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Inscription Recording the Erection of the Statuary Stele by Li Zanyi and the Group of Five Hundred

Tags: Northern Wei dynasty | stele

This stele was engraved with exquisite patterns in a meticulous manner, which can be regarded as the best among all stele works from the He-shuo area during the Northern Wei dynasty. The stele building project was initiated during the second year of Yong-xi and finished in August of the first year of Wu-ding. The project took approximately 12 years to complete, which indicates the sophistication of the work. Among the stele's inscribers was Helian-ziyue, who was chief manager of the temple.  According to records of the history of Northern Dynasties, he was previously reputed to be an honest and upright local official in Zheng-zhou.

The inscriptions feature Buddhist quotations, such as “a miraculously manifested city that provides comfort for a congregation in a pilgrimage,” and “dharma preaching to the public in Grdhrakūta.” The former is supposed to be originated from Saddharma Pundarka Sutra, while the latter points out the venue where Saddharma Pundarka Sutra is lectured. However, the motif of the inscription is from the scenario of the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra: where Manjusri consoles the illness of Vimalakirti. We may understand this seeming discrepancy in this way: the prevalence of Saddharma Pundarka Sutra during the Southern and Northern Dynasties consolidated it as a mainstream paradigm among all Buddhist teachings. Another intriguing feature of this stele is that two old Brahmans are shown standing at two sides of the upper margin. The skeletons held in their hands can be vaguely seen although the degrees of similarities between these two attributes cannot be clarified. What can be assured is that at least one motif is selected from an episode in the story of the Buddha's life. Quoted from Abhidharma-kosa-Shastra, an allegory of a Brahman, Zhi-qiao (a heretical Jain) heckled Buddha with the dilemma of permanence and impermanence using a metaphor of whether to kill a bird or not. This theme is frequently found in parallel to the teachings of those found in Saddharmapundarika Sutra and Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, two of the most distinct Mahayana classics. There still lies a considerable capacity for interpretation.

Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica