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

Buddha of Medicine Bhaishajyaguru (Yaoshi fo)

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DR STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at an enormous wall painting on plaster. DR JENNIFER N MCINTIRE: This is from the east gable of the Guangsheng Lower Temple in Shanxi 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 it 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. DR STEVEN ZUCKER: It's gorgeous, but it's so unusual for me. I'm used to looking at Chinese scroll painting. How common is wall painting? DR JENNIFER N MCINTIRE: 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 cave sites have a huge encyclopedia, really, of Buddhist wall painting, stretching from the fourth 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. DR STEVEN ZUCKER: So this painting is from the very early 14th century. And by this time, Buddhism had been in China for about 1,000 years. So this is an extremely well developed system of representation. DR JENNIFER N MCINTIRE: Yeah. So this is from the Yuan dynasty. These were foreign rulers in China. DR STEVEN ZUCKER: 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. DR JENNIFER N MCINTIRE: 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. DR STEVEN ZUCKER: 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 dense costume full of jewelry. DR JENNIFER N MCINTIRE: The Buddha has relinquished all worldly ties and thus is presented in the garb of a monk. The bodhisattvas, while highly 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. DR STEVEN ZUCKER: The Buddha is represented in lotus posture. DR JENNIFER N MCINTIRE: 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. DR STEVEN ZUCKER: 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 Buddhas as well? DR JENNIFER N MCINTIRE: 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, Shakyamuni. 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 Buddhas presiding over paradises everywhere. This painting is most likely a representation of the assembly of Bhaishajyaguru, 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. DR STEVEN ZUCKER: 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 a series of secondary attendants seated at our level, as the painting is hung in a museum, but would have been still quite high. DR JENNIFER N MCINTIRE: Higher up. You can see a whole variety of offerings that are isolated by a lotus pedestal and a halo behind. DR STEVEN ZUCKER: 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 with this very hard contour. DR JENNIFER N MCINTIRE: 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. DR STEVEN ZUCKER: But then also there's this fabulous color. DR JENNIFER N MCINTIRE: 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. DR STEVEN ZUCKER: This is for a monastic environment. Is this meant to be instructive? DR JENNIFER N MCINTIRE: 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. DR STEVEN ZUCKER: There's such specific iconography. I find it fascinating that even now we're still not quite sure what the subject is. DR JENNIFER N MCINTIRE: I think it's interesting that in Chinese Buddhist art there are still a lot of avenues for research. DR STEVEN ZUCKER: It's an important reminder that art history is a living thing. We still change our minds. [MUSIC PLAYING]