L.S. from Lompoc writes me a lovely card in which she stuck two photos of a clay Buddha purchased 25 years ago at an estate sale, a heavy thing at 16 inches. She wonders who and what this figure represents.
This is the Buddha Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, and although different Compassion Buddhas in this form have different names across cultures, the attributes remain the same, as well as the iconography of the clothing, stance and objects held. In Sanskrit, L.S.’s Buddha is called “Avalokiteshvara,” the lord who looks down on the world with compassion. Looks down, because his great power enables him to see suffering of humans and other beings in any of the six realms of existence. The realms in the Buddhist cosmology are realms of rebirth. He’s especially called upon by those in harm’s way, such as humans in a wreck or a fire. This Bodhisattva will hear a call in any of the six realms: in the three good realms- heavenly, demi-god, and human, and in the three evil realms – animal, ghostly, and hellish.
The Lotus Sutra says that an earnest call to this Bodhisattva will be heard and acted upon for one’s relief. The Huayen Sutra says that this Bodhisattva will appear in the guise and shape, profession and age of the one who calls for help. That’s how close this divinity is to humankind. If a child calls to him, he appears as a child in order to help.
Because he has the power to remove temporal suffering, he holds out a string of prayer beads in one hand, and in the other, he often holds a willow branch, a water vessel, or a lotus blossom. Suffering, however, like all things of samsara is contained in the cycle of existence. The 8th century Indian Buddhist Master Padmasambhava, dear to Tibetans for the construction of the first Buddhist monastery at Samye, also known as Guru Rinpoche, said: “If you want to know your past life, look into your present condition; if you want to know your future life, look at your present actions,” as quoted in Sogyal Rinpoche’s 2009 book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
Yet this Bodhisattva is so alert to temporal human suffering that he shows discretion in acting out of compassion on a case-by-case basis, even though the distressed individual may have brought the suffering into being. The objects associated with him/her are emblematic of healing towards purity. Willow is said to be curative, water purifies, and the lotus is sacred. In Buddhist iconography, the Lotus is symbolic because, although it is rooted in mud, the flowers rise to the top on long stems, to blossom above the dark water of desire and attachment. The lotus petals repel these muddy droplets, symbolizing detachment. Thus, the lotus is an example of purity achieved. Buddhists think of the lotus as a symbol of pure thought, speech and mind.
In China, this deity is named Kuan Shih Yin, or Quan Yin. The word Yin implies “all sounds” because the deity can hear crying, moaning, tears and anguishing. Since China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907) most Quan Yin figures are portrayed as female, perhaps because of the feminine energy of watchful care. L.S.’s figure is androgynous, and could be either male or female, but because L.S.’s figure holds the prayer beads, called the Crystal Rosary, the odds are the figure is portrayed as a male Bodhisattva. If L.S.’s figure was created from the clay of the Putuo Mountain, an island near the city of Wingpo, in Zhejiang Province, it would be very special indeed, because this is a sacred space for the worship of Quan Yin.
Another form of Quan Yin represents her with eleven heads, 1000 hands and eyes located in her palms, symbolic of arms reached out in service and eyes that see all. In Tibet, a many-armed Avalokiteshvara is “Chenrezig” of the White Lotus.
L.S.’s sculpture stands in counterpoise; in art, this is called contrapposto, an Italian term for an asymmetrical stance in which the weight is on one foot, thus shoulder and arms twist off axis from hips and legs. This fluid contrapposto stance is seen as pliant, feminine and gracious. This stance portrays the feeling of movement, which in L.S.’s sculpture is echoed by the flowing draperies that swirl, with heavy beading and many layers. The figure’s headdress is anchored by a top knot from which flows ribbons.
This sculpture dates, stylistically to 1875, and is worth $700.
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Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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