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Korea in Focus: The Amitâbha Triad

February 12, 2021
1918.501

 

Amitâbha Triad, 1400s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Bronze with traces of gilding; 40.6 x 16.5 x 54.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Worcester R. Warner Collection, 1918.501

 

By Ghichul Jung, PhD
Director, Sustainable Korean Culture Institute

Published February 16, 2021

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1918.501

Originally gilt, this charming bronze statuette represents Amitâbha Buddha (아미타불) flanked by two attendant bodhisattvas: Avalokitêśvara (관음보살) and Kṣitigarbha (지장보살), all seated on a lotus flower throne that is supported by a scrolled stem sprouting from a central dais (1918.501). At the center, Amitâbha is crafted slightly bigger than the two accompanying bodhisattvas, indicating their relative hierarchy in the Buddhist pantheon.

Iconography

Sitting cross-legged, Amitâbha Buddha forms a hand gesture (mudrā in Sanskrit). This specific mudra—raising the right hand to the chest, palm outward, and lowering the left hand above the thigh, palm upward, with each thumb touching each middle finger—indicates “lower class-middle life” (or alternatively, “middle class-lower life”). It is the buddha’s symbolic gesture to explain the Buddhist Law to those of middle life in the lower class.

Avalokitêśvara wears a crown mounted by an image of the seated Amitâbha. Avalokitêśvara is shown resting his right hand on his right pendant leg, while bringing his left hand behind his thigh to rest on the throne. This posture is the pose of royal ease (maharajalila in Sanskrit). On the other hand, Kṣitigarbha, with a shaven head like an ordinary Buddhist monk, raises his right hand to the shoulder, his palm facing up and holding a wish-granting jewel while reaching his open left hand above the left pendant leg. This posture is the pose of relaxation (lalitāsana in Sanskrit).

As the lord presiding over the Western Paradise, Amitâbha Buddha descends to the earthly world to take the faithful on their deathbeds into his paradise or waits there to welcome the blessed who are reborn through lotus blossoms into the blissful land. In this transformational passage, usually the two attendants Avalokitêśvara and Mahāsthāmaprāpta (대세지보살) assist the lord of the Western Paradise. In the CMA Amitâbha triad, however, Kṣitigarbha replaces Mahāsthāmaprāpta. Such a special combination of the two bodhisattvas suggests the date of the Cleveland triad, because this Amitâbha’s entourage was in vogue in the 1300s and 1400s in Korea.

Stylistic Features

Amitâbha Buddha has an oval face with a wide head and a pointed chin. The slight forward inclination of the head, a softly arched, unbroken line of eyebrow, thin nose bridge, tiny full lips, and nearly closed eyes convey the inward serenity and emotional warmth. This effect is heightened by the youthful and shiny faces of the bodhisattvas, which are defined by full cheeks, mellow roundness of form, and large curves of eyebrows. Such delicate style also echoes in the rendition of the bodhisattvas. Their shoulders are narrow and rounded, and the legs are disproportionately tiny in comparison with somewhat elongated torsos. With the little bare feet, this feature gives the impression that they are very young, even infants. The cheerful, charming, and gentle appeal of this quality is imbued in the tranquil repose the Buddha creates.

The effect of such delicate stylistic sensibilities is obvious: as though just reborn to be Buddhist saints on lotus flowers, three youthful deities are comfortably enjoying the pure bliss of meditative trance. A sweet smile on their lips expresses the taste of the ever-fresh fruit of enlightenment. This weightless and timeless world where the Buddhist saints enjoy spiritual pleasure is the otherworldly Western Paradise.

Precedents

The statuette’s iconographical origin may be traced back to Buddhist artworks dated to as early as late seventh-century Tang (618–907) China, or Korea’s Unified Silla Kingdom (668–935). A Buddhist stone stele dated to 689 in the collection of the National Museum of Korea, for example, showcases how a scene of Amitâbha welcoming the reborn into the Western Paradise was initially envisioned in stone carving (Sinsu 550).

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NMK triad

The seated Amitâbha Buddha and the standing attendants are all placed on lotus flowers supported by stems rising from below. Particularly relevant here are the two figures depicted beneath the Buddha. They sit on their knees on lotus flowers and represent the blessed just reborn into the paradise.1

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Dongkuk triad

Examples of the Amitâbha triad of the Goryeo period, such as the Gilt Bronze Amitâbha Triad in the collection of the Dongguk University Museum (Dongguk University Collection) may have been one of the direct prototypes of the CMA triad. Two down-scaled figures, those just reborn into paradise, stand on either side beneath the Buddha. They appear to have shaved heads and gather their hands in adoration. Two seated attendants of Amitâbha on an octagonal lotus pedestal are Avalokitêśvara in a jeweled crown and Kṣitigarbha in a head scarf. Both form a hand gesture of meditation, and their lotus thrones are supported by the vine stems rising from the central pedestal. Halos and aureoles are added to highlight the sacred presence of three Buddhist deities.

Initial Form

A closer examination of the Cleveland triad reveals that each figure has a rectangular opening on its back. The opening is required to hollow out the inside clay in the course of producing bronze statues. It was also used for the bulbokjang (불복장 meaning enshrinement of precious Buddhist relics) ceremony, the actual relics of which are now lost in the case of the Cleveland triad. There may be one more possible use for the holes; that is, halos and aureoles may have been affixed to the opening lids. Or if this is not the case, the triad was likely enshrined against halos and aureoles incised on a separate background screen within a miniature shrine. It is hard to imagine, however, that the rebirth scene was originally crafted in the Cleveland triad, as in the Dongguk triad, because the space between the Buddha’s throne and the dais is not sufficient to install more statues.

Ritual Usage

As the cult of Amitâbha flourished during the transition from the Goryeo to the Joseon period, a large quantity of Amitâbha triads in bronze were produced; a relatively fair number of works are extant today. Such triads may have been used mainly three different ways in ritualistic settings: first, the triad was buried in either a pagoda or a secret place in sacred mountains, such as Mount Geumgang, wrapped in a boxlike casket;2 second, it was enclosed within a miniature shrine for private devotion; or lastly, it was housed on an altar in a Buddhist hall within a monastery for public devotion.

Interestingly, all extant Amitâbha triads belonging to the first two categories are as big as or smaller than the Dongguk triad (21.5 x 25 cm). Given that the CMA triad (40.6 x 54.6 cm) is not large enough to have been used for public devotion, but is slightly too big for a burial purpose, the triad is very likely to have been enclosed in a miniature shrine for private devotion. Its skillful craftsmanship, size, and usage suggest that the CMA triad was commissioned by an aristocratic family or even the royal family for their devotional space.

Possible Date

The manner in which Amitâbha Buddha in the CMA triad is draped follows an established convention since the 1200s in the Goryeo dynasty. The outer garment (saṃghāṭī in Sanskrit) is on both shoulders, with the right shoulder partially covered. It falls down the shoulder, passes underneath the right armpit, crosses the waist, and then goes over the back of the left shoulder. Inside the outer garment is an inner garment (saṃkākṣikā in Sanskrit). It fully covers both shoulders and arms. A tied sash visible on the midriff is intended to bind either side of the inner garment together. Above the sash crosses a horizontal panel, which is a portion of the vest worn inside the inner garment. It is variously claimed as pyeondan (편단), pyeonsam (편삼), or bokgyeonui (복견의). 3 Lastly, the undergarment skirt (dhoti in Sanskrit) worn on the lower part is tucked under the Buddha. Its outstretched, pointed edges hang down over the throne in a wavy form. Such a delicate rendering of drapery can be also seen in late Goryeo Buddhist paintings.

Somewhat simplified expressions in the rendition of drapery and jewelry, however, suggest that this triad was created after the Goryeo period. In the case of the vest, its expression on the chest usually appears as a diagonal strap slightly sloping to the left in the 1200s, or as a more elaborate slinglike band in the 1300s.4 In the CMA triad, on the other hand, the vest is rendered as a simple horizontal strap without distinction from the sashed panel of the inner garment. Such a simplification is generally found in the 1400s. In the detailed expression of the jewelry in the CMA triad, we can detect simplification. As shown in the Dongguk triad, bodhisattvas made in the 1300s of the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392) are splendidly ornamented by various jewelry. The necklace, for example, consists of a long central garland and neighboring short bilateral garlands with beads, and the similar form of bejeweled garlands on both knees.5  However, the necklace in the CMA triad is notably simplified to the extent that the shape is spotted only by round dots, a feature that makes it hard to date the work earlier than the 1400s.

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Met Buddha

Finally, the CMA triad features new Sino-Tibetan stylistic traits, which developed in the 1400s in the Chinese Ming dynasty. The Seated Buddha, dated 1411, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is an excellent example of Sino-Tibetan style developed in Ming China (Anonymous Gift, 1942, Accession Number: 42.151.4a, b). This Ming Chinese Buddhist statue has a wide head outlined by the hairline that is slightly curved in the middle of the forehead. Above the head is a raised conical protuberance (uṣṇīṣa in Sanskrit), on which lies a jeweled bead. Such features, claimed to be typical Tibetan elements, are strongly echoed in the Amitâbha Buddha of the CMA triad.6  A triangular fold formed on the left collar of the outer garment in the Met’s seated buddha, a prominent mark of the early Ming style of Buddha statues, can also be found in the left collar of the inner garment in the CMA Amitâbha.7

The Amitâbha Buddhas produced in the second half of the 1400s in the Joseon period share elements with the Ming Buddha statue at the Met. They include the wooden seated Amitâbha Buddha of Heukseok Monastery (흑석사) dated to 1458 and the wooden seated Amitâbha Buddha of Cheonju Monastery (천주사) dated to 1482. The much-simplified expression of pleats on the legs in the Cleveland Amitâbha also find similarity in the gilt-bronze Amitâbha Buddha of Sujong Monastery (수종사) dated to 1459–93.

All stylistic and iconographic features, which I examined above, strongly suggest that the CMA Amitâbha triad is a Buddhist statuette commissioned by ruling elites in the last quarter of the 1400s. This rare piece made in the transitional period from the Goryeo to the Joseon period splendidly resonates with both the delicate style of the late Goryeo Buddhist art and a vibrant artistic spirit of the newly founded Joseon dynasty.