Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Avalokiteshvara (Bodhisattva & Buddhist Deity) - Chaturbhuja (4 hands)

སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས། 观音菩萨
(item no. 88569)
Origin Location Mongolia
Date Range 1700 - 1799
Lineages Buddhist
Material Metal
Collection Private
Notes about the Central Figure

Alternate Names: Lokeshvara Avalokita Lokanata Lokanatha Mahakarunika

Classification: Deity

Appearance: Peaceful

Gender: Male

Interpretation / Description

Avalokiteshvara, Chaturbhuja (Tibetan: chen re zi, chag shi pa. English: the All Seeing Lord with Four Hands).

Video: Zanabazar Style Sculpture

Avalokiteshvara is commonly referred to as the patron bodhisattva of Tibet and is included in all the various Buddhist traditions. He is the personification of compassion. In the Sanskrit language he is referred to as Lokeshvara, Avalokita, or Avalokiteshvara. Although originating in the Sutra texts of Mahayana Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara is also a Tantric meditational deity. In the Tantra systems there are numerous New (Sarma) lineages and varying forms of practice found in the different Tibetan Traditions. These numerous lineages and forms span all four tantric classifications of Kriya, Charya, Yoga and Anuttarayoga, as well as uncounted early Oral (Kama) and Treasure (Terma) traditions belonging to the Nyingma School.

Avalokiteshvara can appear in any number of forms - peaceful or wrathful. He also manifests various forms for the purposes of wealth generation, healing, long-life, preventing bad dreams, averting the eight misfortunes or dangers, and protection. Early Tantric references for Avalokiteshvara are found in the Karandavyuha Sutra where the six syllable mantra, om mani padme hum, is first found. This sutra text is believed to have been translated into the Tibetan language in the 8th century.

The most common form of the deity found in Tibetan, Himalayan and Mongolian art is the one faced, white coloured, four-armed, and seated Avalokiteshvara. This form represents a meditational deity popular with Buddhists in India and later with Buddhists to the North of India and beyond.

"As the nature of all buddhas, Avalokiteshvara, in colour like stainless conch and crystal, very resplendent, smiling, peaceful and radiant. With four hands the first are folded at the heart, the lower hold a crystal mala [prayer beads] and jewelled lotus, two beautiful feet seated in vajra posture, adorned with many attractive silks and jewels, beautified with dark blue hair in tufts, [some] loose. On the crown of the head, the wisdom of all Buddhas, is the Lord, source of all refuge gathered as one, in essence the Guru in the aspect of Amitabha, in the manner of the Lord of the Family, seated happily." (Ngorchen Konchog Lhundrub 1497-1557).

The four-armed form of Avalokiteshvara can be found as a single figure. In early sculpture and painting he is accompanied by the two attendant figures of Manidharin and Shadakshari. The first is male and the second is female. In recent centuries the two attendant figures have been less popular and no longer commonly found in the art of Tibet and surrounding regions.

The Sanskrit term 'bodhisattva' is important in the Mahayana Sutras as practiced in Northern Buddhism (North India, Tibet, Himalayan regions, Mongolia, and China). The meaning of 'bodhisattva' is the defining term in the definition of Mahayana Buddhism - distinguishing it from other forms of Buddhism such as the Theravada of South Asia.

In art, the term bodhisattva is used to describe a peaceful god-like appearance based on the deities of classical Indian literature and the gods of the Hindu pantheon. As described in the literature of the Buddhist Sutras and Tantras, male and female figures are portrayed as beautiful, wearing silks and jewels, playful and relaxed in posture and depicted in the bloom of youth, sixteen years of age. Gender is often difficult to distinguish. Avalokiteshvara is a good example of this subject.

Bodhisattva appearance, peaceful appearance, and god-like appearance are all synonymous and are included as one of the Eleven Figurative Appearances in Himalayan and Tibetan art. As a religious term 'bodhisattva' means a heroic aspirant to enlightenment. A bodhisattva is a practitioner of the 'enlightenment thought' which is the motivation to achieve complete enlightenment as a perfect Buddha for the benefit of oneself and all other sentient beings in all of existence.

Based on spiritual attainment bodhisattvas are divided into two groups: first, there are ordinary people. Second, there are the special students of the Buddha, special bodhisattvas, spoken of in the ancient Mahayana Sutras. Examples of these, referred to by the title of bodhisattva or great (maha) bodhisattva, are Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Maitreya.

The aspiration to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all beings has three special similes to characterize three mental attitudes used in accomplishing the goal of enlightenment. The three are (1) King-like, (2) Captain-like and (3) Shepherd-like. The King-like attitude has the intention to lead all beings by example and reach enlightenment first - bringing all beings safely along behind. The Captain-like attitude, just like a good ships captain, brings everybody on board together, and as a group safely crosses over the ocean of worldly existence to enlightenment. With the Shepherd-like attitude the flocks of beings are ushered ahead while the bodhisattva guides from behind. The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is famous for the Shepherd-like attitude. Shakyamuni Buddha as a bodhisattva was an example of the King-like attitude.

This very fine sculpture of Avalokiteshvara belongs to what is called the Zannabazar School of Mongolian art. Zannabazar is the Mongolian pronunciation of the Sanskrit name 'jnana vajra' and means 'yeshe dorje' in the Tibetan language. Zannabazar was a Mongolian Lama of the late 17th and early 18th century. On his first visit to Lhasa with the intention to meet the 5th Dalai Lama, he also met with Nepalese artists and convinced a large group of artisans to return with him to Mongolia. These artists along with the artistic and aesthetic preferences of Zannabazar created the 'Zannabazar School' of art - primarily represented by sculpture. The style of sculpture was later copied and re-copied by Mongolian artists up to and including the 20th century.

The representations of Mongolian sculpture from this school and this period are technically precise and in some ways almost perfect. The proportions are exact but not stiff. The ornamentation and jewelry are repetitive but not boring. The lotus base of the sculpture is unique with three rings at the bottom and the double lotus above which gives extra height to the figure. Mongolian sculpture is not solid cast in one piece but rather cast as many pieces and then assembled and fastened together with the use of metal studs. The studs are later concealed by careful grinding and polishing of the remaining remnants of the cast and then generously covered with a thick gold gilding.

There are many fine examples of Zannabazar School sculpture in the museums of Mongolia and found in collections around the world. The Avalokiteshvara sculpture with four arms must surely be counted among the group of the very finest ever produced by this artistic school. Specifically for the subject of Chaturbhuja Avalokiteshvara, this sculpture appears to be the most perfect example ever produced, by any artistic tradition, both for technical precision and exquisite form. The proportions of the body are exact and the overall presence and beauty make this sculpture a precious artistic treasure.

(Written for the publication and exhibition catalogue: Exhibition of Quintessence of Returning Tibetan Cultural Relics from Oversea. Beijing, China, July 2012).

Jeff Watt, July 7th, 2012

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Sculpture: Zanabazar Style (Chaturbhuja Lokeshvara)