From China, Sui or Tang dynasty, 6th-7th century AD
An architectural representation of the Paradise of the historical Buddha
Buddhism originated in South Asia, and throughout its existence in China it remained essentially a foreign religion. Most indigenous Chinese rituals were concerned with the prosperity of society, whereas Buddhism was primarily concerned with personal salvation.
Two schools of Buddhism had developed in India: the Theravada, or the ‘tradition of the elders’ and the Mahayana, or 'greater vehicle'.
Theravada concentrated on the life of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Here the goal of the individual was to achieve enlightenment, by extinguishing desire in order to attain nirvana. Mahayana preached as its central aim the gradual salvation of all mankind with the assistance of bodhisattvas. Another body of teaching, the Vajrayana, established the role of five Buddhas, each of whom dwelt in a paradise. In China, the Buddha Amitabha, ruler of the Western Paradise, became the most important.
This stone lintel shows an early depiction of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, in his paradise. The half-moon of black stone would have been placed over the doorway of a temple or pagoda. Similar examples are found at the Great Goose Pagoda in Xi'an. At the centre of the half-moon sits Shakyamuni, surrounded by bodhisattvas and disciples. The jewelled trees and musicians in the cartouches below signify the bliss of paradise.