Dry lacquer with traces of gilt and pigment
H. 38 in. (96.5 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1919 (19.186)
The position of the arms, which indicate that the hands were held in the lap in a gesture of meditation, suggests that this sculpture represents Amitabha, a celestial Buddha who presides over the Pure Land, or paradise, of Sukhavati, in the western quadrant of the cosmos. Devotion to this Buddha and the desire for rebirth in his Pure Land has been a major component of Chinese Buddhist practice since at least the sixth century. This branch of Buddhism, which stresses the impossibility of achieving enlightenment during a life lived under less-than-ideal circumstances, promotes the desire for rebirth in Amitabha's Pure Land, a way station in which conditions are conducive to the quest for spiritual understanding.
The sculpture was made using the complicated dry lacquer technique, in which a core, often wood, is covered with clay and surrounded by pieces of hemp cloth that have been saturated with lacquer. Lacquer, the resin of a family of trees found in southern China, is a natural plastic that hardens or polymerizes when exposed to oxygen. In a nearly lifesize work such as this example, seven or eight such layers, each of which dries individually, are used to create the sculpture. In the eighth century, this time-consuming technique spread from China to Japan, where it was widely used for the production of Buddhist sculptures.