Buddha in Meditation (dyanasana)
Item No. 3268
18th - 19th Century, Buddhist, Vietnam
Lacquer over Wood with Gilt
39" x 29" x 21"
( 99.06 x 73.66 x 53.34 cm)
(H x W x D)
Historically Vietnam was and still is a Buddhist country, despite its Communist domination under which persecution of Vietnamese Buddhists have been persecuted over the last fifty years. Over the past century, Vietnamese Buddhism has evolved to be a combination of Pure Land (a form of Mahayana Buddhism) and Zen Buddhism. The Zen practice emphasizes meditation, which is mostly followed by monks and nuns, while Pure Land practice is preferred by the lay-people.
Often Vietnamese Buddhist images of Sakyamuni resemble those of Southern China, a reality that results from the various Chinese occupations of Vietnam, the large number of Chinese that chose to settle there over many centuries and the cultural influence the Chinese have over their neighbors. The Vietnamese were never dominated by the Chinese in the arts, however, as Vietnamese artists and artisans displayed a consummate skill and the ability to take Chinese examples and make them wholly theirs by using a freedom of expression that was absent in the almost mechanized compartmentalization and division of artistic labor in China.
This image uses stylized Chinese features to represent many of the identifying features of the Buddha, referred to collectively as lakshanas. Thus, the Buddha has the pendulous ears that are marks of a prince and a symbol of his ability to hear all, three creases at the neck symbolizing luck and a raised knob or cranial protuberance on his head referred to as an ushnisha, which denotes the seat of intellectual powers, wisdom and divine energies. In front of the ushnisha is a hemisphere, called a nikkeishu in Japanese, which symbolizes a jewel radiating the light of wisdom. His head is “snail crowned”, with spiral curls which are an allusion to the Indian legend which stated that “one day when, lost in thought as to how to assuage the world’s woes, Buddha was oblivious of the Sun’s fierce rays beating on his head, the snails in gratitude to Him who loved and shed His blood for all living things, crept up and formed a helmet of their own cool bodies.” (Williams p 35)
According to the Laita-Vistara, the religious text which recounts the life of Sakyamuni, he had “a very large skull, broad the color of gold,” (Williams page 35). Often in Vietnamese Buddhist images, this is represented almost literally. The entire surface of the image covered in a copper colored lacquer, which emits a feeling of deep spirituality and “other worldliness”. This copper lacquer is common to Vietnamese art. However, were the piece made in Southern China, the lacquer would probably be composed of many layers of lacquer applied over bright red colored robes, a technique that gives the lacquer more depth yet, at the same time, makes it much darker over time, especially when the piece has been placed on an altar where candles and incense have been burned for a century or more in worship.
This massive,magnificent and extremely rare image of the Sakyamuni Buddha is seated in padmasana, the meditation position with the legs crossed and the soles of the feet turned upward and resting on the opposite thighs. The hands in the lap are in dhyana-mudra, palms upward and resting on each other. The thumbs of the hands touch at the tips forming a triangle, symbolizing the triratna or the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma (the Buddha's teachings) and the Sangha (the religious community of monks). Dhyana-mudra, which also represents perfect physical and spiritual balance, is the position the Buddha assumed when meditating under the Bodhi tree before his Enlightenment.
Characteristic of Vietnamese Buddhas, bodhisattvas and monks, the Buddha is carved in wood and coated with layers of copper-toned lacquer to protect the image from heat, water, and wood-boring insects. It is significant for its massive size and is much larger than the small example published by and exhibited at The Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California (www.pacificasiamuseum.org/buddhism/html/essay3.htm). According to the Pacifica Asia Museum web site, “Vietnamese Buddhist lacquered wood figures tend to be simple in detail and generally have calm, sweet facial expressions.”
Heinz Behert and Richard Gombrich, ed., "The World of Buddhism: Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture," London, Thames and Hudson, Ltd, 1984.
Keith Stevens, "Chinese God: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons," London, Collins and Brown, 1997.
Meyer McArthur, "Reading Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs and Symbols," London, Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 2002.
C.A.S. Williams, "Chinese Symbols and Art Motifs," Edison, N.J., Castle Books, 1974. (1) p. 351.
www.pacificasiamuseum.org, "Visions of Enlightenment; Understanding the Art of Buddhism," Text Essay 3, no. 5: Modern Sites: Vietnam.