Imagine walking through a cave along the silk road, a series of transportation routes, maybe you're transporting silk or pigment to a faraway city. As you walk along your long journey you are all of a sudden surrounded by beautiful paintings such as the Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha, and by generous people who offer nothing but hospitality to you, your fellow merchants and your family. I know that this would cause me to become overwhelmed as well as fascinated by the way of life of these people. So much so, That I might even consider conversion. I do believe that this is the purpose of this artwork, to draw and eventually convert those who travel the silk road to the religion of Buddhism.
The caves where this piece can be found is in Dunhuang, Gansu. This is Located in China as many tradesmen and merchants form this area, as well as others, used the paths laid out for trade. The silk road was first introduced in China with the Han Dynasty and was for internal trade within the Empire to different Asian tribes. This was an easy way to import and export goods and form relationships with other members of the empire. The silk road was eventually expanded as it connected the eastern and western world together. This lead to international trade for China, allowing them to import their goods across the world. The people of China at the time had religious freedom, however, there were two major religions that were followed there at the time. These were Buddhism and Daoism. Buddhism is more of a philosophy, a way of life.
The teachings of Buddha reveal a step by step path to lasting happiness. By following this path anyone can gradually transform his or her mind from its present confused and self-centered state into the blissful mind of a Buddha ( aboutbuddhism.org). The Buddha Amitabha, who is the Buddhist of eternal life, achieved enlightenment by establishing his pure land, the Western Paradise. This painting is the result of about a 1,000 years of work within these cave systems. They were completed from floor to ceiling and show extreme devotion to the Buddha, and may have even been a path that the artists were taking to achieve their own enlightenment. The Border of the painting holds some Islamic influence, as borders are prominent in a lot of Islamic works, especially in their carpets. However, this border holds more of an earthy feel rather than the geometric style of Islamic art.
The Border seems organic, especially running across the top and the bottom of the artwork, the design resembles tree branches, maybe to encompass the image within in a loving grasp from the tree of life. First impressions of this piece reveal how symmetrical the image is. The structure within may be the Tang Empire, which was governing China at the time. In the center of the image, the Buddha Amitabha sits cross-legged with one hand in his lap and one hand raised. This position, or pose, is known as the protection Buddha. The raised hand acts as a shield of protection, and as a persuasion to overcome fear. This pose would be extremely effective if you are trying to convert others to your religion, as it can be a scary endeavor.
The Buddha here offers safety to those who wish to disconnect from their previous religion and encourages them to overcome their doubts and fears and follow their heart. The Buddha is clothed in a toga, common clothes for the people of that time, and is not wearing any jewelry. This goes to show that he does not see riches as those of modern time do. Where others value these things, he values virtue, wisdom, and love. He is sitting on a lotus flower, which is a huge symbol in Buddhism. The lotus represents rebirth and finding enlightenment through the murky water.
He seems to be on a pedestal above a community bath which is known to have religious ties for a lot of different religions because cleanliness brings you closer to godliness. So, having a visual portrayal of the spiritual path that Buddhism takes you on while walking the physical path of the silk road was a pretty convincing conversion technique, as it gave people the illusion of actually walking the path to their own enlightenment.
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