Sarah Yeung J. S. Lee Memorial Fellow in Chinese Art
Section of a Dharani Pillar mid to late Tang period. China. Limestone; h. 50.2 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1929.983
This octagonal stone pillar, with its extraordinary carved figures and engraved inscriptions, is likely part of a dharani pillar built in China during the mid to late Tang dynasty (618–907). Each of the pillar’s eight facets is carved with a Buddhist figure in high relief. Six of them form two triads: the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni flanked by bodhisattvas Manjusri and Samantabhadra, and a standing buddha flanked by Avalokitesvara and an unidentified standing bodhisattva. These two triads are divided by two seated buddhas. Though damaged, the figures still reveal refined craftsmanship. For example, the Shakyamuni triad, which still preserves the original carving, shows well-modeled facial features and headdresses, and meticulously executed lines of hair and fluent drapery folds; the animal vehicles of the two bodhisattvas have detailed depiction of claws, teeth, and fur.
Some of the details—the clinging drapery, the tribent pose (tribhanga), the robust and energetic bodies, and Manjusri and Samantabhadra riding on animal vehicles—are in a style prevalent since the early eighth century. Near the top of each facet is a two-line inscription engraved in regular script (kaisu), the most popular form of calligraphic script during the Tang period. Unlike the figures, the calligraphy of the inscriptions suggests the continuity of an earlier style. The oblique characters, undulating horizontal strokes, and fluid brushstrokes with variations in width all recall the style of the early Tang master Chu Suiliang (596–658), whose calligraphy remained influential after his death.
The inscription on facet one states that Wang Siqing, the patron of the Buddhist figure, with his mother, wife, and son, dedicates the deity to his deceased father.
In content, the eight inscriptions are eulogies dedicated by eight families to deceased parents and written in the same syntax. Since the Northern Wei period (386–534), paying tribute to the dead by patronizing Buddhist sculptures or figures on Buddhist steles had been widely practiced. But beginning in the early eighth century, tributes to the dead were increasingly paid by commissioning dharani pillars. This new type of stone monument, usually an octagonal pillar with many tiers carved with Buddhist figures and dharanis, was very popular in the mid Tang through the Song (960–1279) periods.
The Eight Facets (from right to left, following the Buddhist ritual clockwise circumambulation): Samantabhadra (the bodhisattva associated with virtue), Shakyamuni (the Historical Buddha), Manjusri (the bodhisattva associated with transcendent wisdom), a seated buddha, Avalokitesvara (the bodhisattva associated with kindness), a standing buddha, a standing bodhisattva, and a seated buddha
Dharanis—originally mnemonic devices of early Indian Buddhism—were a form of spell in Esoteric Buddhism purportedly possessed of supernatural power when being recited or borne and were incorporated into sutras as dharani-sutras, among which the Buddha Usnisa Vijaya Dharani Sutra (The Honored and Victorious Dharani of Buddha’s Usnisa) was the most popular during the Tang period. This sutra introduces the Usnisa Vijaya Dharani to help sentient beings prolong life and to destroy the hardships of samsara (the eternal cycle of life) and the realms of hell. To gain these benefits one can place a copy of the dharani inside a pagoda or tall building, on a high mountain, or on a chuang, a banner holder decorated with layers of fabric canopies. Even simpler is just to look at or stand in the shadow of a dharani-borne chuang or be touched by air-borne dust from a chuang.
With such immense power, and with translation from Sanskrit into Chinese available to the court and the public in the late seventh century, the Usnisa Vijaya Dharani gained popularity and became a cult reaching every social stratum, when the emperor Daizong (reigned 762–779) issued an edict ordering monks and nuns to recite it daily. In addition, the traditional Chinese belief in the afterlife melded perfectly with the Buddhist concept of hell. This mixed yet compatible belief further accentuated the hardship in the afterlife and compelled people to find the most powerful and accessible help.
In use since the early eighth century, dharani pillars (also called sutra pillars and believed to have developed from chuang) became the dominant bearers of the Usnisa Vijaya Dharani. Given its octagonal form and mortuary inscriptions, the Cleveland stone pillar is probably a tier of such a dharani pillar, though, like many extant dharani pillars, the Buddhist figures are of the Open Teaching rather than specifically of the Esoteric type.
Dharani Pillar 887. Foguangsi, Shanxi, China. Stone; h. over 400 cm. From SASKIA Ltd., Cultural Documentation. Liang Ssu-ch’eng, A Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, c. 1984), fig. 71a.
Tang dharani pillars generally have three sections: the pedestal, major shaft, and capital. The capital consists of an overhanging tier right above the major shaft that imitates the canopy of a chuang and includes elements such as a minor shaft, canopies, and a jewel at the top. The major shaft, normally more than one meter high (about 3 feet), bears the scriptures followed by inscriptions of the major patrons. The pedestal is the foundation for the monument, and its common design imitates the “Sumeru throne” for Buddhist sculptures, which has a constricted middle shaft in between two ornate lotus-shape slabs. Middle shafts were usually carved with Buddhist deities open for minor patronage when a dharani pillar was not commissioned privately and dedicated to a single deceased person.
The Cleveland pillar is either the middle shaft of a pedestal, or the minor shaft of a capital of a dharani pillar. Its size deserves attention. As part of a pedestal, it is relatively higher than the other extant examples. Should it be the minor shaft of a capital, it would be part of a very tall dharani pillar. Indeed, from the mid Tang through the Song period, there was a tendency to commission taller dharani pillars (5 or more meters high) at the intersection of avenues or inside the temples to get the maximum shadow and hence the supernatural power.
Regardless of the tier to which it belonged, the Cleveland pillar exhibits exceptional attention to design and craftsmanship that differs significantly from the majority of the extant archaeological findings, which are of lesser quality. One can imagine how marvelous the original monument might have been.
Cleveland Art, July/August 2011