The Art of Compassion - The Lessons of Buddhist Sculpture Reach Out to Us Across the Ages, says Edward Wilkinson

If compassion were a facial expression, what would it look like? This might seem an odd question. Surely compassion is compassion, something that should naturally show on your face when you perform an act of kindness, when you feel for someone else or even – in the word's Latin root compati – suffer with them.

As Confucius famously put it, "The feeling of compassion is the origin of humanity." Compassion is one of the special human characteristics that transcends religions, cultures and eras – it is, quite simply, universal to humanity.

In ancient times, religious sculpture was artfully crafted to inspire people to feel compassion – especially in the many Buddhist traditions, with compassion being one of the virtues that must be cultivated on the way to Buddhahood.

The eight sculptures that are offered by Bonhams Hong Kong in October's sale The Path of Compassion: Masterpieces of Buddhist Sculpture, represent deities linked to their own particular type of kindness. In the current world, where love and compassion are more needed than ever, we can gain inspiration by revisiting these ancient inspirations.

Who's who in the firmament
A guide to a pantheon of deities and their special attributes

Seated Avalokitesvara
Seated in an unusual relaxed manner, this bodhisattva may in fact represent Ratnapani or a form of Manjushri that cannot be defined due to the missing attribute that would have been held in his left hand. The figure belongs to a group created by Newari artisans that has mostly survived in Tibet. Massive in scale, solid cast in almost pure copper, its gilded surface has been worn smooth from a millennium of ritual handling. The artist has successfully conveyed the transcendent stillness in the bodhisattva's expression by setting between elegant curved lids the deeply recessed eyes, with carefully incised irises and pupils. These give him a transfixing gaze of empyrean authority.

This corpulent deity is an example of the lasting impression of the Indian Pala style on Tibetan sculpture from the 11th to the early 14th century. Iconographic details identifying the figure include the jewel-disgorging mongoose in his left hand, and the bijapuraka fruit in his right. Preserved with a buttery smooth patina from centuries of veneration, the figure is best described by the mantra for Yellow Jambhala: "Lord of Wealth, possessing a treasure of jewels, master of all wealth owned by yakshas..."

After years of monastic life, Virupa wandered as a yogi and performed a number of famous miracles. Here
his gesture – pointing with the right hand, commonly adopted by the Sakya when depicting this master – refers to the story of him stopping the Sun. One day Virupa stumbled into a tavern and began enjoying the food and wine. Being asked for payment, he promised to settle the bill once the sun had crossed a line he drew on the floor. However, he mischievously pointed to the sun and trapped it in its course so he could keep feasting and drinking for days.

Considered to be one of the most exuberant examples among all portraits of Virupa known, he is defined by his beautifully proportioned body, his finely articulated coiffure, and the prominent yet delicate floral garland that hugs the swelling contours of his body. The base plate has not been disturbed: such important commissions normally have precious relics secreted inside.

Mahapratisara is the chief deity of the Pancha Raksha, a group of five female protector deities who are the personifications of five early Buddhist sutras. She is evoked to protect against a variety of dangers and to bestow rebirth in heaven, and is also believed to have protected Buddha's wife Yasodhara during the six years of her pregnancy. Sculpted in silver, this gem- like figure of Mahapratisara is of the finest quality found in the 17th century, and reflects the synthesis of Tibetan and Nepalese styles. Her well-formed array of arms radiate elegantly and naturally, with those on her right slightly lower than the left, corresponding to the gentle sway of her torso.

Canda Vajrapani
One of the most ancient deities, Vajrapani is believed to have evolved from the Indian Vedic deity Indra, King of Heaven and the bringer of rains. This fearsome figure bears many iconographic details beyond his common representations from the period, including his hand gesture, the prominent striding figure in his hair, two large severed heads suspended from the flaming mandorla that encircles the deity, and the presence of elephants and lions under his feet. Nearly perfectly preserved, this masterpiece of early Tibetan sculpture is imbued with a talismanic potency that may connect the artist or patron to Tibet's pre-Buddhist Bon tradition.

Swat pensive bodhisattva
Considered one of the iconic poses in early Buddhist art, the pensive bodhisattva – whose deep, penetrating gaze is magnified in this piece by silver-inset eyes – contemplates the suffering of all beings. This bodhisattva is cast in the round, and framed with a separately cast backplate with two attendants. Of particular note is the basketry stool, which is finished in exquisite detail. It is a feature that is not shared by any other sculpture of the period or before, placing this masterpiece at the pinnacle of Swat Valley metal culture in the 7th/8th century.

Silver Manjushri
Manjushri is the bodhisattva of wisdom, one of the most popular deities of the Buddhist pantheon. With
a blue lotus by his shoulder and tiger-claw pendant on his necklace, this baby-faced Manjushri is a rare form originating in the Mahayana sutras. Solid cast with parcel-gilt silver, he is rendered with great sensitivity. The delicately incised gilded lower garment and jewellery provide a striking contrast to his fleshy torso, limbs and cheeks. The weight and jewel-like quality
of the statue when you hold it in your hands gives the impression of a much larger presence – it is a joy to engage with at the intimate level for which it was made.

This esoteric deity's function is uncertain, but
there is no doubt the mesmerising sculpture was specially commissioned for an advanced practitioner. Because his two primary hands are crossed in the thunderbolt-sound (vajrahumkara) gesture, he is probably associated with the equally rare deity Trailokyavijaya and was most likely used by an adept seeking to overcome inner obstacles. Only a handful of examples of this deity are known, but its rarity is matched by the quality of the detailing, including a half-snarl and multi-tier crown.


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