This remarkable Japanese sculpture of a Buddhist deity came to
the Art Institute of Chicago in 1995 - the same year Stephen Little
This was not mere coincidence: Dr. Little, newly appointed
curator of Asian art, was responsible for the carving's acquisition.
A London dealer offered it, and Little was quick to reserve it
for the institute. An enthusiastic director and ready funds then
brought it rapidly into the collection. Now, Little says, "It's the
main focal piece of our Japanese galleries."
Little assesses the piece, which is from the Kamakura period (c.
AD 1250-1330), as "sophisticated, elegant of posture," and pervaded
with a "very serene attitude. It really radiates a wonderfully calm
presence. It has a very inward, quiet expression. All this
perfectly befits a Bodhisattva."
Bodhisattvas, he explains, are "deities who are enlightened - in
the same way that a Buddha is. But unlike Buddhas, who eventually
enter into the realm of Nirvana, which is essentially a void,
Bodhisattvas make a vow to remain in the phenomenal world. Their
function is to help all sentient beings attain enlightenment. They
are very much saviors. And they are deities to whom anyone can pray
This particular statue is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. "In
Japanese, its name is Kannon. It emerges in the Buddhist pantheon
in India probably in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. There are other
Bodhisattvas - of wisdom, of benevolence, and so on - but this
particular one, Kannon, becomes the most popular. It's a rather
international deity in terms of the spread of Buddhism throughout
Asia." It also has Chinese and Sanskrit names.
The form of this sculpture is rare. "Usually, the Bodhisattva of
Compassion has only two arms," Little says. But this one has six
arms, all quite different. They are symbolically related to
Mahayana Buddhism (or "The Great Vehicle"), "which is the form of
Buddhism that came to China and East Asia from India. In Mahayana
Buddhism, it was believed that all beings undergo reincarnation
until they become enlightened. When you attain enlightenment, as
the Buddha does, you essentially transcend the cycle of birth and
rebirth. One can be reincarnated as a human being, or as an animal,
or as a demon or even as a god, but until you are enlightened,
until you've recognized that all of that is illusory, you can't get
out of the cycle.
"The Mahayana Buddhist believes there were six realms in which
you could be reincarnated. Hell - that's the lowest. The realm of
the 'hungry ghosts.' Animals. Demons. The fifth realm is human