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Current time:0:00Total duration:5:37

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 guangzhong lower temple in Shaanxi province this temple was rediscovered in the 1930s because a full set of the Buddhist scriptures known as sutras was found at this temple complex and put this monastery on the map the monks decided to take down the murals and sell them in order to restore the building this was taken down and I believe sold to a dealer who then sold it to Arthur Sackler and then in 1964 Arthur 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 northwest China the Mogao caves sites have a huge encyclopedia really of Buddhist wall painting stretching from the 4th to the 14th century 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 and by this time Buddhism had been in China for about a thousand years so this is an extremely well developed system of representation yeah but so this is from the yin 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 hand the Mongols had unified China and in the court a very different style of painting was adopted it was a style much more associated with Himalayan art Tibetan art I'm seeing this extraordinary contrast between the Bodhisattvas and the representation of Buddha Buddha seems so spare it seems to be a very restrained style as opposed to this dance costume full of jewelry the Buddha has relinquished all worldly ties and thus is presented in the garb of a monk the Bodhisattvas while high enlightened beings have vowed to remain in the earthly realm to help all sentient beings find release from 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 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 that this was the historic Buddha are those characteristics that are carried over to other Buddha's as well Buddhism started in the Northern Plains in India and spread to China so initially the Buddha was a person he was not a god that's the historical Buddha Sakyamuni he was born in the foothills of the Himalayas as the religion 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 by Sajid guru the medicine Buddha and the other central thing two 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 Bodhisattvas 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 the series of secondary attendants seated at our level as the painting is hung in the museum but would have been still quite hot you can see a whole variety of offerings that are isolated by a lotus pedestal and a halo behind whether or not we're looking at the large Buddha the Bodhisattvas or these figures down at the bottom there's such an emphasis on this beautiful curvilinear form almost everything is outlined this very hard contour that's particularly apparent in the scarves that drape off all the figures you can see the movement and the flow is articulated through line look at the way the fullness of the figures is articulated it also comes back to this thickening and thinning line but then also there's this fabulous color the color would have obviously been much more vibrant and you think of it in the temple complex it would have been in a space with other mural paintings but also with sculpture that would also have been 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 Buddha sculpture and Buddha's painting was used for didactic purposes there's such specific iconography I find it fascinating that even now we're still 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 our history is a living thing we still change our minds