Late 13th/early 14th century
Gilt copper alloy with inset gems
Height: 24 cm
This beautiful sculpture depicts the Buddhist deity Maitreya, known as the Buddha of the Future. His hands display a gesture of religious instruction and he is seated with both legs pendant (bhadrasana) and supported by a lotus flower. This pose, often associated with Maitreya, conveys his readiness to enter into the phenomenal world and contrasts with more common depictions that portray deities in deep meditative states. He is flanked by two tall-stemmed lotuses; lions guard the two-tiered pedestal. A beaded, trilobed arch encircles the seated deity.
Throughout Himalayan and Southeast Asian art, Maitreya is rendered both as a fully enlightened Buddha and as a bodhisattva - a highly evolved spiritual being who has yet to enter into a fully enlightened state. These two iconographic types are distinguished by the manner in which the hair, costume, and other adornments are rendered. This sculpture represents Maitreya as a bodhisattva, for he is adorned crowned and bejewelled and he wears a layman's skirt (dhoti). 1 Such adornment is not incidental, and reflects important philosophical views. Buddhist gods and goddesses are richly adorned with abundant jewellery - crowns, earrings, necklaces, armlets, anklets, finger and toerings - which are iconographically prescribed because they are crucial to a deity's depiction. As Ananda Coomaraswamy has observed the Sanskrit word for ornament, alamkara, literally means making (kr) sufficient (alam). 2 This Indian term suggests that ornament (jewellery in this instance) enhances and empowers the image, alerting the viewer to inner attributes otherwise hidden.
The arhat ("elder"), the archetype of earlier Buddhist practice, had typically been described as shaven-headed, unadorned, and wearing the monk's robes required by his chosen path. In contrast, the bodhisattva as Mahayana archetype was adorned in princely ornaments including crown and earrings, necklaces, armlets, anklets and the like. The bodhisattva's jewel adornments can be interpreted as emblems of the spiritually enlightened, one who embraces life in all its diversity and enjoys the full richness that life can offer. This is a powerful view, one which goes to the heart of Buddhist attitudes towards the relationship between sensuality and spirituality.
Around the first century AD, Buddhist literature reveals a new emphasis on a wider or greater path (Mahayana), whereby the practitioner does not isolate him- or herself from worldly involvement, but fully embraces worldly experience as a means of testing and fortifying his or her spiritual understanding. The Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra is representative of Mahayana literature in so far as it presents the layman Vimalakirti's spiritual understanding as superior to that of the Buddha's leading monastic adherents, clearly surpassing them in lively theological debates.
The bodhisattva, one who seeks enlightenment while compassionately guiding others towards the same goal, features prominently in Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana texts describe the bodhisattva's path as the cultivation of ten perfections (paramita), most requiring worldly engagement: generosity, moral integrity, patience, vigor, detachment, wisdom, compassion, determination, honesty and equanimity. The bodhisattva's path is beautifully described in Indian texts such as The Gandavyuha Sutra. Upon the advice of the celestial bodhisattva Manjusri, the young prince Sudhana travels widely throughout India in search of spiritual teachings. He encounters fifty-three teachers from all walks of life, both professional religious instructors and laymen, including the prostitute Vasumitra, an advanced bodhisattva. The Gandavyuha Sutra and other texts like it persuasively argue the Mahayana view that there is no aspect of worldly involvement which need hinder spiritual evolution; in fact, for some aspirants - like Sudhana - true spiritual understanding evolves out of a profound engagement in the full range of sensual experience.
Maitreya was popular in the Gandharan region on India's northwest frontier, probably linked to The Mahavastu, a ca. lst-4th century text in which emphasis is placed on all persons' ability to reach enlightenment. In this text, Maitreya is cited as a fully enlightened Buddha who will appear in the future in order to inspire and guide other sentient beings. Until such time, he is said to reside in Tushita Heaven, awaiting his earthly rebirth. In this region as well as in Nepal and Tibet, Maitreya became the focus of messianic worship. Buddhist aspirants prayed to be reborn in Tushita Heaven and hoped to accompany Maitreya when, in some future time, he will appear on earth in order to lead sentient beings to spiritual liberation.
This work compares closely with other gilt copper alloy sculptures from Tibet and Nepal. With a ca. 14th century Vajradhara, it shares crown type and very similar jewellery design; with a ca. 14th century Vairocana, it shares similar body modelling; Maitreya's two flanking lotuses are similarly rendered in a ca. 14th century Padmapani; and with a ca. 14th century Manjusri, it shares similar crown, earrings and inlaid jewellery. 3
1 Maitreya Buddha wears monastic robes and bears no jewel adornment.
2 Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, "Ornament" in Roger Lipsey, ed. Coomaraswamy: Selected Papers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977) vol. 1, p. 243. The Tibetan term for ornament and jewellery, gyen (rgyan), is a translation of the Sanskrit word, alambara. See Lokesh Chandra, Tibetan-Sanskrit Dictionary (Tokyo Rinsen Book Co. , 1990)
3 All these works were recently published in Helmut Uhlig, On the Path to Enlightenment (Zurich; Museum Rietberg, 1995), pp. 60-61, 66-67, 95, and 112-12 respectively.