We have all heard about the “message in a bottle”. Here we look at a Chinese antique lamp with an ancient message!
The story of Siddhartha’s transformation into the Lord Buddha, meaning “one who has awakened”, is well known to both the East as well as the West, with a growing Western interest in his life and teachings.
Every one has heard the name of the Buddha, born, by common tradition, about 565 B.C. however, very few of the details of the Buddha's life can be verified and it is difficult to determine the difference between history and myth.
Historically we believe that he was born in Lumbini which is in modern day Nepal, close to the border of northern India. He is believed to have been born into a ruling princely family and was given the name “Siddhartha” meaning, "one who has achieved his aim."
At the time of the Buddha’s birth, astrologers predicted that he would become a great king, or a monk who would evolve into a great teacher. His father, with this in mind, had the boy raised in luxury with every need met, in the hope that he would not become involved in a religious life. At the age of 16, his father arranged for him to marry a princess of his class, she was named “Yaśodharã”. He continued his palace life until, aged 29; his wife gave birth to a son “Rãhula”. Shortly after his son's birth, he began to travel away from his palace home.
Buddhist Tradition tells that he was deeply disturbed by the sight of an elderly, helpless, frail man. On his second journey, he saw an emaciated and depressed man suffering from an advanced disease. On the third, he saw a grieving family carrying the corpse of a family member to cremation. He was deeply affected by this and reflected on the suffering he saw, old age, illness and death.
On his fourth journey he saw a wandering monk who led a reclusive life of meditation. He could see that he was calm and serene. This fourth experience motivated him to follow the path of the monk and find a spiritual solution to the problems brought about by human suffering.
Siddhartha left his wife, child and luxurious lifestyle, in order to seek truth. This was not uncommon and was accepted practice for some men to leave their family and lead the life of a wandering monk.
After his enlightenment, the Buddha continued to teach, moving from place to place preaching and teaching his message. After forty-five years of teaching, aged 80, he died in the small town of Kuśinagara. His final words were: "Decay is inherent in all things. Be sure to strive with clarity of mind."
The message of the Buddha began to spread and historical records tell that in 68 AD two Indian Buddhist monks were received at the Chinese Tang court and presented the teachings of the Buddha to the Emperor. The monks were well received and were given Imperial favor. They stayed in China, translating Buddhist texts and teaching.
The Tang dynasty saw the flowering of Chinese Buddhism and by about 500AD the message had spread throughout China and in fact, at this time, there were more Buddhists in China than in India, where most of the Buddhists had reverted to Hinduism!
Buddhism has always had a rich language of symbolism, as has China’s ancient culture. When these two cultures merged, new heights of symbolism were reached.
Much of the Buddhist teaching is metaphysical which requires a broad spectrum of symbolism, until the message, beyond the symbol, is read and understood. One of the Buddha’s great teachings is called “The Eight Auspicious Symbols”.
“The vase” is one of the eight auspicious symbols and means many different things when it comes to Buddhism. It is, perhaps, one of Buddhism’s most important symbols. It represents wealth, but not in the same way as wealth is understood in the West. Here wealth means “the ever increasing amount that we have as a result of our understanding through the study and effective practicing of the Dharma". This would be understood by such statements as, “the vase of inexhaustible treasures” or “a vase for emptiness, allowing it to receive the Doctrine of Truth”. Specifically, it means the spiritual abundance of the Buddha, a treasure that does not diminish, however much of it is given away.
(An additional vase symbol is that fresh cut flowers are always placed on Buddhist altars in temples and in house altars in memory of the tradition that the Buddha loved flowers).
Our second symbol is the vase handles, with modelled and applied Ju’i shaped sceptre handles. The Ju’i is the Chinese name for the sceptre shaped, short, curved staff held by the Mandarin class, signifying authority. The applied sceptre handles on the lamp translate as “transcendent” or true authority.
Our third symbol is probably the most well known of all Buddhist symbols, the lotus. The bottom half of the lamp is composed of stylised lotus petals symbolically opening to reveal the pure vessel held within.
The lotus flower represents purity. It is able to grow and flower from the muddy water, and therefore is a symbol of spiritual growth and regeneration. The roots of the lotus are in the mud, the stem grows up through the water, and the beautifully scented flower lies pristine above the water, basking in the sunlight. This pattern of growth signifies the rise from the primeval mud of materialism, through the waters of experience, and into the bright sunshine of enlightenment. The lotus is one of Buddhism's most recognized symbols and appears in all kinds of Buddhist art, painting, sculpture and ceramics.
The lamp is fitted with a finely turned maple wood cap and stand, water gilded with a satin finish. Circa 1850 Overall height (including shade) 25"/63cm
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