Surviving Nirvana: Death of the Buddha in Chinese Visual Culture. By Sonya S. Lee. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010. Pp. xv + 355. $50.00.
Article first published online: 7 MAR 2013
© 2013 Rice University
Religious Studies Review
Volume 39, Issue 1, pages 50–51, March 2013
How to Cite
Mai, C. T. (2013), Surviving Nirvana: Death of the Buddha in Chinese Visual Culture. By Sonya S. Lee. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010. Pp. xv + 355. $50.00. Religious Studies Review, 39: 50–51. doi: 10.1111/rsr.12019
- Issue published online: 7 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 7 MAR 2013
This history of the Chinese iconography of the recumbent Buddha in the death pose (“nirvana Buddha”) is a mature work of scholarship, masterly in its use of literary and inscriptional sources, thorough in the range of art historical source surveyed, and innovative in its methodological nuance. Lee eschews a broad historical narrative and opts to present an episodic history through four largely independent case studies that range from the sixth to the tenth centuries. Analyzing various uses of the “nirvana Buddha” theme in stele reliefs, cave temple murals, and relic deposits, Lee argues that the varied ritual and programmatic uses of the iconography enabled the medieval Chinese to “imagine and realize a utopian vision that reformulated the meaning of death.” Studiously avoiding the tendency to locate the meaning of visual culture in textual sources, Lee emphasizes polysemy, the diversity of local architectural settings, and the importance of the immediate positioning and size of the iconography within the larger programmatic context. Sometimes the image was paired with representations of Maitreya, thus emphasizing the continuation of the Dharma, and at other times the image could be used to sanctify the relics of eminent monks by way of a complex symbolic mimicry. To underscore the different ways that the image was put to use in varying local contexts, in each chapter Lee presents a detailed social and political history of the artifact studied. This richly illustrated, important scholarly contribution will reward close study by scholars of Chinese Buddhism and East Asian art history.