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The primal Buddha Samantabhadra, 1700-1800

The primal Buddha Samantabhadra, 1700-1800

The primal Buddha Samantabhadra, 1700-1800. China; Xumifushou Temple, Chengde, Hebei province. Thangka; colors on cotton. Transfer from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Katherine Ball, B72D67.

Who is Samantabhadra?
The central deity, Samantabhadra, was one of the eight bodhisattvas. He carries the vajra and moon disk on two lotus blossoms that rise up on either side of him; a jeweled mandorla surrounds his elaborate throne. Behind him on a pale green and blue ground float clouds above a Chinese style landscape.

How can we recognize this figure as a Bodhisattva?
Advanced bodhisattvas such as Samantabhadra are beings on the path to enlightenment who have chosen to remain in the world to help others win happiness and liberation from misery. They are worshiped in their own right, and are a favorite subject in Buddhist art throughout much of Asia.

What are the other symbols in this painting?
Before the throne, the so-called Offering of the Five Senses appears on a lotus blossom springing from the water below: a mirror (sight), cymbals (sound), conch (smell), fruit (taste), and a piece of silk (touch).

Before Samantabhadra sit the female deities, White Tara and Green Tara (see "The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara" in "Related Resources" below for more information on the White and Green Taras). Above Samantabhadra, Amitayus, holds his attribute, the vase containing the water of life, from which a tree grows. Amitayus and White Tara are worshiped for long life; Green Tara grants all wishes. They form a powerful triad for the granting of longevity, an appropriate motif for a birthday gift, which was the motivation for commissioning this painting.

This painting hung in a replica of a Tibetan temple in China. Why was this building built?
In 1779 the Qianlong emperor of China received word from the sixth Panchen Lama in Tibet that he would arrive in China the following year to celebrate the emperor’s seventieth birthday. Delighted and flattered, the emperor ordered a temple to built in the style of Tashilhunpo (pronounced Xumifushou in Chinese), the seat of the Panchen Lama located in Shigatse, Tibet. The temple complex, built at the emperor’s summer retreat in Jehol (present-day Chengde), northeastern Hebei province, was sumptuously furnished with Buddhist sculptures, thangkas, and ritual paraphernalia. This painting was among those objects. A long Chinese inscription on the back states that it was one of six scrolls hanging on the east and west walls of a building called “The Source of Ten Thousand Laws,” located behind the main temple complex. This building was where the Sixth Panchen Lama’s relatives and attendants stayed. This inscription allows us to trace the painting’s history and date it precisely.

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