Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture in Medieval China.

Author:Wang, Eugene Y.
Position:Book review
 
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Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005. 501 pp.; 21 color ills., 119 b/w. $60.00

Eugene Wang's book on the world of the Lotus Sutra in medieval China is a new and challenging contribution to the field of art history of east Asia, an ambitious undertaking that explores the visual culture of the most important and popular Buddhist scripture in China. While Wang's main focus is on the popular genre of painting called transformation tableaux (jingbian) found among murals in the cave temples at Dunhuang, he has no hesitation in turning to a wide range of visual and textual materials to outline the proper spatial, temporal, and cognitive contexts of Lotus Sutra imagery. Shaping the Lotus Sutra is also a book about the complicated relation between text and image, including the "gap between textual and pictorial representation" (p. xiv) that Wang bridges in an unconservative methodological manner. Instead of treating Chinese Lotus Sutra depictions in a systematic chronological order, Wang takes the Lotus Sutra as a linchpin for observations about Buddhist pictorial art and culture of mainly the seventh and eighth centuries and carries these observations beyond traditional art historical categories and considerations of iconography.

One of Wang's major claims is that "a certain mental topography or imaginary world" (p. xiv) shaped Lotus Sutra representations and determined what was depicted and how it was depicted, as well as what was not depicted at all. This position causes Wang to overemphasize the role of the individual painter (see especially chapters 2 and 5), almost to the neglect of the influence of wealthy donors, workshops, and clergy members who advised painters and craftsmen in religious matters. (1) In the course of his book Wang elucidates "a collective 'protopicture,' or mental picture--the sort of stuff that dreams are made of, so to speak" (p. 75).

The main strength of the book lies in Wang's ability to analyze and describe visual objects according to their inherent compositional principles, an ability that distinguishes an excellent art historian from the common observer of art. In this respect, chapter 5, titled "Mirroring and Transformation," is truly outstanding in detecting the guiding principles of "the visual culture of world making" (p. xiii). He knows how to surprise his readers with unexpected, and eye-opening, juxtapositions of Buddhist and non-Buddhist pictorial schemes and illuminating diagrams. In addition, the book offers numerous side-by-side illustrations of a certain sculpture or a painting in photographs and in drawings, sometimes even in rubbings. These are helpful devices for the reader to survey quickly the visual materials. For all this, the book is characterized by less than thorough research, and this reader was often puzzled by conclusions that did not appear to match the visual evidence.

In the first chapter, Wang deals with the motif of the "Many Treasures Stupa" from chapter 11 of the Lotus Sutra. His aim is to show how this very popular image of the twin Buddhas Sakyamuni and Prahbutaratna sitting side by side can be connected to preBuddhist models in China, since it was unknown in India and central Asia. Further, the Many Treasures Stupa motif "constitute[s] a locus around which a topography of visionary experience could be built" (p. xxiii) for the further development of the imagery of the Lotus Sutra. Wang then discusses several versions of the Many Treasures Stupa motif and their accompanying votive inscriptions, from the first extant wall painting in Cave 169 at Binglingsi (420 CE) to sculpted images in the cave temples of Yungang, the earliest one dated to 489 CE in the imperially donated Cave 5.

In Yungang Cave 38, which was founded by a certain Wu family in the early sixth century, Wang finds a good example of a cave whose "temporal-spatial scheme ... is remarkably consistent," which he describes as a "chronotope" (p. 55). While the main wall is dominated by an image of the Many Treasures Stupa, the side walls are occupied by depictions of the Six Buddhas of the Past, Buddha Sakyamuni, and Maitreya. The author identifies Buddha Sakyamuni in a pointed arch niche and his predestined successor, the bodhisattva Maitreya, above in a trabeated niche on the east wall. He points out that the Buddha figure seated with pendant legs on the west wall also represents Maitreya, as the trabeated niche in which he sits indicates. In this cave he identifies "two distinct spatial and temporal realms" (p. 57) in alluding to the two aspects of the Maitreya cult, well known since Jan Nattier's study of 1988, (2) namely, the ascent to Tusita Heaven, where the bodhisattva Maitreya can be met here and now, and the descent, to Maitreya's paradise in Ketumati, where the Buddhist believers might join his "Three assemblies under the Dragon Flower Tree there and in the future" (Wang's italics). Wang prefers to identify the west wall...

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