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Past exhibition

Special Exhibition
The Arts of the Lotus Sūtra
The Lotus Sūtra, an early Mahāyāna sūtra, was compiled around the 1st century in India. In the text, Śakyamunī Buddha explains in a variety of different ways that all beings can reach Buddhahood, that all must believe in their own potential.
The Lotus Sūtra reached China in the 3rd century via the Silk Road and gradually took hold. The sūtra later spread to Korea and Japan and became influential in the East Asian Buddhist tradition. The sūtra’s“Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva” was chanted by followers throughout East Asia and played a key role in the propagation through this region of the faith of Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin).
The Lotus Sūtra lauds the merits of transcribing its own text and of creating iconography and thus inspired many art works. It also accounts for the largest share of Buddhist texts in the National Palace Museum collection.
A Buddhist sūtra is often divided into three parts: introduction, main exposition, and dissemination. The first provides background information on where the sūtra was preached and the figures involved; the second part details the teachings or paths of practice; and the third praises the benefits of adhering to the teachings and encourages followers to propagate the sūtra.
The structure of this exhibition follows the tradition, presenting the content of the Lotus Sūtra in the first section, important artistic motifs and genres inspired by it in the second, and the circulation and dissemination of the text throughout history in the third. It is hoped that the exhibition will enable visitors to understand the Lotus Sūtra as a canonical text that has inspired people in East Asia for over a millennium, and the artistic achievements born out of it.

1. Introduction
The first section is an introduction to the various Chinese translations of the Lotus Sūtra, the main contents of each chapter, important commentaries throughout history, and Buddhist rituals that have developed from this Buddhist sūtra.
As religious iconography usually takes inspiration from canonical texts, understanding the text of the Lotus Sūtra will facilitate appreciation of its iconography.
1.1 Chinese Translations and Structure of the Lotus Sūtra
The Lotus Sūtra has been translated into Chinese many times. There are currently three extant Chinese translations: the Dharmarakṣa (c. 230307), the Kumārajīva (344413 or 350409), and the Jñānagupta (523605), with the translation by Kumārajīva being considered the most elegant and having the widest circulation.
The Lotus Sūtra can be roughly divided into three parts. In the first, Śakyamunī Buddha explains that all beings have the potential for Buddhahood. The second introduces the idea that the Buddha’s lifespan is immeasurable and encourages all beings to emulate bodhisattvas to save all sentient beings and to propagate the teachings of the Lotus Sūtra. The third focuses on various bodhisattvas, including Bhaiṣajyarāja and Avalokiteśvara, and tells the stories of their connection with the sūtra and how Avalokiteśvara saves sentient beings in different ways in order to inspire followers.
These selections of the Lotus Sūtra in both prints and manuscripts provide an opportunity for visitors to appreciate the calligraphy and book design of the various editions on display.
1.2 Commentaries on and Practice of the Lotus Sūtra
Explanations of or annotations to the teachings of Śakyamunī Buddha provided by the masters of successive schools are known as their “commentaries” on the canonical texts.
The Lotus Sūtra was highly regarded in India, and when the text arrived in China, many high monks there also studied the sūtra and wrote commentaries on it. The most notable Chinese commentator was scholar-monk Zhiyi (538597) of the Sui dynasty, the founder of the Tiantai School. He elevated the Lotus Sūtra to the status of the highest teaching by the Buddha and not only presented very detailed commentaries on the text but also developed a series of meditation methods and rituals.

2. Main Exposition
The second section highlights artistic themes inspired by the Lotus Sūtra, including the earliest iconography of the two Buddhas seated side by side, pagodas inscribed with the text from the sūtra, the famous Seven Parables, and illustrations of the sūtra’s chapters.
2.1 Two Buddhas Seated Side by Side and the Stupa
Two Buddhas seated side by side is the first iconography to have emerged from the Lotus Sūtra and was derived from Chapter 11, “The Appearance of the Jeweled Pagoda”, which describes a scene where Śakyamunī is preaching and Prabhūtaratna rises from the earth in a jeweled pagoda and verifies the Buddha’s teachings in the Lotus Sūtra. Prabhūtaratna then invites Śakyamunī to sit beside him in the jeweled pagoda. The image of the two Buddhas seated side by side represents the truth being attested by the buddhas of the past and present and a strong belief in the Lotus Sūtra.
While the Lotus Sūtra also stresses the merit of building pagodas in continuation of past Buddhist tradition, it says that the text itself should be worshipped instead of Buddhist relics, hence the emergence of pagodas inscribed with the text of the Lotus Sūtra.
2.2 The Seven Parables of the Lotus Sūtra
Śakyamunī often uses allegories to explain his teaching, and the Lotus Sūtra is notable for its many parables, of which the best-known are the “Seven Parables” (Blazing House, the Father and His Lost Son, Medical Herbs, Imaginary City, the Jewel in the Robe, the Precious Pearl in the Topknot, and the Skillful Doctor). The first known appearance of the Seven Parables was in the Commentaries on the Lotus Sūtra by Indian Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu (4th–5th century), which posits that the seven parables address the seven ailments of the heart that plague sentient beings.
If the two Buddhas seated side by side represents unwavering faith in the Lotus Sūtra, the Seven Parables provide concrete expressions of its teachings, or the “expedient means” used to encourage all beings to attain the wisdom of Buddhahood.
This section highlights the frontispieces to the seven-volume Lotus Sūtra from the Song and Yuan dynasty. Visitors will see the stories of the Seven Parables and their visualization by artists of various styles.
2.3 Illustrations of the Lotus Sūtra
With the development of religious illustration in the Sui and Tang dynasties, artists were eager to turn sūtra texts into graphic form, and themes with strong narratives such as Avalokiteśvara saving all sentient beings, the Seven Parables, an infinite number of bodhisattvas emerging from the Earth, and Bhaiṣajyarāja burning his body as a supreme offering to the Buddha were added to the iconography of the Lotus Sūtra. These images developed into a series of murals with vertical-axis composition in Dunhuang and culminated in the frontispieces in the seven-volume edition of the Lotus Sūtra.
By using digital projection to represent the illustration of the text found in Cave 61 of the Mogao Grottoes and precious prints and manuscripts of the Lotus Sūtra from the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties in the National Palace Museum collection, we present the various types of artistic expressions of the Lotus Sūtra.

3. Dissemination
Propagating teachings is a key task of religious texts. The third section of this exhibition takes a closer look at the Lotus Sūtra’s major artistic motifs and their role in disseminating the teachings, particularly from the stand-alone “Universal Gate Chapter on Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara” and its related Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin) iconography. Also presented in this section are translations of the Lotus Sūtra into different Asian languages throughout history and how they circulated.
3.1 The Great Vow to Disseminate the Lotus Sūtra
In the Lotus Sūtra, Śakyamunī Buddha explains that all beings have the potential for Buddhahood, and the dramatic image of the two Buddhas seated side by side is used to corroborate this teaching. The text also contains many stories intended to encourage followers to disseminate the teachings of the sūtra: Sadāparibhūta preaching, Bhaiṣajyarāja worshiping, and King Śubhavyūha practicing the Lotus Sūtra in the distant past; Avalokiteśvara saving sentient beings in the present; and Samantabhadra vowing to protect the followers of the Lotus Sūtra in the future. These touching stories show the various vows of the Mahāyāna bodhisattvas and have inspired many artworks.
The exquisite frontispieces of the seven-volume edition of the Lotus Sūtra from the Song and Yuan dynasties narrate the stories of faith in the volumes. In addition, it introduces visitors to Samantabhadra, one of the two major attendant bodhisattvas of Śakyamunī Buddha, as well as accounts of miracles that play an important role in the propagation of this sūtra.
3.2 The Universal Gate Chapter and the Iconography of Avalokiteśvara
Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sūtra, the “Universal Gate Chapter on Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara”, is also simply known as the “Universal Gate Chapter”. In this chapter, Śakyamunī Buddha describes Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin) as a bodhisattva who sees those who chant his name and helps relieve them of their suffering and who acts as a “universal gate”, appearing in various manifestations to deliver all sentient beings. The compassionate image of the bodhisattva led to a standalone edition of this chapter, known as the Avalokiteśvara Sūtra, appearing no later than the early 6th century.
The Universal Gate Chapter is the best-known in the Lotus Sūtra and was chanted by followers throughout East Asia. It has been instrumental in the popularity of the Guanyin faith in East Asia and has inspired new iconography such as Fish-basket Guanyin. Guanyin is often depicted with Sudhana from the Flower Garland Sūtra and the Dragon Girl from the “Devadatta Chapter” of the Lotus Sūtra. This varied imagery attests to the influence of the Lotus Sūtra on later-period Buddhism in China.
3.3 Circulation of the Lotus Sūtra in Asia
The Tiantai School, founded by Chinese scholar-monk Zhiyi (538–597), considered the Lotus Sūtra to be its chief scripture. As Buddhist culture spread through the East Asian cultural sphere, the Lotus Sūtra and its teachings also reached the Korean Peninsula and Japan. On return from their studies in China, where they studied the Tiantai tradition, Japanese monk Saichō (767–822) and Korean monk Uicheon (1055–1101) incorporated the teachings of other Chinese Buddhist schools and founded the Tendai and Cheontae Schools, respectively. These offshoots of the Chinese Tiantai School elevated the influence of the Lotus Sūtra.
Meanwhile, with the propagation of Buddhism through Medieval Asia, the Lotus Sūtra was translated into Tibetan, Tangut, Mongolian, and finally Manchu during the reign of the Qing dynasty Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796).
In this section, visitors will find a Goryeo-period illuminated manuscript of the Lotus Sūtra written in gold ink and Tibetan and Manchu translations of this scripture.
Exhibition Information
  • Event Date 2022-01-29~2022-07-17
  • Location 1F S101