Avalakiteshvara: “The Lord Who Looks Down” BY 2345678901112 Art History Intro: In Chinese Buddhism sculptures and statues of the Bodhisattva are focal points of the religion. One Bodhisattva in particular known as Avalakiteshvara, has a look that separates itself from most other Bodhisattvas. “The appearance of sculptures of Bodhisattvas wearing such adornments, which later became standard in Chinese Buddhist art, illustrates the growth of devotion to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in the second half of the sixth century. (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History). When I first aw this statue the first thought that came to my mind was how large the statue was. As I analyzed the statue more carefully however, I noticed that its eyes were staring down at me with a very intense, but also sad glance. The appearance of this Bodhisattva statue entitled, Avalokiteshvara, helped to portray one of the messages of the Bodhisattva, which is a message portraying a sense of compassion.
History: Avalokiteshvara is significant in the Buddhist religion because he was seen as a compassionate figure. “More than any other Buddhist divine being, Avalokiteshvara njoyed centuries of worship among all levels of society, and was the focus of devotion for members of imperial families, the aristocracy, scholars, and the general population” (Karetzky, 1). There are numerous stories that speak about the origins of Avalokiteshvara, but one of the first recordings about the deity comes from a book entitled the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra, composed in the same era, which explains how the God of Mercy saves humanity from the perils, that he lives in Potalaka, a magical place near south-eastern India, and that he rules over the universe during he period after the death of the historic Buddha and before the incarnation of the Buddha of the Future”(Karetzky, 5). These early records show how Avalokiteshvara was a popular figure in Buddhism, emphasizing how there is a chance of being enlightened either here on earth or in the pure land in the presence of the deity.
The most important stories about Avalokiteshvara however, speak about his acts of compassion towards the followers of Buddhism. These stories are also contained in the Lotus Sutra. One of these stories talks about when Avalokiteshvara is rewarded y the Buddha for his selfless actions while helping the Buddhist faithful achieve enlightenment. “It is possible that Jewelry alludes to a passage in the Lotus Sutra that presents a dialogue between the Buddha Shakyamuni and another bodhisattva in which the great compassion of Avalokiteshvara is extolled.
At some point in the text, Avalokiteshvara is given a precious pearl necklace as a symbol of his compassion and his availability to the devout” (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History). One of the most famous stories of Avalokitesvhvara is how she earned the name the Goddess of he nunnery over the objections of her father. His agents pursued her and set fire to a temple where she had sought sanctuary, resulting in her death but also in the reward of immortality.
According to the story, her father was blinded as a punishment, but Avalokiteshvra plucked out her own eyes to restore her father’s sight, thus earning her the title as Goddess of Mercy. (Kurtz, 73) This story gives evidence to why Avalokiteshvara was referred to in Buddhist faith. This is because of her ability to show compassion to those who were in need and how all those that are n need should look to her because she will help them and give them mercy. Worship: People of the Buddhist faith worship Avalokiteshvara because of the feeling of compassion they believe it provides them. Alexander Soper noted that the Chinese monk Faxian, who traveled to India in 400 CE, only mentioned the deity once in the record of his travels-in the city of Mathura-although he did call on the deity for rescue during two violent storms” (Karetzky, 6). Evidence from the text further emphasizes how this deity was called upon during times of strife, and that the eople of the Buddhist faith were very devout to it. As popularity of the Bodhisattva increased, so did the level of devotion of the Buddhist faithful, which led to the viewing of this deity as a god.
Worshipping Avalokiteshvara in his pure land is a common dispute found between believers of the Buddhist faith between the tenth and fourteenth centuries. The interest had in this Bodhisattva becomes increasingly important during this time in history. The reason for this increase in importance is because of the increase in symbolism and the number icons that became prominent n Chinese Buddhist imagery (Leidy). Although Avalokiteshvara was it’s name referred to in India, in China it is named Guanyin and is portrayed with feminine features. Emphasizing Guanyin’s female attributes may also be an attempt to render the polymorphic nature of the deity who can assume any guise to help the devout, including several incarnations of women” (Karetzky, 21). The reason for this is because people in China believed that the deity took many different forms to achieve salvation. It became significant for the women in Chinese society as well because women who did many different acts of indness were seen as representations of Avalokiteshvara or Guanyin.
Women also prayed to the goddess during challenging times in their lives because women in Chinese society had very few freedoms and were often told what they could and could not do. “It is not surprising, therefore, that a large population of women worshipped the Goddess of Compassion, praying for deliverance from adversity and the easy birth of a happy, male child, one of the promises guaranteed in the Lotus Sutra” (Karetzky, 23). These accounts prove once again that Avalokiteshvara was a eing that the Buddhist faithful looked up to because they had a large amount of faith in the deity and in her willingness to show mercy to those in need.
Appearance: Avalokiteshvara can be identified by a few distinguishing qualities such as: the and most importantly its facial features, especially his eyes. The statue that is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art displays Avalokiteshvara, which was located in Shanxi Province in China during the Northern Qi Dynasty between (550-70) B. C. E. During this time period: In the north, the new Indian influence is most clearly seen in the culptures of the short-lived Northern Qi dynasty (AD 550-77). The fgures are generally column-like and slender, with sloping shoulders and fairly small heads set on thick necks.
Although most are frontal in pose and somewhat flat, they are often carved in the round (Sorensen). The statue displayed in the Metropolitan Museum, portrays similar details and characteristics that as described by Sorensen. It is an impressive sight standing nearly fourteen feet tall, with sloping shoulders and a thick neck. However, the head seems to have a “normal” because it is proportionate to the rest of the body of the statue. Along with great bodily detail, the statue of Avalokiteshvara portrays great amount of detail that portrays Jewelry and drapery. An astonishing harness of Jewels, which is suspended from his neck at the back, falls in two long strands composed of pearl-like clusters and multifaceted beads” (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History). The crown on the top of the statue is one of the bigger indications that this statue is in fact a depiction of Avalokitsehvara. The jewelry worn by Avalokitsehvara is an important element on the statue because of the story behind it. This is the story about Avalokitsehvara and Buddha. What makes the statue so impressive however is the details found in its face. The face is very large and looks as if real flesh is covering it.
Avalokiteshvara is known as “the one who looks down”. The position of the statue on a raised platform allows for its eyes to appear as if it is in fact looking down at the person viewing it. This feeling is further emphasized by how the eyes appear to be partially closed with the pupils gazing directly down. This gaze appears to be one of pity, which makes the viewer feel like what they are staring at is in fact a powerful being. This impressive work of art depicting the deity helps to reinforce the message of Avalokitesvhvara and his role in Buddhism of showing compassion to the faithful.
Conclusion: In conclusion, the appearance of the Bodhisattva statues of the deity Avalokiteshvara, helps to portray the sense of compassion that these deities have. Stories about people praying to this deity during times of distress call on these statues to further commemorate their deity with a glorious status. Buddhists display the statue of this deity adorned with his extravagant Jewelry, which was given to him by the Buddha as reward for his act of compassion towards the earthly beings as well as for aiding them in their hopes to achieve enlightenment.
The facial expression of this statue also emphasizes the Bodhisattva’s compassion. This is because his eyes are aimed downward, looking down at the person viewing the statue with a look of pity and empathy for the viewer. Avalokiteshvara is interpreted in many different ways in different cultures, but it’s overall meaning and significance did not change because it remains a deity that is a fgure of hope for the Buddhist faithful. Bibliography In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-. ttp://www. metmuseum. org/toah/works-of-art/65. 29. 4 (September 2010) Karetzky, Patricia Eichenbaum. Guanyin. Oxford, I-JK: Oxford UP, 2004. Print. Kurtz, Lester R. Gods in the Global Village: The World’s Religions in Sociological Perspective. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2012. Print. Leidy, Denise Patry. The Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its History & Meaning. Boston: Shambhala, 2008. Print. Sorensen, Henrik H. “China, 5111: Sculpture. ” Oxford Art Online. Oxford University press, n. d. web. 23 oct. 2013..