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A D.C. show unearths beauty of the Buddha

WASHINGTON -- The pirate's chest of doubloons underneath the palm, the rich tomb of a pharaoh, a Mason jar of money hidden in the yard -- who of us has not considered finding buried treasure? This makes it easy to imagine the worker who discovered the Buddha grave of Qingzhou above the River Yang, and the shiver he experienced at the moment he turned over its first colored-limestone head.

The head was gently smiling. Its stone curls had been painted a deep blue. Once, its smooth skin had been gilded: Fifteen centuries ago, that face had shone like gold.

The worker who found it in October 1996 drove a bulldozer. He was leveling the playground at the Shefan Primary School in Qingzhou, a northeastern Chinese city of 890,000 in the province of Shandong. First one head was uncovered, then another. Eventually, 143 more were unearthed.

These weren't just heads but bodies -- of many standing Buddhas flanked by their attendants, some in relief, others in the round, all elaborately clad, with their finely draped and knotted layered robes and mantles, and their necklaces of gold carved into the stone. A crowd gathered around the discovery. Among them were the curators who worked a few yards away at the municipal museum. With the army's aid, they took control of the site.

All the statues had been broken. Bits and pieces of 400 were uncovered. A number of the most complete are now on exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery here, in "Return of the Buddha: The Qingzhou Discoveries," a show of 35 stone figures.

Some stand in holy fire, also carved of fine-grained limestone. Others come with dragons playing at their feet.

One part of their formula is a look of rigid symmetry that is subtly contradicted by little visual surprises. Another is the way these statues tend to come in static triads, all three of the figures facing toward the viewer, with the Buddha at the center and bodhisattvas at his sides. (These bodhisattvas, the Buddha's allies, have compassionately declined Nirvana's nonexistence to remain within the world and aid its human beings.)

The statues at the Sackler look calm, well-fed, wise. They are dressed in clothes of splendor. Their poise is poise incarnate. Their balance is exquisite, and their beauty is immense.

Theirs is a great episode in the history of art, and an episode as telling in the history of faith.

The Buddha grave was a sloped and well-cut pit in which broken statues, too holy to discard, had been reverently interred. The heads were placed around the sides, the torsos toward the center.

Also in the grave were a bowl, for offerings, and 119 coins.

Style dates the statues: They were carved in the 6th century, buried in the 12th. No one knows what broke them. But they hadn't been attacked. Their faces are intact. The coins date their interment: It was around 1107 that the grave was filled in.

The Buddha found enlightenment in India, and there is some trace of India in these works. But not a lot. Indian art is fleshy, often sexy, while the statues at the Sackler, beneath their poured-on clothes, have insubstantial bodies. They look Chinese.

Western art is restless; it changes all the time. Chinese art seems part of a continuum. Every time you see a piece of Chinese art you sense within it the undiscarded influence of 6,000 years.

What makes these statues matter more than many others is that they bring to that rich heritage a concentrated gentleness rarely seen before: a holy, loving calm.

But northern China wasn't calm. Throughout the 6th century -- while Buddhism grew there, and these statues were produced -- the land was ruled by short-lived dynasties and overrun by armies. The serenity of these figures contradicts the turmoil.

What is missing from the Sackler's show is any trace of menace. Much older Chinese art intimidates the viewer. Anyone who has scanned the Chinese jades and bronzes of previous millennia will have noticed that the image these things most often share is that of the taotie, a fierce, abstracted monster whose horned and fanged and round-eyed face had been glaring out of Chinese art for 4,000 years.

The Buddha is the opposite of scary. His palms are turned out.The Buddha doesn't threaten. What he does is reassure.

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