteristic of Kondo's work, illustrates his interest in water but also refers to radioactivity.
The highly illustrated theme of this exhibition shows the richness of the MNNA-Guimet because few museums in the world have a collection as abundant, varied and extensive, ranging from India to Japan.