As I write this on April 2, today marks the first COVID-19-related death of an emergency doctor in the United States.
In honor of the many health care providers who continue to put themselves at risk for others, tirelessly working under impossible conditions, I’d like to consider HoMA’s most famous artwork and symbol: our eleventh-century sculpture of the Bodhisattva Guanyin.
Guanyin, the Chinese translation for the Sanskrit name Avalokiteshvara, is the bodhisattva that most fully embodies the virtue of compassion. In this sense, Guanyin is in some ways the archetype for all bodhisattvas, those beings who unlike kind but detached Buddhas, keep a certain degree of compassionate attachment to the world so they can directly provide aid to all those still suffering from ignorance:
Suppose there are immeasurable hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of living beings who are undergoing various trials and suffering. If they hear of Guanyin and single-mindedly call his name, then at once he will perceive the sound of their voices and they will all gain deliverance from their trials.
–Lotus Sutra, chapter 25, adapted from Burton Watson’s translation
Guanyin first appears prominently in the Lotus Sutra (Saddharma Pundarika Sutra), sometime around the second century CE (translated into Chinese a little more than a century later). This sutra describes the bodhisattva as being able to appear to those who call upon him in whatever form is best suited to help them. As we know, COVID-19 first spread around the world through travel. Interestingly, many of the specific examples in the sutra are directed to travelers, both by sea and by land. Buddhism spread across Asia with trade, and merchants risked terrible dangers; from altitude sickness and freezing temperatures in the awe-inspiring passes across Central Asia; to the barrenness of the Taklamakan Desert; to piracy sailing through the Straits of Malacca. They brought Guanyin with them for support, and in so doing spread the concept of compassion around the world.
One of my favorite stories is about the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (c. 602–664), who traveled to India and back, bringing with him many of the foundational scriptures that still define Buddhism across East Asia today. At the beginning of his journey across the Taklamakan, the still naive and inexperienced Xuanzang became lost for five days, making matters worse by dropping his entire supply of water on the sand. On the verge of death from exposure and dehydration, he called out to Guanyin for aid. Suddenly, his horse turned in a different direction, and after dragging him for a few miles, approached an oasis.
By the time HoMA’s sculpture was made, depictions of Guanyin had undergone many permutations, and in the 11th century, the bodhisattva was often shown seated in the pose of “royal ease.” Bodhisattvas often had various associations with the trappings of nobility, but these were understood in Buddhism to be symbolic of their spiritual, not worldly, accomplishments. The geographic region of contemporary China was not unified by a single government at this time, and in addition to the Han-Chinese Song dynasty (960–1279), there were empires established by the Qidan (Liao dynasty, 916–1125), Tangut (Xia dynasty, 1038–1227), Jurchen (Jin dynasty, 1115–1234), and eventually the Mongols, who overcame them all. Depictions of Guanyin seated in “royal ease” were popular in all of these regions (as well as Goryeo Korea and Kamakura Japan), and it is often difficult to place them within a specific empire. HoMA’s Guanyin is generically attributed to the Song dynasty, but many of the other surviving Guanyin sculptures from this period with which HoMA’s sculpture compares favorably were made in the Qidan empire, which experienced a peak period of aesthetic accomplishment for Buddhist sculpture in general. Also, there is circumstantial but intriguing evidence that associates HoMA’s sculpture with the Tangut empire. Major artworks from this region are exceptionally rare, and if it were indeed Tangut, the HoMA Guanyin would arguably be the finest surviving Tangut sculpture in the world.
The question I am most often asked about our sculpture concerns its gender. Despite a certain degree of androgyny, Guanyin was predominantly depicted for most of history as a male deity in China and the rest of East Asia. However, this really misses the point: as the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Guanyin can appear in whatever form is best for you. Right now, I see the embodiment of compassion in the doctors, nurses and other health care providers on the front lines of the pandemic.
Curator of Asian Art
April 2, 2020
China, c. 1025
Wood, traces of pigment