After living in New York for a decade, you get past the more heavily trafficked rooms at The Met and find yourself in unexplored areas, like the Asian art wing. A huge stone slab with some intricate carvings there has become one of my favorite pieces in the whole museum, just for its sheer weirdness.
Here’s the text from the placard that describes what the object is:
“Stele Commissioned by Helian Ziyue and a Devotional Society of Five Hundred Individuals
“A decisive episode from the Sutra on the Discourse of Vimalakirti is given dramatic and complex treatment on the upper half of this stele. The scene (a debate) takes place in a windblown landscape, as indicated by the trees at center and in the background. Vimalakirti (Weimo) sits in a curtained and tasseled pavilion at right, attended by fourteen figures; Manjushri (Wenshu) is accompanied by thirty attendants. Standing to either side of the two trees at center are the monk Shariputra and a female figure, who together represent the scene’s most dramatic moment:
Shariputra transforms himself into a woman and then changes back to his original form to demonstrate the impermanence and irrelevance of gender or any other state of being—one of the main points of the sutra. This is also one of the many moments in which the learned Vimalakirti trounces the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.
Above the debate scene, a Buddha sits in a columned niche attended by two bodhisattvas; below, two monks kneel to either side of an elaborate incense burner that is supported by a pair of caryatids. The two figures standing between the guardians and the censer-one holding a bird, the other a skull-are standard images in Chinese Buddhist sculpture and represent two Indian ascetics.
The long and exceptionally abstruse inscription on the front of the stele indicates that it was commissioned by a devotional society headed by Helian Ziyue (ca. 501–573), who is shown kneeling just right of center in the upper row of figures. He is a rare example of a donor whose name is both mentioned on a work of Buddhist art and identifiable in Chinese historical writings. His family included the chieftain of a tribe originally based in the Ordos region. In the fifth century members of this clan were incorporated into, or possibly married into, the ruling Northern Wei dynasty. After the dissolution of the Northern Wei, Helian Ziyue was placed in charge of a group of subjugated rebels and settled in northern Henan province.
The many rubbings taken from the front of the stele have left its surface noticeably darker. It is likely that this side of the stele was recarved at some point in its history, as evidenced by the awkwardly rendered faces of some symbolic portraits and in details such as the lotus pedestal supporting the incense burner at top.”
And there you have it. A rebellion, an abstruse debate between divine beings, a secret society, a teaching about the impermanence of life, skulls and magical creatures, ancient chieftains, an imperial dynasty, and a pious Chinese squire, all in a dusty corner of a museum in New York City.
I have a name for this, “that spooky feeling of deep time,” when you bump up against some box full of history on your way somewhere else and out spills a treasury of things left over from some glittering part of the past that you’d never even heard of, but is a whole world in its own right. Perhaps our own world will seem that way to some far future museum-goer.