Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Indigenizing Deities: The Budai Maitreya and the Group of Eighteen Luohans in Niche No. 68 at Feilaifeng

Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Indigenizing Deities: The Budai Maitreya and the Group of Eighteen Luohans in Niche No. 68 at Feilaifeng

Article excerpt

From the tenth century onward, China experienced a tremendous transformation in its religion and art. In the area of Buddhist art, this transformation was manifested in increased sinicization and popularization. As the modern Chinese scholar Xu Pingfang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] suggests, the common people provided the social foundation for the popularization of religion during the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368). The result of the popularization of religion was the multiplication of deities worshipped by the people and the social popularity of religious rituals (Xu Pingfang 1996, 56). In contrast with earlier periods, Buddhism and its art became increasingly associated with scholars and common people rather than with aristocrats. Chinese creations, such as spurious Buddhist sutras, images produced based on fake sutras in Chinese, and Chinese accounts of Buddhist deities differing from Indian prototypes abandoned by "orthodox" Buddhists before the tenth century, were developed and widely admired during the Song and the Yuan. One result of this shift was the evolution of new indigenous subjects and styles that perfectly matched the common people's aesthetic tastes instead of imitating Indian works of art. The reincarnation of the Buddha and bodhisattvas as Chinese Buddhist monks or lay Buddhists and some new Chinese indigenous deities that entered the original Indian pantheon reflect one aspect of this change. (1) The carving of Budai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Cloth Bag), a Chinese version of the Maitreya Buddha, and the eighteen luohans [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], an indigenous group of luohans based on a group of sixteen from India, in niche no. 68 at the rock-cut cave temple complex of Feilaifeng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Peak that Flew [from India]) typify the new forms of Buddhist deities in China.

Feilaifeng, the largest extant site of Buddhist art in the Hangzhou area, is notable for its caves and cliff sculptures produced from the tenth century onward. More than two hundred carven images survive from the Song dynasty, and over one hundred remain from the Yuan. (2) Niche no. 68 was created during the Southern Song (1127-1279) period, and it is now the most famous niche in Feilaifeng. (3) At its highest point in the center, this open-air, semicircular arched niche measures 330 centimeters from top to bottom. The circumference of the entire niche is 900 centimeters. Budai sits in the middle of the niche with the eighteen luohans sitting or standing on either side of him. The figure group is depicted in a rocky setting, an appearance that the artists achieved by working with the natural qualities of the rock face (fig. 1).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

From the tenth century onward, the Chinese created indigenous Buddhist deities by adopting Indian deities and reconciling them with Chinese beliefs and artistic traditions. The ways in which Indian Buddhist sutras, revisionary Chinese texts, and the Chinese artistic tradition interacted to create indigenous deities in China calls for careful study. Niche no. 68 perfectly demonstrates the process of creating indigenous Buddhist deities. Because people regard this niche as the representative work of Feilaifeng, it has been widely studied, but most previous discussion has presented only a general introduction. Further study of this niche is therefore necessary in order to clarify its iconography and textual references, as well as its religious contexts, for the purpose of clarifying how the Chinese indigenized Buddhist deities in general. I will first analyze texts on Budai, explaining how this local monk came to represent the Future Buddha (Maitreya) in China, as well as how artists visualized the Budai in niche no. 68 based on descriptions of the deity in hagiographies and previous iconographies. I will also discuss the important role that niche no. 68 played in the development of subsequent images of the Budai. Because Budai is believed to be an incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha who appears as a common Chinese monk, I will briefly summarize Chinese religious beliefs about the incarnation of Buddhist deities. …

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