The Pensive Bodhisattva comes to Brussels

By Matthew Jackson

The centrepiece of the Bozar exhibition of Korean Buddhist Art, beginning in Brussels on the 10th of October, will be the Pensive Bodhisattva statue, Korea’s National Treasure No. 83. It is difficult to describe in words why the statue is regarded so highly as a work of Buddhist art, because its qualities consist primarily in simplicity and lack of detail.

Although words may be inadequate, the statue’s renown in Asia (not least of all Japan, whose No. 1 national treasure is a near exact wooden copy of the statue) is primarily due to the feelings that it evokes in those who see it.

There are various interpretations of the statue’s meaning, but scholars agree that it is intended to depict a moment in the life of the Buddha before he attained enlightenment. The story is it that he was watching farmers at work in the fields one day, and as he saw birds swooping down to catch insects which had been disturbed by the plough, he became aware of the sufferings of sentient beings.

With a peaceful smile illuminating its whole expression, the statue conveys the bliss of an egoless mental state. The slenderness of the statue’s upper body appears neither sensual nor earthly. All attention is drawn to the face, downcast eyes, and delicate fingers touching the cheek, expressing the spirit of the noble bodhisattva, meditating on how to ease the burden of humanity’s suffering.

The German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, expressed his thoughts on the sculpture as follows:

“I believe this is a symbol of the purest, most harmonious, all-enduring attitude of the human soul, which surpasses the temporal limitations of worldly affairs. This Buddhist sculpture symbolizes in its plainest form the ultimate ideal of permanent peace and harmony, to which every human heart aspires.” (“Beyond the Defeat of War”)

If unable to make it to Brussels, Korea or indeed Japan in the near future, you can watch a brief documentary on the Pensive Bodhisattva statue at this webpage (video entitled Gilt-bronze Meditating Bodhisattva). No need to take Karl Jaspers’ word for it.

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