Stele Commissioned by Helian Ziyue (赫蓮子悅) and a Devotional Society of Five Hundred Individuals
A decisive episode from the Sutra on the Discourse of Vimalakirti is given dramatic and complex treatment on the upper half of this stele. The scene (a debate) takes place in a windblown landscape, as indicated by the trees at center and in the background. Vimalakirti (Weimo) sits in a curtained and tasseled pavilion at right, attended by fourteen figures; Manjushri (Wenshu) is accompanied by thirty attendants. Standing to either side of the two trees at center are the monk Shariputra and a female figure, who together represent the scene's most dramatic moment:
Shariputra transforms himself into a woman and then changes back to his original form to demonstrate the impermanence and irrelevance of gender or any other state of being—one of the main points of the sutra. This is also one of the many moments in which the learned Vimalakirti trounces the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.
Above the debate scene, a Buddha sits in a columned niche attended by two bodhisattvas; below, two monks kneel to either side of an elaborate incense burner that is supported by a pair of caryatids. The two figures standing between the guardians and the censer-one holding a bird, the other a skull-are standard images in Chinese Buddhist sculpture and represent two Indian ascetics.
The long and exceptionally abstruse inscription on the front of the stele indicates that it was commissioned by a devotional society headed by Helian Ziyue (ca. 501–573), who is shown kneeling just right of center in the upper row of figures. He is a rare example of a donor whose name is both mentioned on a work of Buddhist art and identifiable in Chinese historical writings. His family included the chieftain of a tribe originally based in the Ordos region. In the fifth century members of this clan were incorporated into, or possibly married into, the ruling Northern Wei dynasty. After the dissolution of the Northern Wei, Helian Ziyue was placed in charge of a group of subjugated rebels and settled in northern Henan province.
The many rubbings taken from the front of the stele have left its surface noticeably darker. It is likely that this side of the stele was recarved at some point in its history, as evidenced by the awkwardly rendered faces of some symbolic portraits and in details such as the lotus pedestal supporting the incense burner at top.
This artwork is meant to be viewed from right to left. Scroll left to view more.