The front of the stele presents in high relief the Buddha Sakyamuni in the center, whose right hand is held in the “fearless gesture” (abhaya mudra) and his left hand in the “charity gesture” (vara mudra). He is attended by the young disciple Ananda and the old disciple Kasyapa, both with shaven heads and attired in monastic robes. The Buddha is further flanked by the bodhisattva Maitreya to his right, who holds a flask, and the bodhisattva Manjusri to his left. The two bodhisattvas respectively embody Compassion and Wisdom. The iconic ensemble as such, unique in China, gained currency in the early sixth century. The bodhisattvas exemplify Mahayana, or “Great-Vehicle” Buddhism, which is devoted to universal salvation. The monk-disciple figures are identified with Theravada, or “Small-Vehicle” Buddhism, which is preoccupied with personal salvation. Hence the bodhisattvas are shown on a larger scale than the disciples. Their aggregation suggests the Chinese Buddhist effort to subsume Theravada teachings under Mahayana Buddhism. This is partly the message conveyed by the Lotus Sutra, which is the doctrinal basis for the stele here. The bodhisattvas Maitreya and Manjusri are the two primary interlocutors of S?kyamuni who preaches the sutra.
The universal salvation advocated by the Lotus Sutra is further dramatized in the scene carved in low relief on the back of the stele, based on the chapter “The Emergence of Many-Treasure Stupa.” The Buddha Sakyamuni, about to enter Nirvana, or the “Great Extinction,” joins Prabhutaratna, the ancient Buddha from the past and distant land, in the latter’s stupa, which hovers in the air. Sakyamuni then transports the entire ensemble witnessing the spectacle into Buddha’s realms.
The Lotus Sutra also urges the “voice-hearers” to practice the bodhisattva’s way by transcending their self-absorbed discipline and embracing universalism and altruism. The two figures on the sides of the stele, an iconographic hybrid, visualize this moral. Their headgear suggests the attributes of a bodhisattva while their monastic robes identify them as disciple figures, sometimes equated with “voice-hearers.” Their lesser standing relegates them to the sides of the stele. However, their partial possession of bodhisattva traits as symbolized by the headgear signals their eventual conversion to the bodhisattva way.
The stele base shows, on its two sides and back, ten Spirit Kings, indicated by their heads and the objects which they hold. They are, starting from the Buddha’s left side, the Lion King, Bird King, Elephant King, River King, Mountain King, Tree King, Fire King, Pearl King, Wind King, and Dragon King. Drawn largely from the Nirvana Sutra, which was often studied in conjunction with the Lotus Sutra in medieval China, the set of images refer to the gathering of nature gods from all quarters to attend to the Buddha’s passing into Nirvana. Having paid their final homage, they seat themselves on the sides, which explains their sitting posture in the relief carving.
On the front of the stele base is inscribed the votive, dated 543, which states that a “disciple of Buddha” named Luo Zikuan and seventy other people made the Sakyamuni statue for the emperor, seven generations of forebears, and the living beings. They hope that the sentient beings of the Dharma world will all convert to the Buddha’s way. The inscription thus succinctly recapitulates the visual rhetoric of the sculptural program with its aspiration toward universal salvation.
Source: Eugene Yuejin Wang, "Votive Stele," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 180-182.