This paper begins with two simple questions: Who is the humble figure that kneels in the middle of the Cave of Perfect Enlightenment (Baodingshan, Dazu County), a sculpture-filled grotto in southwestern China constructed during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries? More significantly, why is spectatorial attention focused on this enigmatic kneeler rather than the eminent buddhas he worships? Examining the visual program of this mesmerizing grotto and the kneeling figure’s place therein, this paper argues that the cave creates an idealized representation of a space of Buddhist ritual practice. Within this space, the kneeler, a figure that finds no exact counterpart in scriptural sources, comes both to enact perpetual reverence on behalf of absent worshippers and to solicit spectatorial identification; he thereby enables viewers to imagine themselves into the representational world of scriptural narrative and liturgical practice constructed in the cave. Drawing on Hans Belting’s recent work on image anthropology, this paper concludes by interrogating the triangular relationship among illusion, matter, and the mind that is thematized in the grotto. The cave, its source texts, and related rituals collectively seem to insist on the fundamental irrelevance of all media save the mind itself—which, I argue, points to the need to develop a specifically Buddhist theory of images, media, and bodies.
Phillip E. Bloom is Curator of the Chinese Garden and Director of the Center for East Asian Garden Studies, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA. Most recently Assistant Professor of East Asian art at Indiana University, Bloom holds his Ph.D. from Harvard University in the history of art and architecture. His research interests include Chinese Buddhist art of Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, theories of art and ritual, as well as the artistic and religious exchanges among the cultures of medieval East Asia.