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Carved Sutra Box
Item No. 16584

19th Century, Buddhist, China
Wood with Pigmentation
6.25" x 17.75" x 6"
( 15.875 x 45.085 x 15.24 cm)
(H x W x D)

This box was used to hold sutras (sutta in Pali), which in Buddhism was originally considered the written oral teaching of Sakyamuni Buddha and, later, was taken to mean all kinds of Buddhist scriptures. The major sutras of Buddhism were composed orally in Pali. This was done beginning at the First Buddhist Council which was really more a First Communal Recitation where the senior monk alive, Maha Kasyapa, presided over the meeting and, in effect, created the Canon by asking the other monks about what the Buddha had said. The monk Ananda, who was the Buddha’s cousin, his personal attendant, extremely close to the Buddha and a man with an incredible memory was the chief source of information, and that is why each sutra begins “Thus have I heard.”

The Canon was written from the first century B.C. through the fourth century A.D. The original sutras, composed in India and used by Theravada Buddhists monks were claimed to transmit authentic teachings of the Buddha himself. Although all Buddhist schools and traditions have a shared core of texts, however, each school has a differing Abidharma or scholastic elaboration of the Doctrine. Chinese Mahayana clerics expanded the sutras by including the translation of texts into Chinese and added Buddhist commentaries and treatises, histories, biographies of great clerics and catalogues of texts relating to Buddhism in China. In short, the creation and preservation of the Buddhist scriptures are the work of monks.

This wood carved sutra box has an elaborately carved front panel containing an image of two stylized bats on either side of an upside down bat. The bat is considered in China as a graceful and, especially, propitious creature, because the word for bat in Mandarin Chinese is a homonym of fu which means good fortune. The bat is frequently depicted as an ornate image that resembles a butterfly and a portion of the word for butterfly (hudie) is also a near homonym for fu. Images of bats are symbolic of fu and all it entails. Multiple images of bats symbolize the five components of fu -- longevity (shou), wealth (fu), health (kangning), love of virtue (youhaode) and to die a natural death in old age (kaozhongming). Bats and butterflies are also legendary in Chinese lore as the source of ingredients for medicine that preserve and prolong life. It is said that the bat hangs with its head downward, because it has such as heavy brain.

The sides of the box are decorated with paintings of flowers, and it is in excellent condition with all its original green and red pigmentation in tact.

Sources :

Heinz Bechart and Richard Gombrich, ed., The World of Buddhism; Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture, London, Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1984.

Roland Knapp, China’s Living Houses: Folk Beliefs, Symbols and Household Ornamentation, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

C.A.S. Williams, Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs, New Jersey, Castle Books, 1974.

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