Surviving Nirvana

Surviving Nirvana: Death of the Buddha in Chinese Visual Culture

Sonya S. Lee
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 372
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1xwc82
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  • Book Info
    Surviving Nirvana
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-988-220-582-6
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Maps and Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Conventions
    (pp. xv-1)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 3-23)

    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, a co-worker’s skiing accident, a drive-by shooting incident at a local school, or the loss of a loved one. It is difficult to know how well we would respond to any of these life-defining challenges ourselves. But the element...

  7. Chapter One Doubles: Stone Implements
    (pp. 25-81)

    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 through an object like this was stated in the dedication: “We reverently wish that the emperor, his great ministers, multitudes of officials and hundreds of staff, teachers and monks, fathers and mothers, living and deceased relatives, and all sentient...

  8. Chapter Two Transformation: Pictorial Narratives
    (pp. 83-137)

    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 ever to rule the middle kingdom.² Central to this momentous event in Chinese history was the Great Cloud Scripture (Mahāmegha Sūtra; Dayun jing, T. no. 387), an obscure but otherwise authentic...

  9. Chapter Three Family Matters: Nirvana Caves
    (pp. 139-201)

    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 nirvana Buddha inside has led today’s researchers to call this unique architectural design a “nirvana cave,” or niepanku 涅槃窟 in Chinese.¹ The characterization is an apt one, for the spectacular sight conjured by the colossal statue was also central...

  10. Chapter Four Impermanent Burials: Relic Deposits
    (pp. 203-263)

    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, Zhaoguo was captured and taken northward. Following years of captivity in Liao territories, the monk somehow managed to escape and returned home to rebuild Jingzhi Monastery, at which he was once the monastic residence head....

  11. Epilogue
    (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 first look at the nearly completed renovation of the monastery, which the central government had set in motion with the hope to transform the temple into a major tourist attraction.² At the center of all the...

  12. 1 The Chicago Stele
    (pp. 273-274)
  13. 2 The Shanxi Stele
    (pp. 275-277)
  14. 3 The Shengli Stele from Mogao Cave 332
    (pp. 278-281)
  15. 4 The Dali Stele from Mogao Cave 148
    (pp. 282-283)
  16. 5 From the Jingzhi Monastery Pagoda Crypt
    (pp. 284-287)
  17. 6 From the Jingzhong Cloister Pagoda Crypt
    (pp. 288-290)
  18. Abbreviations
    (pp. 291-292)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 293-320)
  20. Character List
    (pp. 321-324)
  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 325-346)
  22. Index
    (pp. 347-356)