AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 9

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Session 9: Many Faces of Avalokitesvara Across Asia, 10th-13th Centuries

Organizer: Dorothy C. Wong, University of Virginia, USA

Chair: Chun-Fang Yu, Columbia University, USA

Discussant: Dorothy C. Wong, University of Virginia, USA

Avalokitesvara (the Bodhisattva of Compassion) is one of the most enduring devotional deities in Buddhism. From the early centuries of the Common Era to the tenth century, cultic devotion to this bodhisattva spread throughout Asia and evolved into multi-facetted forms, from regular representations of the bodhisattva to esoteric forms that often show the bodhisattva with multiple heads and multiple arms, holding a variety of attributes. The four papers in this panel focus on representations of Avalokitesvara that developed from the tenth through the thirteenth centuries, from southwestern and northwestern China to Southeast Asia. Tom Suchan’s paper investigates the “Treasure-Seal” and “Sun-Moon” bodhisattva images prominent at the site of Beishan, Dazu, southeastern Sichuan; he examines the cultic significance of these images and explores how they represent localized variations on established iconographic forms of Avalokitesvara. Elena Pakoutova discusses two mural paintings of Avalokitesvara (both are variant forms of the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara) in Cave 3 at the Yulin cave-temples (12th century), Dunhuang, in the larger contexts of Central Asian, Chinese, Tibetan, and Indic traditions. Both papers by Akiko Miyazaki and Phillip Green focus on Avalokitesvara (known as Lokesvara) in Angkor. Miyazaki studies the twenty statues that portray this bodhisattva with miniature buddha images on the body, known as Radiating Avalokitesvara, and relate them to descriptions in the Buddhist text, the Karandavyuha-Sutra, and other inscriptional evidence from the region. Green further interprets this Lokesvara cult at Angkor in the context of the increasingly popular forms of tantric Buddhism and Saivism in the region.

Severing Bonds and Sealing Destinies: Aspects of the Cult of Avalokitesvara in Southeastern Sichuan during the 10th through 12th Centuries
Tom Suchan, Eastern Michigan University, USA

This paper investigates two types of unique and yet to be conclusively explained bodhisattva images found at the Buddhist cliff sculpture site of Beishan in Dazu County, southeastern Sichuan. Specifically, it focuses on the so-called “Treasure-Seal” and “Sun-Moon” bodhisattva images featured in several niches and caves, as well as in the mid-twelfth century brick pagoda at the site. The fact that images of these two bodhisattva types were replicated in multiple locations at Beishan indicates that they are not unexplainable, singular, iconographic anomalies or the mere products of artistic innovation, but represented images of some real cultic significance for those who patronized the site during the tenth through twelfth centuries when these images were created. Moreover, since these two bodhisattva types often occur in close proximity to one another or in tandem they likely had a shared religious significance. My paper has two aspects. First, it attempts to show through the focused study of in situ visual and epigraphic materials, including votive steles and donor inscriptions, from the local area and region, and supporting historical documents and scriptural materials, how these images represent localized variations on established iconographic forms of Avalokitesvara. Second, it details the connection of Beishan’s “Treasure-Seal” and “Sun-Moon” bodhisattva images with local religious practices that involved the use of talismans and written incantations with a general goal of providing spiritual and material blessings, but with the specific aim of preventing demonic reprisals by severing karmic bonds and removing animosity between the dead and living.

Avalokitesvara Images at Cave 3 at Yulin in Context
Elena Pakhoutova, Rubin Museum of Art, USA

One of the most impressive and lavishly decorated caves at the Yulin caves complex is Cave 3 that has been attributed to the patronage of the Tangut emperor Renzon (1139-1193) who was known to patronize Tibetan Buddhist masters and teachers. In addition to the artistic sophistication and stylistic diversity found in this cave-temple, one of the most interesting features is its iconographic program articulated not only in visual but spatial arrangement of painted murals. This program defines the stylistic choices expressed in various murals and shows a strong involvement of the patron, or patrons, in the decisive structural and visual impact of the cave’s decorated program. This paper looks at two panels of the main wall in the cave-temple that depict images identified as two different forms of Avalokitesvara. Given the strong Tibetan cultural connection and a well-known local tradition of depicting Avalokitesvara at Dunhuang and China in general, these images are interpreted in the context of a larger Central Asian, Chinese, Tibetan, and Indic traditions, with comparative analysis of select examples relatively contemporary with Cave 3 at Yulin from cave-temples at Dunhuang, Sichuan, western Tibet, Tibetan hanging scrolls (thang ka), and additional support of primary textual sources. Focus will be given not only to iconographic and stylistic aspects of these images and their relation to comparable materials but to the ritual purposes of these images as well. This inquiry will elucidate the possible reasons for commissioning of this cave and its intended function.

Radiating Avalokitesvara in Angkor: Focusing on Descriptions in the Karandavyuha-Sutra
Akiko Miyazaki, Sophia University, Japan

This presentation discusses the transfiguration of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara in artistic representations in Angkor (ninth–fifteenth century), which show the bodhisattva as a radiating figure. This iconographic aspect is based on the Karandavyuha-Sutra (KVS) which was formed around the sixth century in the Northwestern India. Angkor flourished in mainland Southeast Asia, during the time of King JayavarmanVII (1181-1218), a time when the empire occupied the most extensive area. This Buddhist monarch embraced Mahayana Buddhism, and he was a benevolent king, having constructed hospitals and transportation facilities, among other things. Thus far twenty sandstone statues of the Radiating Avalokitesvara have been found. These sculptures are in the Bayon style (late twelfth to early thirteenth century), and show the body of the bodhisattva covered with miniature buddha images. Well-known for its six-syllable mantra, “Om Manipadme Hum,” the KVS is extant in about 90 Nepalese manuscripts. The sculptures of the Radiating Avalokitesvara were excavated from Siem-Reap, the capital; Muang-Sing in Thailand (the West end of JayavarmanVII’s domain); Ta-Prohm (Tonle-Bati); Preah-Khan (Kompong-Svay) and other places. Researchers have focused on representations of the Radiating Avalokitesvara that date from the twelfth to the thirteenth century, but neglect the fact that a stele that records the six-syllable mantra (Khmer inscription, K.1154) dates to the tenth century. With reference to tenth-century images and inscriptions relating to Avalokitesvara, as well as those in other regions of twelfth to thirteenth-century dates, this paper explores the roles of these statues which connected Siem-Reap to other regions, and also their religious significance in Angkor.

The Many Faces of Lokesvara: Tantric Buddhism, Saivism, and Images of Lokesvara among the Early Khmers
Phillip S.E. Green, University of Florida, USA

The presence of tantric forms of Buddhism among the early Khmers of the Angkorian period (ninth-fifteenth centuries) has long been noted among scholars, but the impact and influence of this tantricism has only recently begun to garner widespread and serious attention. This presentation examines images and understandings of Lokesvara (the most popular designation for Avalokitesvara used by the early Khmers) in the context of the increasingly popular forms of tantric Buddhism and Saivism between the tenth through thirteenth centuries of the Common Era in Kambujadesa (early Cambodia). Although I intend to primarily focus on Lokesvara images connected with Banteay Chmar, a twelfth-century temple complex located in northwestern Cambodia built during the reign of Jayavarman VII (r. 1182-c. 1218), I will also address images from other temple complexes such as Preah Khan of Kompong Svay and the Bayon. I will argue that artificial demarcations between some kind of normative Mahayana Buddhism (to which worship of Avalokitesvara is often confined) and forms of tantric Buddhism are misleading and fail to take into account Lokesvara’s tantric characteristics and connections among the early Khmers.