- Surviving Nirvana: Death of the Buddha in Chinese Visual Culture
Surviving Nirvana: Death of the Buddha in Chinese Visual Culture delves into the visual, historic, and religious evolution in China of Nirvana, the final release of the historical Buddha. The work also includes the funerary practices and the burial cult that became connected to it. Four chapters, each one focusing on a limited number of sculptures and paintings, illustrate the growth and domestication of this theme through time, specifically from the sixth to the twelfth century.
Chapter 1 takes a large-size stone stele dated to 551 in the Art Institute of Chicago as key example of a rendering of the Nirvana event shown here together with several other divine gatherings. By a close reading of this stele, the author alerts the reader to the stele's paramount Chinese innovation of linking the historical Buddha Shakyamuni to the future Buddha Maitreya, the indicator of the continuity of the faith when one feared its decline. The iconography, in other words, was placed in a temporal framework. In establishing and stressing this divine connection, Chinese carvers abandoned the Indic tradition of placing the Parinirvana scene solely within the narrative of Shakyamuni's life. The choice of the duo Shakyamuni-Maitreya, which marked the start of a native or Chinese interpretation of the Nirvana, was the choice historically justified by the fear of the impending end of the Law, which had spread throughout Buddhist China. To support her claim, the author adroitly uses smaller steles—with the same iconography from the area of Shanxi and Henan—that are also related in time to the Chicago piece.
In chapters 2 and 3, the focus is on monumental works, such as the grand, deftly carved 691 Nirvana stele kept in the Taiyuan museum, Shanxi, and the two impressive Nirvana sculptures with their complementary mural paintings from Dunhuang Cave 332 and 148, respectively. All these works, according to the author, [End Page 531] had political implications: the first two were linked to the political world of Empress Wu Zetian (r. 684–705). More specifically, of the two works discussed in chapter 2—the Taiyuan stele and the mural in Dunhuang Cave 332, dated to 698—the stele was meant to legitimize the empress's political takeover, while the painting was meant to express the alignment and staunch support of her policy by the elite Li family of Dunhuang. As to the grandiose choreography of the Nirvana in Dunhuang Cave 148 dated to 691 and discussed in chapter 3, it was sponsored by a later generation of the same Li family. Its execution, however, on the eve of the Tibetan invasion (ca. 770s), was meant to send a message of hope at a very troubled junction. To interpret the Nirvana against the political backdrop at both a national and regional level, the author relies extensively on epigraphic evidence and historical sources. The discussion involves also expanded and complex iconographies—from the straightforward rendering of Queen Maya mourning her son to the presence of several Buddhas of the Mahayana pantheon shown singly or immersed in their Pure Lands as in the murals of Caves 332 and 148. These two intriguing chapters gravitate foremost to the field of sociopolitical history and show the author's ability to use epigraphy to illuminate the Nirvana works she has chosen.
Chapter 4, the last, examines relics—the dissolved form of a body—as yet another expression of Nirvana devotion and widens the topic of Nirvana to include the remains of venerable monks whose sanctity promoted them to Buddha status. The author concentrated her investigation on the remains unearthed at two tenth-century centers—the Jingzhi monastery and the Jinzhong cloister, located near Dingzhou, in Hebei Province.
What is the nature of this book in terms of methodology, skills, and novelty? Lee's research is firmly rooted in historic and doctrinal sources that, in turn, are supported by her remarkable language skills—classical Chinese, Chinese translations of...