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Buddha of Medicine Bhaishajyaguru (Yaoshi fo)

Video transcript
We're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at an enormous wall painting on plaster. -This is from the East Gable of the Guanshan lower temple, in Shanxi Province. This temple was rediscovered in the 1930's, because a full set of the Buddhist's scriptures, known as sutras, was found at this temple complex. And it put this monastery on the map. The monks decided to take down the murals, and sell them in order to restore the buildings. This was taking down, and I believe sold to a dealer, who then sold it to Arthur Sackler. And then, in 1964, Sackler gave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. -It's gorgeous, but it's so unusual for me. I'm used to looking at Chinese scroll painting. How common is wall painting? - Actually, the first important format for painting in China was wall painting. And we know this from textual sources, and have found secular subject matter in the last 50 years, or so. But, in North West China, the Mogao cave sites have a huge encyclopedia, really, of Buddhist wall paintings, stretching from the 4th to the 14th centuries. Palaces and temples all over China had wall painting, and wall painting was a very important format that has not survived. -So this painting is from the very early 14th century -yes-, and by this time, Buddhist had been in China for about 100 years. So this is an extremely well developed system of representation. -Yes, but this is from the Yuan Dynasty. These were foreign rulers in China. -So, when this was painted, China was actually undergoing a significant political transformation. The Mongols were now in control of China, as opposed to the Han. -The Mongols had unified China, and in the court a very different style was adopted. It was a style much more associated with Himalayan art, Tibetan art... -I'm seeing this extraordinary contrast between the Bodhisattva's, and the representation of Buddha. Buddha seem so spare. It seems to be a very restrained style, as opposed to this dense costume, full of jewelry. -The Buddha has relinquished all worldly ties, and thus is presented in the garb of a monk. The Bodhisattva's, while highly enlightened beings, have vowed to remain in the earthly realm, to help all sentient beings find release Samsara, which is the endless cycle of rebirth. And, in that regard, they are presented still in princely garb. -The buddha is represented in lotus posture-- -And the hand gestures of the hand gestures of the Buddha are known as Mudras, and often the specific hand- gestures give us an indication of which Buddha is being represented. -So, I'm a little confused. Because I'm looking at this central Buddha, I'm seeing the long earlobes. I'm seeing the little rise on the back of the head, and I was assuming this was the historic Buddha. Are those characteristics that are- carried over to other Buddha's as well? -Buddhism started in the Northern plains of India, and spread to China. So initially the Buddha was a person; he was not a god -that's the historical Buddha Shakamuni- He was born in the foothills of the Himalayas. As the religions developed, the type of Buddhism that spread in China is called Mahayana. In the Mahayana belief system, there are Buddha's presiding over paradises everywhere. This painting is most likely a representation of the assembly of Bhaiṣajyaguru, the medicine Buddha. And the other central thing to Mahayana Buddhism is the Bodhisattva-- because it's a religion of compassion, and the Bodhisattva is a compassionate figure. So, a lot of worship was focused on the Bodhisattva, in Chinese Buddhism. -As we move down, we move from the celestial representation that we can see so clearly at the top, to a real structure. You can see the large Bodhisattva's and Buddha are seated on lotus blossoms. Then there's a pedestal below that, which is beautifully decorated -and then below that, we can see a series of secondary attendants seated at our level, as the painting is hung in the Museum, but would have been still quite high- -Much higher up. You can see a whole variety of offerings that are isolated by a lotus pedestal, and a halo behind. -Whether or not we are looking at the large Buddha, the Bodhisattva's, or these figures down at the bottom, there's just such an emphasis on this beautiful curva-linear form. Almost everything is outlined with this very hard contour. -That's particularly apparent in the scarves that drape off all of the figures. You can see the movement and the flow is articulated through line. Look at the way that the fullness of the figures is articulated. It also comes back to this thickening and thinning of line. -Then also there is this fabulous color. -The color would have obviously been much more vibrant, and if you think of it in the temple complex, it would have been in a space with other murals paintings, but also with sculpture that also would have highly pigmented. -This is for a monastic environment. Is this meant to be instructive? -Buddhist painting was created by craftsmen, overseen by monks, making sure that the iconography was correct. Buddhist sculpture and Buddhist painting was used for didactic purposes. -There's such specific iconography. I find it fascinating that even now we're not quite sure what the subject is. -I think it's interesting that in Chinese Buddhist art, there are still a lot of avenues for research. -It's an important reminder that art history is a living thing. We still change our minds. Subtitles by: DaLinMan