For my first assignment as a summer intern at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, I was asked to research this monumental Chinese Buddhist stele, which is being considered for a future exhibition on Buddhist art. Steles were created to commemorate the Buddhist faith and proliferated during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535 CE). At the bottom of this stele, the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni sits cross-legged with hands in dhyani mudra, flanked by bodhisattvas and ascetic figures.
The stele’s repetitive pattern is known as the “Thousand Buddhas” (qianfo), characterized by rows of small Buddha figures on the front and back. It’s one of the most important motifs in Northern Wei Buddhist art. According to scholars, it reflects the notion that the cosmos is filled with innumerable realms, which are all simultaneously inhabited by Buddhas. The motif supports the omnipresence of Buddha and Buddha-nature. Many experts propose that the motif is related to the practice of visualization and recitation during Buddhist practice. While there is room for debate on the meaning of the Thousand Buddhas, the inscription provides a concrete example of the hopes of the stele’s sponsors, including their good wishes for the emperor, hope for the spread of Buddhism, and request for peace.
After about a month of reading and researching, I was finally able to view the stele in Sackler storage. It is a remarkable experience to see an object after learning about its many details. It reminded me of meeting a penpal for the first time or reuniting with a childhood friend. I was immediately able to relate all of my research to the physical object in front of me. For instance, I knew to look for the bodhisattva to the right of Shakyamuni who holds a bottle of healing water, indicating that he is Avalokiteshvara. Once I finally saw the stele in person, a wave of complete comprehension and appreciation washed over me. What began as a simple research project evolved into a rewarding, thought-provoking experience.