The Sublime Sculptures of Undur Gegeen Zanabazar

Much of East Asian art history is undeniably linked to Buddhism, and Mongolia is no exception. The gilt-bronze sculptures of Gombodorjiin Ishdorj (1635–1723), better known as Undur Gegeen Zanabazar, a 17th-century Mongolian Head of State and Faith, are an integral part of Buddhist art history.

His sculptures express the human and divine qualities of the Buddha in exquisite harmony. They constitute valuable evidence of the culmination of diverse artistic traditions, styles, and techniques that were refined since the Yuan dynasty and concentrated in an extraordinary union of visionary talent and craftsmanship.

In general, Zanabazar’s Buddha sculptures are approximately 70 to 90 centimeters tall. They are usually seated, except for a few (e.g., Manzushri and Maitreya). The gilt-bronze sculptures are hollow and were possibly created through the lost-wax casting process. Their proportions adhere to the traditional Buddhist principles of ancient Indian iconometry. The Mongolian stylistic innovation is perhaps most prominent in the facial features, which are accentuated by their perfect symmetry.

One could describe Zanabazar’s Buddhas as having almond-shaped eyes with a beautifully serene, contemplative gaze; a youthful, rounded face with full cheeks; thin, curved eyebrows that gradually meld into the bridge of a slightly curved nose; a barely perceptible smile on the lips, which are not too much wider than the base of the nose; and elongated earlobes, stretched down by heavy earrings – characteristic of the Buddha’s good fortune.

Most sculptures have long hair, the top portion of which is usually swept up to form part of the sumptuous headdress with a magnificent crown. The long hair denotes the earthly roots and human beginnings of the Buddha. The hair is painted with a blue mineral pigment, which symbolizes eternity in Mongolian artistic traditions.

The idealized, full-dimensional body has a fit physique with a straight posture. The figures are dressed in fine silk on the bottom; a delicate ribbon-like sash drapes over one or both shoulders. The sculptures are adorned with stunning jewelry on the neck, arms, ankles, and waist. The Buddhas are commonly seated on a lotus throne, symbolizing the purity of an enlightened mind arising from suffering.

Meditation is one of the central practices of Buddhism. Focusing on the body trains the mind to respond – rather than to react – to emotional stimuli. The five Dhyani Buddhas of Wisdom help guide the mind toward awareness of emotions to transform them into more helpful ways of thinking. For example, ignorance can be redirected toward the discovery of greater wisdom, anger to clarity, pride to inclusiveness, lust or greed to discernment, and jealousy or envy to betterment.

Zanabazar’s outstanding sculptures of the Buddha’s famous five forms render the practice of visualization in meditation more approachable. Their lifelike portrayal calls to mind that Buddha himself was an ordinary human being. In Zanabazar’s sculptures, the Buddha’s contemplative gaze and gentle, inviting smile seems to say, “I have these thoughts too, sometimes. Let’s have a look together.”

Each of the five Buddhas of Wisdom are distinguished by their hand gestures or mudras, and are associated with different colors, symbols, senses, elements, universal directions, and organs. The mudras of Zanabazar’s Dhyani Buddhas seem to be more distinct than their other aspects. Ratnasambhava, who converts pride and miserliness into Wisdom of Equality, makes a gesture of giving. Vairochana, who transforms ignorance and delusion into All-Encompassing Dharmadatu Wisdom, makes the gesture of turning the Dharma wheel. Akshobhya, who illuminates anger and hatred to reveal Mirror-Like Wisdom, is touching the Earth with his right hand. Amitabha, who transmutes lust and greed into Discriminating Awareness Wisdom, rests his hands in a gesture of meditation. And Amoghasiddhi, who turns jealousy and fear into All-Accomplishing Wisdom, holds his right hand up in a gesture of fearlessness.

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Zanabazar’s sculptures are like a visual symphony that soothes the restless soul. His five Dhyani Buddhas help us understand the power of meditation. The artworks suggest that stillness and reflection are as vital to success in life as action and movement. In this sense, Zanabazar’s art seems to revisit the meaning of liberation, reimagine beauty, and redefine strength.

Research remains to be done to determine the total number and locations of Zanabazar’s artworks and to organize them by date. Information on how the artworks survived the turbulence of history since the 17th century has yet to be documented. A multitude of Buddhist gilt-bronze sculptures, equally valuable in their own merit, were created since Zanabazar. They are collectively known as the artworks of the School of Zanabazar, but none of them surpasses the elegance and lightness of Zanabazar’s masterpieces.

In his lifetime of 88 years, Zanabazar created some of the most iconic and enduring works of Buddhist art ever seen. His ingenious talent and ability to express the human and divine qualities of the Buddha later defined him as one of the founders of the Mongolian Buddhist cultural renaissance. Zanabazar was undoubtedly the most significant artist and intellectual leader of 17th-century Mongolian culture and beyond. His timeless creations continue to exert a powerful hold on viewers to this day.

Undur Gegeen Zanabazar’s Five Dhyani Buddhas of Wisdom can be viewed in the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts, except for Ratnasambhava, the Buddha of the South. Ratnasambhava’s sculpture is located in the Choijin Lama Museum.

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