Soft beauty in hard castings: presence of bodhi in Shanxi
The province of Shanxi, located in the heart of China, maintains a deep connection with Buddhism that has been forged over the centuries. Among his most beautiful and spiritually significant contributions to Buddhist art and culture are the iron bodhisattvas. These statues, sometimes more than a millennium old, are not only marvels of religious craftsmanship, but also carry deep symbolism within the Chinese Mahayana Buddhist tradition.
The story of the iron bodhisattvas
The origins of iron bodhisattvas date back to the Han dynasty (202 BC). Revered for its spiritual power, the iron bodhisattva serves as an altar centerpiece, providing a focal point for devotion and prayer in Chinese Buddhism. It exists also elements of syncretism characteristic of ancient Chinese popular spirituality. According to the principles of feng shuiplacing the Iron Bodhisattva in the center is believed to improve who flow, thus bringing prosperity and good fortune to the donors and the emperor. Creating an Iron Bodhisattva requires commitment and finesse, as well as a solid knowledge of Buddhist philosophical principles. Made from molds, these statues are representations of the principal celestials of the Mahayana pantheon. Historically, once cooled, iron castings were gilded or gilded, creating resplendent figures that reflected the sacredness of their role. However, during tumultuous times, such as the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 561–578), these icons were desecrated: stripped of their gold and reduced to scraps in an attempt to suppress Buddhism while confiscating the riches of the temple.
The embodiment of compassion and wisdom
But why bodhisattvas rather than the more traditional central figure of respect, the Buddha? Bodhisattvas are at the heart of Mahayana Buddhism, elevated to positions beyond other traditions like Theravada. These are beings who generated bodhicittathe spirit of enlightenment (or the aspiration towards it), and have chosen to postpone their own entry into Nirvana in order to help others achieve enlightenment.
The oldest existing iron bodhisattva statues may date from the 5th century CE. They represent a confluence of typically Chinese ideas and aesthetics. Buddhism, although of Indian origin, found in its philosophy, metaphysics and ethics a sympathetic ear in various medieval Chinese circles, where it mingled with the dominant Confucian and Taoist philosophies. The resulting Chinese Buddhist cultural system was deeply engraved in the religious beliefs, philosophical ideas, and artistic expressions of the nation and people. In the Shanxi region, the making of iron bodhisattvas became a physical manifestation of this spiritual ideal, embodying compassion and wisdom in a form that could be worshiped by devotees.
We cannot talk about iron bodhisattvas without mentioning two temples on Mount Wutai, located in the northeast corner of Wutai County, Xinzhou City, Shanxi Province, northeast China. Wutaishan is a sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site where the qīng miào (青廟) of Han Chinese Buddhism and huang miao (黃廟) of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism share the same mountain, where Mahayana monks and Vajrayana lamas can chant the scriptures together. It is probably the most famous of the four great Buddhist mountains of China. On June 26, 2009, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This renowned mountain has been revered as the home of the Bodhisattva Manjushri since medieval times and still attracts a steady stream of pilgrims today, with some of the most important figures in contemporary Chinese Buddhism having temples or practice centers on the mountain. It holds a special place in the hearts of pilgrims and art historians.
Nestled between the north of the south terrace of Mount Wutai and the south of the central terrace, the Golden Pavilion temple (jingesi;金閣寺), not to be confused with its more famous counterpart in Kyoto, stands at the highest point of the five major peaks of Mount Wutai, at an altitude of 1 meters, where the climate is cold and the winds are sharp as knives.
The construction of the Golden Pavilion Temple, completed in 766 by Master Hanguang, was an undertaking of national importance, supported by the devotion of the entire country, from the imperial family – who supported Chinese esoteric Buddhism – to the commoners . The temple was completed after five years of extensive work, resulting in a majestic multi-tiered structure whose golden roof shone over the valley, hence the name Golden Pavilion Temple.
The main attraction of the temple is the 17,7 meter high statue of the Thousand-Handed Guanyin or Avalokiteshvara, a magnificent work of art that dominates the Great Hall of Compassion. Made with an inner bronze statue and an outer layer of fine clay coated in gold, the Guanyin image is both spiritually impressive and artistically stunning. This statue is not only unique on Mount Wutai, but also a rare artistic marvel in all of China, second only to the large copper Buddha statues at Tashilhunpo Monastery in Tibet and Zhengding in Hebei.
The story of the Iron Bodhisattva reflects China's timeless spiritual aesthetics and artistic expression. The Golden Pavilion Temple and its grand Guanyin statue are not mere relics of the past but living embodiments of a cultural pilgrimage that continues to attract visitors from around the world, seeking solace and inspiration.
The Manjushri Hall of a Thousand Bowls inside Xiantong Temple on Mount Wutai is another example of a classical iron bodhisattva. Xiantong Temple was built between 58 and 75 CE, during the Eastern Han Dynasty. The hall has three sections to the west, is 13 meters wide and 9 meters deep, with a mountain-style hard roof with rolled eaves. In the center of the hall, on the main altar, is an unusual gilded bronze statue of Manjushri, measuring 5,4 meters high, which was cast in the ninth year of the Wanli era of the Ming dynasty (1581).
This bronze statue of Bodhisattva Manjushri has a unique design, with five layers of heads stacked on top of each other, with each layer having three faces decreasing in size from bottom to top. Although the faces are not exactly the same, they all shine with bright eyes and convey intelligence, radiating a beauty not found in the common. Manjushri is depicted in a half-lotus position seated on a lion, dressed in exquisite celestial attire, with a seven-jeweled Buddha crown on his head.
Many arms extend out to the sides of his body, and from each arm sprout countless hands, said to add up to a thousand. Each hand holds a golden bowl and each bowl contains a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha. Therefore, the Thousand-Bowl Manjushri is also known as the “Thousand-Armed Thousand-Bowl Bodhisattva Shakyamuni Manjushri Statue”. Whether it is the arms or the hands, all parts of the celestial body are plump and tender, exuding the vitality of youth. Both hands down, one shakes a bronze bell, and the other holds a vajra scepter. Both the bell and the scepter are ritual instruments used to remind people to awaken from their samsaric confusion and behave according to Dharma.
This Ming Dynasty sculpture, with its graceful form and exquisite craftsmanship, is a masterpiece of Chinese Buddhist art and is extremely valuable to scholars, pilgrims and devotees.
An iron legacy
Shanxi’s iron bodhisattva statues demonstrate China’s enduring spiritual and artistic heritage. The iron Avalokiteshvara of the Golden Pavilion Temple and the iron Manjushri of Xiantong Temple embody the synthesis of compassion and wisdom that lies at the heart of Mahayana Buddhism. Standing amid the serene peaks of Mount Wutai, these metal monuments have stood the test of time, echoing the ancient chants of monks and the fervent prayers of pilgrims. They are not mere relics but active symbols of mercy, inviting modern visitors to participate in a timeless quest for enlightenment.
As we reflect on these majestic creations, we are reminded of the profound cultural heritage of Chinese Buddhism, which continues to inspire and strengthen the human spirit. The iron bodhisattvas of Shanxi, in their silent majesty, invite us to look within and move forward, carrying the light of their legacy into the future.