Promise of Paradise: Early Chinese Buddhist Sculpture

Buddhism is founded on the religious principles and practices expounded by Siddhartha Gautama (circa 563–483 BCE), a spiritual teacher from the Indian subcontinent. Through a long period of meditation he cultivated a mind free of ignorance, greed, and hatred. Thus enlightened and freed from the cycle of rebirth, he became known as the Buddha, the “awakened one” in Sanskrit, and Shakyamuni, literally Sage of the Shakyas, after his clan group. Missionaries conveyed his teachings from India across Central Asia to northwest China by 100 CE, where the faith ultimately prospered.

As Buddhism developed, paths to spiritual understanding multiplied; additional deities and disciplines were identified to offer different kinds of guidance to enlightenment. Representations of four different Buddhas—Shakyamuni (the Historical Buddha), Prabutaratna (Buddha of the Remote Past), Amitabha (Buddha of the Western Paradise), and Vairochana (the Cosmic Buddha)—along with divinities such as Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future are featured. In keeping with their Indian origins, they are frequently referred to by their Sanskrit names and the names they were given in Chinese.

Most of these images were created from the sixth to the eighth century, when Buddhism was widely followed in China and styles of religious sculptures rapidly evolved. During this period, gilt bronze images were made for domestic altars while more monumental stone figures were created for large freestanding temple buildings and man-made cave chapels. Although they are now removed from their original context, these icons still represent specific Buddhist teachings. Commissioned by emperors and commoners, they all convey the enduring appeal of the promise of paradise.


This exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the Thaw Charitable Trust.