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By Sonya Lee

The Buddha's nirvana marks one of many pivotal moments within the background of Buddhism. My publication explores how this occasion used to be made right into a robust allegory of survival in premodern China throughout the nirvana photo. In assorted settings, the motif pressured devotees to redefine what the Buddhist religion intended of their lives.

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Additional resources for Surviving Nirvana: Death of the Buddha in Chinese Visual Culture

Sample text

One telltale indicator of this development lies in the very nature of the nirvana theme. Unlike an individual figure of the Buddha, a complex motif like the nirvana image entails a highly individualistic iconography, which tends to resist any new meaning assigned to the image that is utterly outside the range of possible connotations in the original context. In this light, the selection of the “nirvana” image at the Jiangsu site likely signals a rudimentary understanding of it as a scene about the “death” of the Buddha.

Indeed, before this influx of Central Asian influence came to an end by the early fourth century, contacts with the outside world had already increased considerably at the individual level. The slightly later temporal bracket thus proposed for Kongwangshan puts us in a better position to assess the role of the Buddhist-related motifs within its overall thematic program. At the turn of the fourth century, Buddhism in China had yet to congeal into a systematic form of religious beliefs and institutions as we come to know it in the later period.

Indeed, what they sought to achieve through the stele was inextricably tied to the predicament of their own situation. 5 These general facts help put into perspective the deep sense of pessimism about the present age that the devotion to Maitreya as articulated on the stele already implies. Not coincidentally, the belief in the Future Buddha, which had gained prevalence in China since the fourth century, became intertwined with the prophecy concerning the imminent decline and demise of Buddhism that took hold of Buddhist communities countrywide from the mid sixth century onward.

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