Pure Land Art

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Visions of pure lands are premised upon the Mahāyāna cosmology of multiple worlds in "ten directions," each presided over by one buddha and each constituting a blissful alternative to the Sahā world of impurity in which we live. The Western Land of Bliss (Sukhāvatī) associated with AmitĀbha Buddha epitomizes the notion of the pure land. The term pure land is thus used in a narrow sense to refer to Amitābha's Land and in a broader sense to refer to domains associated with buddhas of other directions. Visual representation of pure lands, a major theme in the Buddhist art of East Asia, takes three major forms: (1) sculptural representations of Amitābha Buddha with his retinue; (2) bianxiang (transformation tableaux) showing paradise scenes or pictures of the descent of Amitābha to usher the deceased to the Land of Bliss; and (3) landscape and architectural simulation of the Western Paradise.

Western Pure Land evoked through the Amitābha image

The Amitābha image, with its evocation of the Western Pure Land, dates back to at least the fourth century in China, culminating in its veneration by Huiyuan (334–416) and his followers on Mount Lu. There was a remarkable lack of doctrinal coherence underlying the early practice, which took its cues largely from sūtras tangential to Amitābha's Pure Land. Chief among them is the PratyutpannasamĀdhi-sŪtra, which emphasizes the role of buddha images, including images of Amitābha, as an expedient agency for achieving the state of contemplation, rather than as cultic icons in their own right. In early cases involving Amitābha images, stone chambers were chosen as the topographic setting for such meditative activities, as a means of "traveling," in the words of a devotee named Liu Yimin around 400 c.e., "to the most distant region (of the Western Paradise) … to settle for the great re-pose (of Nirvāṇa) as the final term."

Such pure land aspirations gained momentum during the fifth and sixth centuries in China. However, the majority of buddha icons made during this period depicted Śākyamuni, Maitreya, and the Śākyamuni/Prabhūtaratna pair. A new trend emerged in northern China in the 460s: Of the variety of buddha images made by lay commoners, about 17 percent were Amitābha icons, which received little patronage from monks and nuns. It was not until a century later that the saṄgha's interest in Amitābha icons overrode their interest in icons of Śākyamuni and Maitreya. The change suggests that the pure land cult associated with Amitābha was a movement that began from the bottom up. It largely tallied with the early indifference shown by the learned Buddhist community during this period toward Amitābha Pure Land sūtras, as indicated by the initial absence of scholarly commentary regarding them. Early donors of Amitābha images were unclear about the location of Amitābha's Pure Land in the Buddhist cosmological scheme. Amitābha images were often integrated into the imagined afterlife encounter with Maitreya, the future Buddha. In southern China, Amitābha images were cast in gilded bronze, with the largest statues reported to be sixteen feet tall. In the north, stone was the favored medium.

Transformation tableaux of the Western Pure Land

It is not clear when pure land pictures first appeared in China. A mural in cave 169 at Binglingsi, executed in 420, contains the earliest painted icon of Amitāyus, but shows no topographic features of the Western Paradise. The earliest surviving example of a pure land picture in China is a set of topographic tableaux carved on the back of the nimbus of icons from the Wanfosi at Chengdu. The oldest of these survives in an ink rubbing, dated 425, with the pure land scene largely missing. A sixth-century relief carving, similar in design, on the back of double bodhisattvas from the same site, preserves a complete composition. It is based on the "Life Span" and "The Universal Gateway" chapters of the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪka-sŪtra). In the middle is the assembly gathered at the bird-shaped Vulture Peak, where Śākyamuni announces that, at the end of a kalpa, fire and terror engulf the human world, while his pure land remains intact, where halls, pavilions, gardens, and groves are "adorned with gems," and "jeweled trees abound in flowers and fruit, and living beings enjoy themselves at ease." The composition is thus divided into two contrasting parts: below, scenes of calamities; above, the pure land. Human figures appear in the lotus pond, a scene of rebirth associated with a pure land. The carving is often hailed as a precursor to later representations of the Western Pure Land. The composition also anticipates pictures of the "White Path to Paradise," which are typically divided into two realms: Below is the impure mundane world of the east, teeming with suffering beings from the six realms of existence; above is the Western Pure Land. In between is a symmetrically divided river. To the left and south is the pool of fire of anger and violence; to the right and north is the river of greed and desire. Flanked by these two engulfing rivers is a thin white path that leads to the Western Paradise. Śākyamuni, on one side of the river, urges the devotee to cross, while Amitābha and his retinue beckon on the other shore. Shandao's commentary on the Guan Wuliangshou jing (Contemplation of the Buddha of Limitless Life Sūtra) presents a matching textual account. However, pictures of this kind are found only in surviving Japanese hanging scrolls of the Kamakura period (1185–1333).

Another notable early painting of a pure land, executed around the early seventh century, appears in cave 420 at Dunhuang. Based in part on the Lotus Sūtra, the mural shows Vulture Peak on the right and Śākyamuni passing into nirvāṇa in the middle. Issuing from the foot of Vulture Peak is a winding river dotted with lotuses, with a boat and numerous ducks crossing to the other shore. Flanking the river are an array of nine buddhas and various buddha-lands. The scene draws on the "Life Span" chapter of the NirvĀṆa SŪtra, translated by Dharmakṣema in 423 c.e., which describes an "Eastern world named Joy and Beautiful Sound," a pure land. Both the Wangfosi carving and the Dunhuang mural demonstrate the tenuous relationship between early pictures of pure lands and the Amitābha sūtras. The pictures arose out of a topo-graphic imagination that was driven by soteriological interest and cued by scriptures.

As the cult of the Amitābha Pure Land gained currency during the second half of the sixth century, its pictorial representation took more definitive shape. Two compositional prototypes emerged during the Northern Qi period (550–577). The first is the "Amitābha with Fifty Bodhisattvas," a picture allegedly acquired by the five bodhisattvas of the Kukkutārāma Monastery from the Western Paradise, and dubiously claimed to have been transmitted by the Indian monk Kaśyapa-mātaṇga (d. 73 c.e.) to China. Cao Zhongda of the Northern Qi is said to have specialized in pictures of this type, which continued to appear into the seventh century. A painting on the east wall of cave 332 at Dunhuang shows a gigantic tree dominated by the Amitābha triad. Fifty reborn souls appear as bodhisattvas perched on various tree branches; two other figures are each wrapped in a lotus bud.

The second compositional prototype represents the more popular model. It is exemplified by a large spread of relief sculpture from cave 2 of South Xiangtangshan, now at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. The composition contains all the key elements of subsequent Western Paradise tableaux. Three haloed deities—Amitābha in the middle, with Avalokiteśvara and Mahāsthāmaprāpta on each side—constitute the Western triad. In front of them are three ponds. In the middle pond, four human figures emerge respectively from a lotus—the extent to which they break out of the lotus bud indicates the ranking order of their classes in the merit-based three-tiered hierarchy of rebirth, as described in the Larger SukhĀvatĪvyŪha-sŪtra. Each of the two side ponds shows a figure—either a bodhisattva or a Buddha disciple—bathing in the "jeweled ponds" to cleanse the impurities of the world of transmigration before entering the Land of Bliss. The pond motif has since become a distinctive feature of Amitābha's Pure Land. This design grew into a major compositional form in the seventh century, as exemplified by the Amitābha tableau in cave 220 at Dunhuang, dated 642 c.e., and in the Golden Hall of Hōryūji in Japan.

Western Pure Land pictures developed new forms in the seventh and eighth centuries. The threefold gradation of rebirths in the pure land based on the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra evolved into a ninefold scheme—three grades, each subdivided into three degrees—as pure land tableaux incorporated the Guan Wuliangshou jing. An early example is a seventh-century wall painting in cave 431 at Dunhuang, which contains vignettes of the descent of Amitābha or his delegates to fetch the dying person to the Western Paradise. In its early phase, the composition took the form of a horizontal band measuring 1 by 15.4 meters, a form apparently adapted from the hand scroll format, and it emphasizes narrative actions rather than pure land scenes. In the early eighth century, a triptych form took

shape. The two side panels depict the story of Ajātaśatru, a prince who puts his father, King Bimbisāra, and his mother, Queen Vaidehī, under house arrest. In response to the queen's appeal, the Buddha appears and teaches her sixteen ways of visualization. This royal family drama and the scenes of visualization often occupy two side columns that flank the central paradise scene in triptychs. The side vignettes set the Guan Wuliangshou jing tableau apart from the Amitābha tableau. Their identification on the basis of sūtra(s) is in fact tenuous since the Guan Wuliangshou jing does not include the description of the Western Pure Land that appears in the Amitābha sūtras.

Other pure lands

Pure land tableaux are not limited to the Western Paradise. In MahĀyĀna cosmology, there are "pure lands of ten directions." Tableaux depicting other pure lands include those of the Medicine Buddha (Bhaiṣajyaguru) of the East; Maitreya, often associated with north; and those described in sūtras not pertaining to particular pure lands. There is even a tableau of pure lands of the ten directions as identified by its cartouche in cave 158 at Dunhuang. The tableau of the Pure Land of the Bhaiṣajyaguru of the East features scenes of lamp-lighting, "Nine Violent Deaths," and "Fulfillment of Twelve Great Vows"


made by the Bodhisattva Bhaiṣajyaguru before he becomes a buddha. The tableaux of Maitreya Pure Land (a somewhat misleading term since Maitreya's domain is considered by some scriptures as an impure land) are of two types: Maitreya's ascent to Tuṣita Heaven, and Maitreya's descent into Jambudvīpa to preach under the dragon-flower trees. Gaining popularity in the Tang dynasty, the tableau of Maitreya's descent includes miracle scenes, such as "Seven Harvests after One Sowing," "Clothing Growing Out of Trees," "Five-Hundred-Year-Old Women Getting Married," and so on. Regardless of the kind of pure land being depicted, most of the tableaux largely follow the compositional model of Amitābha's Pure Land, with the exception of certain distinctive features associated with a particular buddha realm.

Pictorial programs of pure land tableaux

During the seventh and eighth centuries, tableaux of pure lands were integrated into larger pictorial programs. The documented set of pure land tableaux in the five-story pagoda at the Kōfukuji in Japan is a typical example current in the eighth century (Figure 1). A temporal scheme, mapped out by way of spatial opposition, underlies the iconographic program. The Bhaiṣajyaguru tableau suggests the present, the Amitābha tableau the future (afterlife); the Śākyamuni land signals the present, the Maitreya land the future (afterlife). Thus, the entire program maps out a symbolic cosmos for the spirit of the deceased to cross the boundary between this and the other world. The topo-graphic continuum may also underlie the spatial opposition between different pure land tableaux. Placing the Lotus Sūtra tableau opposite the Western Pure Land scene may imply a progressive transition from the wilderness of the earthly terrain to the order of the afterlife domain. It is therefore misleading to identify these pure land tableaux on the basis of the sūtras they appear to "illustrate."

Pictures of the Buddha's welcoming descent

A significant detail of the Guan Wuliangshou jing tableau forms the basis of a new development. The last three of the sixteen visualizations, as exemplified by seventh-century vignettes in cave 431 at Dunhuang, show the descent of the Buddha or his delegates to dying devotees to escort their spirits to the Western Paradise. These vignettes anticipated the pictures of the Buddha's welcoming descent (raigō), which became popular in Japan beginning in the twelfth century. The early descent paintings, exemplified by a set of three hanging scrolls in Jūhakka-in at Mount Kōya, show the frontally seated Amitābha, surrounded by his entourage on a swirl of clouds, descending toward the implied viewer. A compositional variation of this image gained popularity, especially in the Kamakura period. In this variation, Amitābha and his heavenly attendants on streaming clouds sweep down diagonally from the upper left to the lower right toward the dwelling of the dying devotee. Their swift movement is dramatized by sharp-angled trailing clouds blazing through space, often set against precipitous peaks, as shown in a scroll at Chion-in. Amitābha's seated posture also changes to an upright stance to reinforce the

sense of his instantaneous arrival. Amitābha in such a composition may also be replaced by other buddhas, such as Maitreya.

Related to the descent pictures in the Kamakura period is a new type of design known as "Amitābha Crossing the Mountains." The composition shows the radiant bust-length Amitābha trinity towering over mountain peaks in the horizon. Premised upon the association of Amitābha Pure Land with the west, the radiant icon evokes the setting sun. Standard textbook accounts correlate the development of the descent pictures to the doctrinal lineage of Pure Land school teaching laid out by Shandao and explicated and propagated in Japan by Genshin (942–1017), HŌnen (1133–1212), and Shinran (1173–1262). It is more fitting to see teachings by Genshin and his followers not as the determining source for image-making, but as collaborative testimony to the collective aspiration that finds different channels of expression.

Spatial installation of pure lands

Both sculptures and paintings are often integrated into spatial simulation of pure lands. An early-seventh-century Chinese monk named Zhenhui is said to have built a "pure land" dominated by a square high altar overlooking a ground of lapis lazuli with crisscrossing paths bounded by golden ropes. An elaborate surviving example of a pure land simulation is the Phoenix Hall (at the ByŌdŌin) near Kyoto, built in the mid-eleventh century. Its interior houses an Amitābha statue in the center, surrounded on four sides with wooden panels depicting painted scenes of the nine degrees of rebirth. In front of the hall is a pond, a key feature of the topography of the Western Paradise. Moreover, the architectural design of the Phoenix Hall itself evokes a winged bird, another feature associated with the Amitābha land.

As the general trend of Buddhist art gradually turned more toward esoteric charms and invocations, Amitābha Buddha was increasingly assimilated into maṆḌala designs; written characters invoking prayer formulae replaced iconic images and visionary tableaux. With the loss of its topographic character, pure land art also lost its distinction.

See also:Central Asia, Buddhist Art in; China, Buddhist Art in; Hōryūji and Tōdaiji; Japan, Buddhist Art in; Korea, Buddhist Art in; Pure Land Buddhism; Pure Land Schools


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