- Museum number
Painting illustrating the Vimalakirti Sutra, which tells of the debate between the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī and the layman Vimalakirti. The debate is shown in the middle of the composition, Vimalakirti is in his canopied sickbed on the left, faced by Mañjuśrī on the right. Multitudes listening to their debate include rulers and their attendants, including a Tibetan king. A preaching Buddha, bodhisattvas and four lokapalas (guardian kings) are also present. Ink and colour on silk.
- Production date
- 751-800 (circa)
Height: 140 centimetres
Width: 115.50 centimetres
- Curator's comments
From Whitfield 1982:
This painting represents one of the subjects that were most popular at Dunhuang, namely the visit of the Bodhisattva Manjusri to the layman Vimalakirti and their ensuing debate, as described in the Vimalakirti-sutra, of which several Chinese translations were available, the most likely one for the present painting being that made by Kumarajiva in A.D.406. There are three illustrations of the Vimalakirti-sutra in the Stein collection: the silk painting here, Stein painting 31*(Vol.2, Pl.53), which shows Manjusri alone, and Stein painting 76, a sketch of a complete composition, but split into several parts (Vol.2,Figs.86-88). Although the wall paintings at Dunhuang, as well as representations at Yungang, Longmen, and so on, testify to the great popularity of the Vimalakirti-sutra in China, there do not appear to be other versions on silk or paper. The painting shown here, although in a fragmentary state, is therefore especially valuable.
The majority of illustrations to the sutra (including apparently Stein paintings 31* and 76) are divided into two parts. In most of the wall paintings at Dunhuang, Vimalakirti and Manjusri are placed on either side of the entrance to the cave, where the worshipper would see them as he left. This arrangement doubtless both suited the narrower spaces available on the entrance wall and provided a proper subject for the faithful after contemplation of the paradise scenes on the main walls of the cave. In at least two of the wall paintings (Matsumoto, 1937, Pl.46) and in the present painting, however, the whole subject is presented in a single composition (cf. especially Cave 335, Chugoku Sekkutsu, vl.3, Pl.61).
The actual debate between Vimalakirti and Manjusri takes place in the middle of the painting, in front of the red brick wall of the city of Vaisali. Vimalakirti, his head turned towards Manjusri, is on the left, in a roofed and curtained bed. He is seated cross-legged in a relaxed position, his left arm perhaps supported on a rest and holding a fan. Manjusri is seated on a lotus throne under which is a square platform supported by lions (Fig.61). In front these are portrayed, as in Stein painting 31*(Vol.2, Pl.53), in the openings of a wooden stand, but beyond the receding side the lion appears to be outside this framework and standing erect instead of crouching.
Below Vimalakirti and Manjusri on either side, as well as the Four Guardian Kings and other Bodhisattvas, are the rulers and their attendants who have come to hear the debate. Those on the left side are more clearly visible, and obviously show a Tibetan king, or btsan-po, and his entourage(Pl.20-2). The king wears a robe with long sleeves and a collar with lapels folded back on either side, revealing several layers. On his head is the fluted turban of a btsan-po. Behind him an attendant holds a parasol, and in front two more, wearing wide turbans and long sleeves and collars trimmed with fur, lead the way. They resemble one of the figures in the scroll showing the contest between Sariputra and Raudraksa, from the Pelliot collection. Comparison can also be made with representations of Tibetan kings in Caves 158 and 159, both dating from the period of Tibetan occupation at Dunhuang (cf. Karmay, 1977). Other figures in the entourage recall the costumes of the foreign envoys in the wall paintings found in the tomb of Li Xian (Prince Zhang Huai) near Xi’an, of the early eighth century (Tang Li Xian mu bihua, Pl.25).
At the top of the painting, over the wall of the city of Vaisali, are other scenes connected with different parts of the Vimalakirti-sutra. In the center, accompanied by Bodhisattvas, is the Buddha. In front of him kneel five men, each of them wearing a three-pronged crown (indicating noble or princely birth) and holding a canopy. They represent the five hundred sons of elders who presented precious canopies to the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, as described in the opening chapter of the sutra. On close inspection these are seen to be supported on clouds which issue from the right hand of a small standing figure of Vimalakirti, who is seen at the extreme right and left. Thus they can be identified as some of the miracles performed by Vimalakirti in the course of the debate. At the left these manifestations include Mt. Sumeru, with the sun and moon (Pl.20-3), and three “lion thrones” which descend towards the assembly, representing the thirty-two thousand lion thrones magically provided by Vimalakirti for the assembly. On the right, the three bowls in front of the Buddha assembly indicate the fragrant rice, brought by nine million transcendent Bodhisattvas, again through the agency of Vimalakirti.
It is chiefly as an illustration of the sutra that this painting is of interest, since the artist displays no more than mere competence in skill. His range of colours is somewhat limited, and a majority of the figures are seen in identical three-quarter view, with full-fleshed faces and the top-knot of the hair appearing as an almost circular blob (for this feature, cf. also Bannieres, No.20, in the Musee Guimet). With it goes a lack of subtlety in compositional arrangement that is particularly noticeable when figures are seen close together in a large group.
From Whitfield 1982:
- Not on display
- Associated events
- Associated Event: Manjusri-Vimalakirti debate
- Associated titles
Associated Title: Vimalakirti Sutra
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- For full acquisition history, see 1919,0101,0.1.
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Miscellaneous number: Ch.00350 (Stein no.)