Although they play a fairly limited role in early Buddhism, bodhisattvas came to occupy a position of preeminence in later Buddhist literature. Moreover, visual representations of bodhisattvas comprise one of the largest and most important categories of imagery in Buddhist art. Despite this popularity, however, depictions of bodhisattvas, as with anthropomorphic depictions of buddhas, apparently did not first appear until at least several centuries after the lifetime of the historical Buddha, Śākyamuni. Various explanations have been proposed to account for the relatively late emergence of the cult of images in Buddhism, but the textual and archaeological record remains inconclusive on several important fronts, such as the contentious question of when—and why—the earliest images of buddhas and bodhisattvas were created. While many aspects of the origin of the bodhisattva in the context of Buddhist art thus remain unresolved, the subsequent evolution and transmission of images of bodhisattvas are easier to chart.
Judged on the basis of surviving stone sculpture from India, which constitutes the largest block of early evidence, the iconography of buddhas and of bodhisattvas differs in several key respects. A second-century triad from Gandhāra illustrates the typical characteristics of the two figural types. The central Buddha is depicted as an ascetic, with a simple coiffure, the plain robes customarily worn by a monk, and no other sort of adornment; the flanking bodhisattvas, by contrast, are depicted as very much of this world, with elaborate hairstyles and headdresses, rich robes, and the sorts of jeweled necklaces, bracelets, and earrings typically reserved for royalty. More than merely a reflection of stylistic preferences, these differences have long been interpreted as carrying deeper meaning. The simplicity of the Buddha's presentation, for example, can be seen as indicative of his status as one who has renounced the material world, while the ornamentation of the bodhisattva invokes analogies between earthly and spiritual power, and between material and spiritual abundance.
It should be noted that there are several other images, such as a red sandstone sculpture from Mathurā, that seem to contradict this general categorization: Although the standing figure exhibits the lack of adornment associated with images of the Buddha, the inscription labels it very clearly as a bodhisattva. In fact, such representations are reflections of a popular early motif that emphasized śākyamuni's status as a bodhisattva, both in previous lives and just prior to becoming a buddha. This tradition, however, was certainly overshadowed by more typical imagery of the so-called mahāsattvas, or "Great Beings," as the well-known bodhisattvas generally associated with MahĀyĀna Buddhism were often called. It is this later ideal of powerful, transcendent figures dedicated to alleviating suffering in the human realm that underlies the development of the complex and multifaceted iconography of bodhisattvas that permeates the Buddhist world.
While there are, then, certain general characteristics shared by almost all bodhisattvas, there are also many specific individual traits that serve to distinguish one from another. Often these take the forms of particular attributes, such as the vase carried by Maitreya, the thunderbolt (Sanskrit, vajra) held by Vajrapāṇi, or the sword and book frequently given to Mañjuśrī, while in other instances a bodhisattva might be paired with a specific animal mount, as are Samantabhadra and his elephant. In practice, however, this kind of straightforward iconographical identification is often made more difficult by the fact that many traits evolve over time, of course, or are transformed in different geographical regions; furthermore, some bodhisattvas can assume multiple physical forms, each with its own distinguishing characteristics. A closer look at some of the traditions of representation of Avalokiteśvara, undoubtedly the single most popular bodhisattva in the pantheon, will help to illustrate the nature and scope of these complexities.
The Bodhisattva of Compassion
The Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Perceiver of the Sounds of the World) appears frequently in Indian Buddhist literature and art, and in both arenas assumes a multiplicity of forms and plays a variety of roles. In some sūtras, the Avalokiteśvara is merely a background figure, so to speak, and pictorially and sculpturally he is often portrayed as a subordinate attendant to the Buddha; over time, however, he was increasingly represented in both mediums as the focus of attention. What remains constant, and thus serves as a unifying element in the majority of literary and artistic depictions, is an emphasis on Avalokiteśvara as the embodiment of infinite karuṆĀ (compassion). One concrete expression of this emphasis can be seen in the many literary accounts detailing how the bodhisattva can save someone from the perils of the world. Iconographically, this theme is reflected by such features as the multiple limbs and heads with which Avalokiteśvara is often endowed (underscoring this special ability to help those in distress), and by the image of AmitĀbha Buddha usually found in his headdress (alluding to the Western Paradise where Avalokiteśvara may help one be reborn).
The popularity of Avalokiteśvara spread to China (where he is known as Guanyin) and other parts of East Asia (Japan, Kannon; Korea, Kwanseŭm), and grew to such an extent that it essentially overshadowed that of all other bodhisattvas. Initially this was brought about in part by the widespread appeal of the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪka-sŪtra), several early translations of which were made into Chinese, in which Guanyin figures prominently; in fact, chapter 25, which details some thirty-three different manifestations of Guanyin, was often published and circulated as an independent text. Many well-known depictions of Guanyin are based on imagery from the Lotus Sūtra, and it is perhaps the elasticity of form described
in the sūtra that made it possible for different branches of Buddhism to be associated with different characteristic representations of the bodhisattva. Thus, to give just two examples: While Pure Land Buddhism favored images of Guanyin leading souls to paradise, the Chan school preferred the so-called Water-Moon Guanyin and its allusions to the illusory nature of the phenomenal world.
Of all the developments associated with representations of Avalokitesśvara, none has received as much scholarly attention as the gender transformation that Guanyin underwent in China. While it is true that bodhisattvas are theoretically beyond such dualities as male and female, early depictions of Guanyin often exhibit decidedly male characteristics (such as the mustache common in both Indian and Chinese portrayals), while the Lotus Sūtra also lists various specifically female forms that Guanyin is capable of assuming. Whether influenced by these literary descriptions, or because compassion was perceived as a more feminine emotional trait, or in response to the cosmological tendency in traditional China to create yin/yang pairings of complementary forces such as wisdom and compassion, whatever complex combination of factors was at play, the outcome was that Guanyin emerged in China as the goddess of mercy and compassion, and retained that status throughout later East Asian artistic traditions.
Meanings beyond the text
Images of Avalokiteśvara, despite their great variety and multiplicity, share a common emphasis on the virtue of karuṇā, and exhibit remarkable continuity over time and location. To a great extent, this is due to a close correlation between text and image; indeed, the primary meanings for most representations of bodhisattvas derive from sūtras and other literary sources. There are, however, many instances where bodhisattva imagery exhibits different patterns of development, and derives meaning from other arenas. The Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha, for example, who may have evolved from pre-Buddhist Indian earth gods, rarely appears in either art or literature in India. In China, by contrast, as the Bodhisattva Dizang, Kṣitigarbha is frequently depicted in illustrations of scenes of hell (though his popularity drops off remarkably after the thirteenth century), while in Japan, where he is known as Jizō, he has long been popularized as the protector of children. Lastly, as Chijang posal, he was one of the most important bodhisattvas in Korean Buddhism during the Chosŏn period (1392–1910), and most traditional Korean monastic complexes had a special Ksitigarbha Hall where paintings of Chijang and the Kings of Hell were the focus of ritual offerings on behalf of the deceased during the mourning period for the dead. Each of these instances demonstrates the frequently localized meanings of a given theme that can evolve apart from canonical textual sources.
On an even more particularized level, bodhisattva imagery has often been linked to historical individuals, a phenomenon that certainly can alter visual meaning in a number of ways. For example, Bodhidharma, the reputed transmitter of Chan Buddhism from India to China, is claimed in Chan tradition as an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara. This may account for both the somewhat surprising frequency with which Avalokiteśvara is depicted in images connected with Chan, as well as the structural similarities between such images as "Bodhidharma on a Reed" and the "White-robed Guanyin" or "Guanyin with Willows"—similarities that are clearly intended to appropriate the aura of the bodhisattva for the Chan patriarch. (In a similar vein, the Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism is also viewed as an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, and here, too, the identification certainly serves to reinforce claims of spiritual authority.) There are also well-attested examples that link secular, rather than religious, leaders with bodhisattvas. In China, the infamous Empress Wu Zetian (d. 706) of the Tang dynasty, for example, went to great lengths to encourage belief in the idea that she was an incarnation of the Bodhisattva Maitreya, and it has been claimed that various Buddhist images that she sponsored actually bear her own likeness. In the Qing dynasty, the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–1795) had himself portrayed on multiple occasions as the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, enshrined at the center of a complex maṆᰆala, while in the late nineteenth century the empress dowager Zixi cast herself as Guanyin in elaborate living tableaux that were preserved in photographs. Whatever religious motivations may lie behind such acts, the ends they served can justifiably be described as more political than religious.
In short, if many images of bodhisattvas, whether painted or sculpted, are informed by sincere attempts to convey the spiritual powers associated with these Great Beings whose superhuman exploits were made famous by Mahāyāna sūtras, there are other images that attempt to borrow these connotations for different purposes. At the same time, there are also cases in which representations of bodhisattvas are so far removed from the context of Buddhism that they are essentially depleted of religious meaning altogether. For example, while it is difficult to determine whether the elegant blanc-de-chine ceramic images of Guanyin first popularized in the seventeenth century were originally admired and sought out primarily for their formal and aesthetic qualities, that certainly became the case for the avid collectors, mainly foreign, who started to amass them in the early twentieth century. In the end, even a bodhisattva is powerless in the face of commodification.
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"Bodhisattva Images." Encyclopedia of Buddhism. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bodhisattva-images
"Bodhisattva Images." Encyclopedia of Buddhism. . Retrieved March 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bodhisattva-images