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Heart Sutra & Lotus Embroidery

In the rear wall of the Universal Wisdom Hall, behind the Cintamanicakra Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva image are three beautiful panels of hand embroidery. The central panel shows the Heart Sutra (Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya) in Sanskrit characters, whilst the 2 side panels display waving lotuses in a pond.
Paramita Lotus Embroidery in BTRTM

The lotuses on both sides of the Cintamani-cakra Bodhisattva are intricately created through the “chaotic needle technique” of Suzhou embroidery. In the picture, the flowers look lithe and graceful, the colours refined and fresh.

There is a distinct layering of the lotus leaves. The lotuses appear lifelike, as if swaying in the breeze. The “chaotic needle” workmanship here is truly superb and exquisite.

Depicting a lush garden of a mix of lotus flowers in full and half blooms, lotus buds, big and small leaves, vines and fruits against a graduated golden yellow background, the embroidery was vastly enhanced and given a three-dimensional feel by the distinctive glossy effect of the silk needlework. The two panels have a balanced composition which adds to the overall beauty of the Universal Wisdom Hall without overpowering the central Avalokiteshvara statue. The rendition of each verdant detail is tight and precise. Each herbaceous shape is faithfully illustrated with strong command of botany: the petals of the lotus flowers and buds are bright white with reddish pink tips, and their seed pods are brown with dots and strips of gold representing stigmas and stamens. The foliage in turn sports dazzling hues such as emerald, jade and viridian greens.

All the elements together create a peaceful and calm atmosphere to reflect and pray for compassion.

About Suzhou Embroidery

Chinese embroidery refers to embroidery created by any of the cultures located in the area that makes up modern China. It is some of the oldest extant needlework. The four major regional styles of Chinese embroidery are Suzhou embroidery (Su Xiu), Hunan embroidery (Xiang Xiu), Guangdong embroidery (Yue Xiu) and Sichuan embroidery (Shu Xiu). All of them are nominated as Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritages.

Su Xiu (苏绣) — Suzhou embroidery is crafted in areas around Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, having a history dating back 2,000 years, originating in the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280). According to historical records, Su embroidery became so popular during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that people even named lanes with names associated with silk and its embroidery. Nearly every family raised silkworms and embroidered. Su embroidery reached its peak during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and Suzhou was named the Embroidery City at that time. In 1957, the Embroidery Research Institute was established in Suzhou.. It is famous for its beautiful patterns, elegant colors, variety of stitches, and consummate craftsmanship. Its stitching is meticulously skillful, coloration subtle and refined. Suzhou artists are able to use more than 40 needlework and 1,000 different types of threads to make embroidery, typically with nature and environment themes such as flowers, birds, animals and even gardens on a piece of cloth.

Su embroidery is known for its delicacy and elegance. It has a wide range of themes. Its techniques include both single-faced embroidery and unique double-faced embroidery that looks the same from either side. Double-sided embroidery has the same pattern on both sides and uses the same embroidering method that does not show the joints in the stitches. Basic features of Su embroidery are simple composition, clear theme, vivid image, and gentle color. In recent times, Su embroidery design has absorbed some western painting techniques.

The design is usually very simple, with high lighting a main theme. Its stitching is smooth, dense, thin, neat, even, delicate and harmonious, etc. The thin thread is divided into up to 48 strands that are barely visible to the naked eye. In terms of categories, Su embroidery has stage costumes, embroidery fabrics and hanging screens, etc. Su embroidery products were sent to participate in the Panama World Fair in 1915. Since then, the style has become increasingly famous throughout the world.

Suzhou embroidery’s “chaotic needle technique” was invented in the 1920s by Yang Shouyu. The technique’s new way of organising lines results in a vivid 3D effect similar to a Western oil painting. The seemingly chaotic intersecting lines of varying lengths effect an interestingly novel layering of colours. The term “chaotic” is a little misleading, since the technique unfolds according to certain rules and only seems disorderly. Lines of different lengths skewed relative to either the vertical or horizontal axis crisscross and interlace. They then undergo further layering and colour mixing until the density is right and there is close similarity in gloss, colour and form. This technique differs from traditional embroidery in both execution and artistic effect. It results in a unique visual effect.

The Heart Sutra in BTRTM

The central panel behind Cintamanichakra Avalokiteshvara is a rendition of the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit using Siddhaṃ script characters. The text is spelt out in dark purple characters comprising of twenty five vertical columns with a preface and colophon.

The Sanskrit language is significant in Buddhism because it is one of the earliest languages in which Buddha’s teachings were first transcribed into its written form. Its rendition here urges us to remember the immense kindness of the early Buddhist scholars in their efforts to preserve the Dharma in writing so that future generations might benefit. Indirectly it compels us to practise the meaning of the Heart Sutra so that their endeavour will not be in vain.

The preface (left) written right-to-left in vertical Traditional Chinese Li Shu (Chinese: 隶书) characters, states that the Dharma expounder ordained monk Fa Zhao (referring to Ven. Shi Fazhao) led faithful lay devotees in generously raising donations that made possible this Sanskrit Heart Sutra in Siddhaṃ script (referencing the central embroidery). The Chinese text is as follows:

“弘法沙門僧法照暨領
檀越信眾發心捐資供奉悉曇梵字心經”

 

 

 

 

The colophon (right), also written in vertical Traditional Chinese Li Shu characters, dates the embroidery to an auspicious time and day in the year 2550 of the Buddhist Era (2007 CE). The Chinese text is as follows:

佛歷貳仟俉佰俉拾年良辰吉日謹上

 

About the Heart Sutra

The Heart Sūtra is a member of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā) group of Mahāyāna Buddhist literature, and along with the Diamond Sūtra, is perhaps the most prominent representative of the genre.

The Perfection of Wisdom sutras expounds the Buddha’s view of the Mahayana paths and contain explicitly or implicitly instructions for the entire Bodhisattva’s path to enlightenment. In the Tibetan canon, there are three main Prajñāpāramitā texts: the longest with 100,000 stanzas, the middling with 25,000 stanzas and the short with only 8000 stanzas. Others such as the Diamond Sutra are also considered to belong to the same group.

The Heart Sutra is so named because it contains all the essential meanings of the longer Perfection of Wisdom sutras.

The most common version of the Heart Sūtra which was translated by Xuanzang (c. 602–664) into Chinese is made up of 14 shlokas in Sanskrit (a shloka is composed of 32 syllables). In Chinese, it has 260 Chinese characters, while in English it is composed of sixteen sentences. This makes it one of the shortest of the Perfection of Wisdom texts, which exist in various lengths up to 100,000 shlokas.

There is a longer version of the Heart Sutra in twenty five lines found in extant Sanskirt and Tibetan texts, and the Chinese Buddhist canon. The Tibetan canon uses this longer version exclusively wherein a prologue was given pertaining to the time and place where the sutra was expounded and the role of the Buddha in inspiring Shariputra and Avalokiteshvara, and an epilogue stating His purported approval of the answers given by Avalokiteshvara.

The sutra was expounded in Rājagṛha (in present-day Nalanda district in Bihar) at a mountain called Vulture’s Peak to a large audience of monks and Bodhisattvas. At that time, Buddha Shakyamuni was absorbed in the concentration called ‘Profound Illumination’. At that time also, the Superior Avalokiteshvara was looking perfectly at the profound Perfection of Wisdom and the emptiness of the five aggregates. Through the power of Buddha’s blessings, Shariputra was inspired to ask Avalokiteshvara how should a person of the Mahayana lineage (i.e. someone who is motivated to follow the Bodhisattva path) train in the Perfection of Wisdom. Avalokiteshvara then proceeds to give His famed answers (consisting primarily of negations) and a mantra. In the end, Buddha arose from His samadhi and gave His approval to the answers.

Avalokiteshvara’s profound answers can be sub-divided into the following sections in sequence:

      1. The Four Profundities (“Form is empty … Likewise, feelings, discrimination, compositional factors and consciousness are empty.”)
      2. The Eight Profundities (“Therefore Shariputra, all phenomena are merely empty, having no characteristics … they have no increase and no decrease.”)
      3. Emptinesses of all phenomena (through stating their negations): the five aggregates, the twelve sources, the eighteen elements, the twelve dependent-related links, the four Noble Truths, Ominiscient Wisdom and, attainment and non-attainment (“Therefore Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, … no attainment and also no non-attainment.”)
      4. Proclamation that Bodhisattvas rely solely on the Perfection of Wisdom to attain Buddhahood (“Therefore Shariputra, because there is no attainment … in the state of unsurpassed, perfect, and complete enlightenment.”)
    5. The Mantra (“Therefore the mantra of the perfection of wisdom … TAYATHA OM GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SÖHA”

Indian commentators such as Kamalasila (fl. 713–763 CE), Atisha (980–1054 CE), and Mahajana (or Srimahajana; late 11th or early 12th Centuries), and other Tibetan scholars have explained Avalokiteshvara’s answers as succinct instructional advice given to practitioners in accordance to the five Mahayana paths of accumulation, preparation, seeing, meditation and no-more-learning. Specifically, the Bodhisattva is recommended to meditate on emptiness using negations as specified on the different paths according to their level of accomplishment. Each instruction is also the prescribed method for progression towards the next higher level.

The mantra given towards the end, retained in its original Sanskrit form, is intended for those of sharper mental faculties who can understand the entire content of Avalokiteshvara’s answers merely by reciting it. The first two ‘GATE’ refers to the first two paths of accumulation and preparation. ‘PARAGATE’ and ‘PARASAMGATE’ refers to the paths of seeing and meditation respectively.

BODHI’ refers to path of no-more-learning or Buddhahood. ‘SÖHA’ means ‘build the foundation’ and is an advice for the Bodhisattva to progress along the five paths one at a time. If one is not a Bodhisttava yet, the advice is for him or her to build the foundation of the Mahayana teachings and enter into the first path, the path of accumulation.
About Lotus

Nelumbo nucifera (Indian Lotus, Sacred Lotus, Bean of India, or simply Lotus), is a plant in the monotypic family Nelumbonaceae. This plant is an aquatic perennial. Under favorable circumstances its seeds may remain viable for many years, with the oldest recorded lotus germination being from that of seeds 1,300 years old recovered from a dry lakebed in northeastern China.

Most deities of Asian religions are depicted as seated on a lotus flower. In Buddhist symbolism, the lotus represents purity of the body, speech, and mind as if floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire. In Buddhism, when Gautama Buddha was born, lotus flowers bloomed where he stepped.

The lotus is a potent symbol of our path to full enlightenment: just like the muddy waters that the lotus plant grows in, our minds are currently quagmired in the mental poisons of desirous attachment, anger and self-grasping ignorance, and their imprints. Through following paths that Buddha Himself traversed and subsequently explained, we can ‘emerge’ from the cesspool of our delusions and attain complete purity, symbolised by the untainted beauty of the lotus flower.

Ashtamangala or Zhaxi Daggyai (Tibetan: བཀྲ་ཤིས་རྟགས་བརྒྱད།, Wylie: bkra-shis rtags-brgyad, ZYPY: Zhaxi Dag’gyä; Chinese: 吉祥八宝, 扎西达杰) are a sacred suite of Eight Auspicious Signs.

In Buddhism, these eight symbols of good fortune represent the offerings made by the gods to Shakyamuni Buddha immediately after He gained Enlightenment. The lotus flower (Sanskrit: Padma; Tibetan: པད་མེ, Wylie: pad me), representing “primordial purity” (Tibetan: ཀ་དག, Wylie: ka dag) of body, speech, and mind, floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire; represents the full blossoming of wholesome deeds in blissful liberation.
The Lotus Sūtra (Sanskrit: Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra) is one of the most popular and influential Mahāyāna sūtras, and the basis on which the Tiantai and Nichiren schools of Buddhism were established.
Development of BTRTM Paramita Lotus Embroidery

We visited numerous embroidery companies in Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Fuzhou, over several trips, to seek out the best embroiders and evaluate their workmanship. None could provide the standard required.

Finally, we chance upon a shop near Suzhou, with a beautifully framed embroidery of a lotus pond.

After subsequent discussions, we awarded these 3 beautiful embroidery pieces and the Maitreya Five Dragons embroidery to the team led by Mdm Liang Xue Fang of ShuZhou Embroidered Products Factory, Suzhou, China.

The original design of the embroidery pieces was:

The design when mounted in the hall should look like this.

After some fine tuning by Venerable Shi Fa Zhao, work commenced on these 3 pieces of embroidery. The production took months with embroiders under close supervision by Ms Fang.

The completed pieces were shipped to Singapore and mounted on the wall.

The Knitting of Lotus for BTRTS
By Ms Liang Xue Feng
ShuZhou Zhenhu Embriodered Products Factory

I learnt knitting from my mother since young, and to knit the lotus is my favorite. As the lotus grows from the dirty pond but the body is not stained. My skill of Lotus Knitting may not be the best, but I am able to reflect the lotus’s characteristics.

“One needs to accumulate hundred years of good karma to be able to know each other”. During the mid spring this year, as a young lady walking along the streets of Suzhou, where I met up with Venerable Shi Fazhao, we discussed about knitting, arts and Buddhist study, etc, I learnt that indeed there are many similarities between knitting and Buddhist study. His in-depth knowledge on Buddhism inspired me to create new ways of knitting, and further purify my knitting skills and feelings.

“Lotus” will purify my soul, after purification I am able to link up with Buddha.

“Lotus” will bring along the silk and silver thread to the higher level, excel the Chinese culture and let the art of knitting together with Buddhist study reach out to all people.

Bibliography:

  1. Silken threads, A History of Embroidery in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, Young Yang Chung,Harry N Abrams Inc. Publishers, 2005, ISBN 0-8109-4330-1
  2. Donald S. Lopez, Jr., The Heart Sutra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries, Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1988.
  3. Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Elaborations on emptiness: uses of the Heart Sutra, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Websites:

  1. Chinese embroidery – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  2. Heart Sutra – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  3. Lotus Sutra – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  4. Nelumbo nucifera – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  5. Ashtamangala – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  6. 《心經》白話翻譯
  7. 蓮花戒《般若波羅蜜多心經釋》之譯注研究
  8. 心經新釋 121
  9. 藏传佛教《般若心经》释义(2)
  10. 《甚深微妙》般若心经释义开示

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