Buddhist Eschatology on Silk - A Photojourney

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The connection between silk and Buddhist eschatology is well known. Nevertheless, we would like to remind our readers that the silk yarn was an instrument of eschatological significance in Sino-Buddhism which helped the deceased transcend from the world of the living into the heavens!...The depth of imagination and thought in Buddhist eschatology would not have been known to the world but for the artifacts obtained by Sir Marc Aurel Stein the intrepid British archaeologist and explorer of Hungarian descent. ...

Transcript of Buddhist Eschatology on Silk - A Photojourney

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    BUDDHIST ESCHATOLOGY ON SILK

    -Dr. V. R. Shenoy and Dr. A. R. Shenoy

    INTRODUCTION

    The Buddhist attitude towards death is well illustrated by a parable which involves a deliberation between the Buddha and his fellow monks. Thus: -

    On one occasion the Buddha asked several of the monks, "How often do you contemplate death?"

    One of them replied, "Lord, I contemplate death every day."

    "Not good enough," the Buddha said, and asked another monk, who replied,

    "Lord, I contemplate death with each mouthful that I eat during the meal."

    "Better, but not good enough," said the Buddha, "What about you?"

    The third monk said, "Lord, I contemplate death with each inhalation and each exhalation."

    Death is a subject of great contemplation; to the vast numbers of dying, logic and rationality many a times do not offer the sugar coated comfort that faith can. The purpose of religion, in essence, is in addition to living a spiritually good life, to help one come to terms with the reality of the inevitability of death and when the time comes, to help one embrace it without fear, with peace and composure. Buddhism has a much evolved eschatology involving various deities which are manifestations of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others. In common parlance nirvana is death, but from a spiritual point of view it is the final beatitude that transcends suffering, karma, and samsara.

    The connection between silk and Buddhist eschatology is well known and was the topic of our earlier article published in Silkmark Vogue. Nevertheless, we would like to remind our readers that the silk yarn was an instrument of eschatological significance in Sino-Buddhism which helped the deceased transcend from the world of the living into the heavens!

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    ON MARC AUREL STEIN

    The depth of imagination and thought in Buddhist eschatology would not have been known to the world but for the artifacts obtained by Sir Marc Aurel Stein the intrepid British archaeologist and explorer of Hungarian descent.

    Stein made four major expeditions to Central Asiain 1900, 1906-8, 191316 and 1930. One of his significant finds during his first journey during 1900-1901 was the Taklamakan Desert oasis of Dandan Oilik where he was able to uncover a number of relics. During his third expedition 1913-16, he excavated at Khara-Khoto. Stein's greatest discovery was made at the Mogao Caves also known as "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas", near Dunhuang in 1907. The arid continental climate of Dunhuang played a great part in the preservation of the treasures inside the caves.

    It was there that he discovered the Diamond Sutra (a photo of a page from this manuscript with the British Library appeared in our earlier article on Silk and Buddhism in

    Silkmark Vogue), the world's oldest printed text which has a date (corresponding to AD 868). Most of the illustrations presented in this paper are of silk artifacts obtained by Stein from Dunhuang and gifted to the British Museum and the National Museum, New Delhi.

    On the basis of a wealth of artifacts mostly gifted by Sir Marc Aurel Stein and catalogued in the British Museum and National Museum, New Delhi the following entities are crucial in Buddhist eschatology.

    Entity (Boddhisattvas) Significance Amitabha Amitabha means infinite light, hence he is

    the Buddha of infinite light, a celestial budhha. Avalokitesvara Avalokitesvara is a bodhisattva who embodies

    the compassion of all Buddhas. He is is said to be incarnated in the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa and other high lamas.

    Bhaishajyaguru Bhaishajyaguru is the manifestation of Buddha as a guru of medicine, healer.

    Dharmapala The dharmapala is a wrathful protector of Buddhism, there are eight dharmapalas and all have terrifying appearences meant for frightening the forces of evil. Yama who

    SirMarcAurelStein

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    represents death is one of the eight Dharmapalas

    Ksitigarbha Ksitigarbha is a bodhisattva primarily revered in East Asian Buddhism, usually depicted as a Buddhist monk in the Orient. The name may be translated as "Earth Treasury", "Earth Store", "Earth Matrix", or "Earth Womb."

    Lokapala In Hinduism, lokapla refers to the Guardians of the Directions associated with the four cardinal directions. However, in Buddhism, lokapla refers to the Four Heavenly Kings, and to other protector spirits, whereas the Guardians of the Directions are referred to as the 'dikplas'

    Maitreya Maitreya is a future Buddha of this world in Buddhist eschatology. Maitreya is a bodhisattva who in the Buddhist tradition is to appear on Earth, achieve complete enlightenment, and teach the pure dharma.

    Manjusri Manjusri is a bodhisattva associated with transcendent wisdom, In Esoteric Buddhism he is also taken as a meditational deity.

    Samantabhadra Samantabhadra is a Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism associated with Buddhist practice and meditation. Together with Shakyamuni Buddha and fellow bodhisattva Manjusri he forms the Shakyamuni trinity in Buddhism.

    Shakyamuni It is the name given to the historical Buddha. Vaisravana Vaisravana is the name of the chief of the Four

    Heavenly Kings and an important figure in Buddhist mythology (see lokapala).

    Vajrapani Vajrapani means 'thunderbolt or diamond in the hand'. Vajrapani is protector and guide of the Buddha, infact, he is the manifestation of all the Buddhas power. He is also one of the earliest Dharmapalas and one of the rare Buddhist deities to be worshiped in the original Zen Buddhism of the Shaolin Temple.

    Virupaksha Virupaksha is one of the four Guardian Kings, a Buddhist worldly protector and Guardian of the West.

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    IMAGES FROM STEINS COLLECTIONS

    From the images of the collections given in the ensuing pages, it will be evident that silk in Buddhist China and Chinese Central Asia was more than just a tool of transcending to heavens, it was a means of offering votive prayers, a form of transmitting eschatological expression in the form of the images of the various bodhisattvas so that the soul of the deceased could find its way to paradise, even, free itself from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Buddhist eschatological traditions are by no means extinct and continue to be robust in South East Asia, Far East, Ladakh & Arunachal Pradesh in India, and Sri Lanka.

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    British Museum Collections

    Artifact Description

    Avalokiteshvara as Guide of Souls, ink and colours on silk

    From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China

    Five Dynasties, early 10th century AD

    To ease the passage of the soul to paradise

    The figure of the Buddha Amitabha in the headdress clearly identifies this figure as Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. He is leading the soul of a female devotee to the halls of paradise, depicted at the top of the painting by three bands each with tiny buildings. Both Avalokiteshvara and his follower are supported on clouds. He holds a censer in his left hand, while in his right hand he holds a long hooked staff from which a banner is suspended. The streamers are adorned with small diamonds of gold and the main panel of the banner simulates writing in red. The aristocratic lady who follows behind is drawn on a smaller scale. She wears a splendid coat with decorative roundels, a common feature of textiles from the late Tang dynasty. This can be seen on the patches of kasaya, Buddhist monastic robes.

    Despite the blank cartouche, we know from another titled painting (also in the Stein Collection, British Museum) that this work is of a type known as Yinlu pu, a 'Bodhisattva Guide of Souls'. This was a popular theme from the late Tang until the early Song Dynasty (ninth-tenth century). A work like this was probably offered by a deceased person's family to ease the passage of their soul to paradise.

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    Avalokiteshvara as Saviour from Perils, ink and colours on silk

    From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China

    Five Dynasties or Northern Song Dynasty, mid-to late 10th century AD

    Belief in help when suffering

    Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, is show in his six-armed form seated on a lotus behind an altar. He can be identified by the small figure of the Buddha Amitabha seated in his headdress. His two upper arms hold the sun and the moon, his two lower arms hold a vase and a rosary and his two middle arms are in the vitarka mudra (gesture of teaching).

    It was believed that if one called Avalokiteshvara's name when in danger, he would come to your aid. This is illustrated in scenes on either side. On the left from the top a figure pushed off a high cliff is miraculously supported by a cloud. In the middle a man escapes his fetters and at the bottom a man is preserved from the poisonous bites of a scorpion and a snake. On the right a sword is shown breaking into pieces, saving the man about to be executed. Below, two people are shown covering their heads to escape bad weather, and at the bottom a man is seemingly unharmed in the midst of a fire.

    In the lower register of the painting donor figures are shown: a lady and a child on the left and two men on the right.

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    Avalokiteshvara, a hanging scroll painting

    From Korea

    Choson dynasty, 14th century AD

    Many Buddhist works of art were produced during the Koryo period (918-1392), when Buddhism was established as the royal religion. However, with the fall of the dynasty, the production and quality of Buddhist art declined. The newly-established Choson dynasty embraced Neo-Con