Stele with the Buddha Shakyamuni and Prabhutaratna

Enlarge this image. Stele with the Buddha Shakyamuni and Prabhutaratna, a Buddha of the past, dated 595. China; Sui dynasty (589–618). Marble with gilding and pigment.  Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B62S1+.
This artwork shows two Buddha figures sitting side by side. These figures represent the Buddha Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha) and Prabhutaratna (a Buddha of the past) flanked by two monks, with rows of dragons supporting a stupa, and heavenly beings called apsaras holding garlands. At the bottom, two lions face a central incense burner. This artwork is a direct reference to an episode in the popular Lotus Sutra concerning a stupa that appears when the historical Buddha Shakyamuni is preaching. From this “many treasures” stupa comes the voice of Prabhutaratna, a Buddha of the past who preceded the historical Buddha as a teacher, and who has promised to appear whenever the Lotus Sutra is preached.

What are steles?

Buddhist steles are stone monuments bearing images and inscriptions, commissioned for installation in temples or monastic compounds, courtyards, or in rock-cut cave shrines. They probably developed from pre-Buddhist memorial stones used since the Han dynasty. They thrived as a sculptural form between the 400s and the 600s. Typically, the main figures in a stele sit or stand, directly facing the viewer.
Steles were usually commissioned by families or groups of individuals in the hopes of accruing spiritual merit for themselves, for the benefit of the current rulers, and for their ancestors and extended family. In this way, they satisfied the demands of a Confucian society, with its emphasis on family ties, and Buddhism, with its emphasis on spiritual salvation.