Pair of Figures of Damo

Kangxi Period, Circa 1690

Reference#: P9020

Height: 14 1/4 inches (36.2 cm.)

Similar examples:
Donnelly 1969, plate 87b.
National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden, illustrated in Penkala 1980, plate CXL, page 242.

Damo, also known as Bodhidharma, was the first patrician of Chinese Buddhism and founder of the Meditative School of China, which espoused enlightenment solely through the mind, not through books.1 A patriarch had no ruling or authoritative power, he was simply a defender and teacher of Buddhism who could accomplish great intellectual feats and meditate deeply into the recesses of Buddha’s mind. Tradition relates that when Damo was an old man he traveled from India to China, reaching Canton circa 520-527. He was then invited to Nanking, but upon his difficulty in instructing the Emperor Wu, Damo left the court and spent the next nine years in meditation. His death is variously reported as occurring in 529 or 535. Having survived five poisoning attempts, Damo never returned to his native India.

The subtle iconography included in our hooded figures relates two stories generally associated with Damo’s life. Each figure stands securely on a base imitating softy rolling waves, referring to the incident when Emperor Wu’s messenger was sent to retrieve the patriarch, only to fine him crossing the Yangtse river on a leaf-like twig or reed. The slipper that Damo cradles in one hand is associated with another story of when the patriarch was crossing a wide field, carrying only one sandal, and was approached by an official who inquired as to where the patriarch was traveling. To this Damo responded “To the Western Paradise.” According to legend, when his coffin was opened at a later date it contained nothing but the other sandal.

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