We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Surviving Nirvana

Death of the Buddha in Chinese Visual Culture

Sonya S. Lee

Publication Year: 2010

The Buddha’s nirvana marks the end of the life of a great spiritual figure and the beginning of Buddhism as a world religion. Surviving Nirvana is the first book in the English language to examine how this historic moment was represented and received in the visual culture of China. It is also a study about a pictorial image that has been in use for over 1,500 years. Mining a selection of well-documented and well-preserved examples from the sixth to twelfth centuries, Sonya Lee offers a reassessment of medieval Chinese Buddhism by focusing on practices of devotion and image-making that were inspired by the Buddha’s “complete extinction.” The nirvana image, comprised of a reclining Buddha and a mourning audience, was central to defining the local meanings of the nirvana moment in different times and places. The motif’s many guises, whether on a stone stele, inside a pagoda crypt, or as a painted mural in a cave temple, were the product of social interactions, religious institutions, and artistic practices prevalent in a given historical context. They were also cogent responses to the fundamental anxiety about the absence of the Buddha and the prospect of one’s salvation. By reinventing the nirvana image to address its own needs, each community of patrons, makers, and viewers sought to recast the Buddha’s “death” into an allegory of survival that was charged with local pride and contemporary relevance.

Published by: Hong Kong University Press, HKU


pdf iconDownload PDF


pdf iconDownload PDF


pdf iconDownload PDF
p. vii

Maps and Tables

pdf iconDownload PDF
p. ix

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. xi-xiii

This book was in the making over a long period of time. It is my good fortune to have received assistance and support from many individuals throughout the research and writing of it. ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
p. xv

In this book, the word “nirvana” and a few other Sanskrit terms commonly used in the English language (e.g., Mahayana) are spelled without diacritical marks for the sake of convenience. When the word’s historical meaning is in discussion, however, it appears in its proper Romanized form (e.g., “nirvāna”). All other Sanskrit terms are spelled with proper diacritical marks throughout. ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 3-24

The word “survival” conjures ordeal, suffering, and endurance. In the twenty-first century as in earlier times, it is common to make these associations based on experience from everyday life. From news headlines around the world, we read about nuclear weapons, terrorist attacks, global warming, flu pandemics, earthquakes, or civil wars. Closer to home, we learn first-hand of a friend’s illness, ...

read more

Chapter One - Doubles: Stone Implements

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 25-82

In the year 551, members of the Ning clan in Gaoliang gathered to celebrate the completion of a Buddhist stele that they collectively commissioned. The work was a large-size rectangular stone slab densely decorated with Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and heavenly figures on all sides, along with numerous names and images of their earthly donors. What the devotees had hoped to bring about ...

read more

Chapter Two - Transformation: Pictorial Narratives

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 83-138

In November of 690, Empress Wu Zetian (624–705; r. 690–705) ordered the establishment of a Dayun or Great Cloud Monastery in every prefecture of the empire and in the two capitals.1 The imperial edict came just one month after the empress ascended the throne of the Tang house and declared the founding of the Zhou dynasty in its place, thus becoming the first and only female sovereign ...

read more

Chapter Three - Family Matters: Nirvana Caves

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 139-202

Near the southernmost tip of Mogao Caves outside Dunhuang is a cave temple that houses the largest reclining Buddha statue ever attempted at the site (map 3). Known by today’s numbering system as Cave 148, the structure was built quite literally to contain an eighteen-meter-long sculpture in an elongated, boxlike interior with barrel-vault ceiling (fig. 3.1). The overwhelming presence of the ...

read more

Chapter Four - Impermanent Burials: Relic Deposits

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 203-264

Master Zhaoguo was a survivor of war. Like the many residents of Dingzhou who lived in the decades following the fall of the Tang dynasty, the monk was caught in the relentless fighting between the invading Khitans and the native defenders from a succession of short-lived regimes better known in history books as the Five Dynasties (907–960).1 After a particularly fierce battle in 947, ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 265-270

On July 1, 2006, the Dafo or Great Buddha Monastery of Zhangye in Gansu province celebrated its newly reinstated status as a place of religious activity with much fanfare. In the largest gathering ever in over a century, dozens of Buddhist masters led public rituals to extend blessings to the multitudes who swamped the temple ground.1 For three consecutive days, local residents had the ...

Appendices Chinese Texts of Inscriptional Materials

1 The Chicago Stele

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 273-274

2 The Shanxi Stele

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 275-277

3 The Shengli Stele from Mogao Cave 332

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 278-281

4 The Dali Stele from Mogao Cave 148

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 282-283

5 From the Jingzhi Monastery Pagoda Crypt

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 284-287

6 From the Jingzhong Cloister Pagoda Crypt

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 288-290


pdf iconDownload PDF
p. 291


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 293-319

Character List

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 321-324


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 325-346


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 347-355

E-ISBN-13: 9789882205826
Print-ISBN-13: 9789622091252

Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 707092903
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Surviving Nirvana

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • Gautama Buddha -- Enlightenment.
  • Gautama Buddha -- Art.
  • Buddhism in art.
  • Buddhism and art -- China -- History -- To 1500.
  • Buddhist art and symbolism -- China -- History -- To 1500.
  • Art, Medieval -- China -- Themes, motives.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access