Encounters with Buddhist Art

A Deeper Dialogue with the Art of Japanese Buddhism

Culture Art

A new series on ways to approach and understand Buddhist imagery begins with this overview of the statues to be found in Japan’s temples and the history of their creation.

Getting More from Temple and Museum Tours

A person stands in front of a Buddhist image, hands joined in prayer. It is a private moment, and everyone’s thoughts will turn to a different direction. But what do you do next? Ideally, I would hope, you would engage in a kind of dialogue with the sculpture. Of course, the image will not reply in a voice of its own. The person viewing the image needs to be able to be attuned to the subtle messages the image is communicating in its own way. The best way to develop this sense is to learn a little about Buddhist iconography and the history of Buddhist art. This knowledge can serve as an antenna that will help you to pick up the signals being transmitted by the sculptures and other works of art.

According to one survey, visitors to museums and art galleries spend an average of just 60 seconds in front of a given work. But it is hard to pick up much in such a short time. In most cases, people give each image a cursory glance and move on without understanding anything.

My advice to people who are newcomers to Buddhist sculpture, or who want to deepen their appreciation of the artform, is to spend a little time studying the basic history of the sculptures and some of the characteristics of different periods. This can help you to get more out of your next trip to a museum or temple. The aim of this series is to give readers a grounding in the basics of Japanese Buddhist sculpture, in the hope that this will help them to develop deeper dialogue with these remarkable masterpieces of religious art.

The Four Main Groups of Images

For a lot of people visiting a temple or museum, the first question is: Where to start? One entry point into the initially confusing mass of different Buddhas and other figures is to learn to recognize some of their most important features. You can start by learning to assign the image to the main group to which it belongs.

Essentially, Buddhist sculptures can be divided into four major categories: buddhas or nyorai, bodhisattvas or bosatsu, wisdom kings or myōō, and other gods and celestial beings or ten. Let’s take a quick look at each of these in turn.

1. Buddhas (Nyorai)

Nyorai (如来) is the Sino-Japanese translation of the Sanskrit term tathāgata, which literally means the “thus come one” or “he who has thus gone.” It refers to a being who has completed Buddhist training and achieved a state of enlightenment. Nyorai images therefore depict a human being who has transcended all desire. One way to recognize a nyorai is to look at the garments. If the image is clad simply in monastic robes, it’s safe to assume that you’re looking at a buddha. As well as Shakyamuni (Shaka Nyorai), the historical Buddha who lived in India in the sixth century BCE, other buddhas you are likely to see in temples in Japan include Amida Nyorai (Amitābha), an important figure in the Pure Land schools of Buddhism, and Yakushi Nyorai (Bhaiṣajyaguru), the “medicine Buddha” of healing. Another important example is Dainichi (Vairocana Buddha), whose best-known depiction in Japan is the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) at the temple Tōdaiji in Nara.

Shakyamuni (Shaka Nyorai), the historical Buddha.
Shakyamuni (Shaka Nyorai), the historical Buddha.

2. Bodhisattvas

Bosatsu (菩薩) is the Japanese rendition of the Sanskrit term bodhisattva, meaning a person who vows to undertake the path of achieving enlightenment. These images depict a being who is still in the process of training to become a buddha. As well as monastic robes (kesa), these images are often adorned with a jeweled crown, necklaces or other jewels, and hold symbolic objects. These are reliable signs that the image you are looking at depicts a bodhisattva. Common examples in Japan include Kannon (Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of mercy), Jizō (Kṣitigarbha, the savior of souls in the underworld), and Miroku (Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future).

Kannon Bosatsu, bodhisattva of compassion and mercy.
Kannon Bosatsu, bodhisattva of compassion and mercy.

3. Wisdom King

Myōō (明王) is a Sino-Japanese calque of the Sanskrit term vidyarāja, or “wisdom king.” In this context, the “wisdom” is a reference to the esoteric knowledge contained in the mantras of tantric Buddhism. Each syllable of a mantra is imbued with a mystical power and deep significance, and reciting the mantras is believed to bring merit and open the path to enlightenment. The wisdom kings are divinities who are the embodiments and protectors of the mystical power contained in the mantras.

They are also wrathful, somewhat fearsome beings, who play an important role by reaching sentient beings who are deaf to Buddhist teachings and leading them to the truth through fear and awe. If an image has a fearsome appearance, it’s likely that you’re looking at a myōō or Wisdom King. The most common example is Fudō-Myōō (Achala, or “the immoveable”), a somewhat terrifying-looking guardian deity whose image you will see in many Japanese temples. You may also encounter Aizen-Myōō (Rāgarāja, a red-skinned deity with the power to turn sensual desires into spiritual power), Gōzanze-Myōō (Trailokyavijaya, or Conqueror of the Three Plains: the worlds of form, desire, and formlessness), and other protective deities.

Fudō Myōō, the Immovable.
Fudō Myōō, the Immovable.

4. Devas

Ten (天) is the Japanese term for the Sanskrit “deva,” which is cognate with words like deity/divine and related terms in many European languages. Many of these deities were gods worshiped in Brahmanism and other Indian traditions before the birth of Buddhism. These were incorporated into the new faith as guardian deities who protect the dharma (the law of the faith) and the sangha (its body of practitioners). For this reason, depictions of these figures are quite diverse. It is generally safe to assume that most figures who are not buddhas, bodhisattvas, or wisdom kings are representations of one deva or another. Common examples include the Four Heavenly Kings (Shitennō), each of whom looks after a cardinal direction of the world, as well as Benzai-ten (Saraswati, goddess of arts and learning) and Daikoku-ten (Mahakala, the “Great Black One”).

Zōchō-ten (Virūḍhaka), one of the Four Heavenly Kings.
Zōchō-ten (Virūḍhaka), one of the Four Heavenly Kings.

Major Periods of Japanese Buddhist Sculpture

The first Buddhist images in Japan date from the beginning of the seventh century. They were made as objects to be revered in the temples that were built after the arrival of Buddhism from the Korean kingdom of Paekche during the reign of Emperor Kinmei in the sixth century. To begin with, Japanese Buddhist images imitated imported models from Korea and China. This brief summary outlines some of the developments in Japanese Buddhist sculptures over the centuries from the Asuka period (593–710) to the Heian period (794–1185).

1. Early Asuka Period (Mid-Sixth to Mid-Seventh Centuries)

In the first half of the Asuka Period, Buddhism was still a new import in Japan, and artists were not yet practiced at making Buddhist images. They therefore tended to imitate Chinese models. Perhaps the best-known Buddhist sculptures from this early period are the Shaka triad at the temple Hōryūji in Nara, which shows Shakyamuni flanked by two attendant bodhisattvas. The face of the Shakyamuni image shows the Buddha with his eyes wide open and the corners of his mouth raised in a gentle smile reminiscent of the “archaic smile” of early Greek sculpture. The folds on the left and right sides of the Buddha’s robes are beautifully matched, creating a sense of balance and proportion—but also giving a somewhat unnatural impression. Interestingly, the torso of the sculpture is quite thin when seen from the side, and the arms and legs do not have the normal proportions of normal human limbs. The body is not naturalistic, suggesting that the sculptor assumed that the image would only be viewed front-on.

Another interesting point about this sculpture are the Buddha’s monastic robes. In Indian Buddhist sculptures, the Buddha and his disciples are generally shown with their robes either covering both shoulders or worn diagonally across the chest, leaving the right shoulder exposed. These styles were brought to China in the first century, but by the sixth century, it is common to find Buddhist sculptures that show figures dressed in the style of the Chinese aristocracy of the time. Reflecting this influence, Shakyamuni and his attendants in the Shakya Triad at Hōryūji also wear their robes in the Chinese fashion.

The Shaka triad at Hōryūji.
The Shaka triad at Hōryūji.

2. Later Asuka Period (Hakuhō Period; Mid-Seventh Century to 710).

If you see a Buddhist image with full cheeks and an innocent, childlike expression, it is likely that the image dated from a period from the second half of the seventh century to the beginning of the eighth. This was traditionally known as the Hakuhō Period, but the period is more commonly known today simply as the Later Asuka Period. I will discuss the reasons for this change when I write about the Buddhist sculpture of this period later in this series.

In 2017, a seated image of the Buddha belonging to the temple Jindaiji in Chōfu, Tokyo, was inscribed as a national treasure. It is the only Buddhist sculpture in Tokyo to have received this honor. The image has an innocent expression, and (unusually) double-fold eyelids. The composition of the sculpture, which shows the Buddha sitting on a chair, is also uncommon.

Seated Buddha, Jindaiji (Chōfu, Tokyo).
Seated Buddha, Jindaiji (Chōfu, Tokyo).

The provenance of this sculpture is something of a mystery. In the late Asuka Period when the image was made, the national capital was in Nara. How did it come about that a highly accomplished image like this was found so far from the center of culture at the time? Several theories have been put forward to explain this. One is that several large Buddhist temples already existed in the Kantō region at the time, as a result of the policy of building a kokubunji (state-supported) temple in every province in the realm, instituted under Emperor Shōmu during the Nara Period (710–94). This would make it likely that the influence of Buddhist culture had already spread from the capital to reach provincial areas, at least to a certain extent. Others argue that the sculpture must have been brought here from Nara or another location close to the capital.

In recent years, scholars have noticed similarities between this sculpture and an image of the Ko-Yakushi Nyorai that was originally made for the Shin-Yakushuji temple in Nara, constructed by Prince Shōtoku (Shōtoku Taishi), an important patron of Buddhism during the Asuka Period. It is now thought likely that the image was made in the same workshop in Nara and brought to the Kantō region.

3. The Tempyō Era (710–783)

It is often said that realism in Buddhist sculpture reached a peak of perfection during this period. From the earliest years, Japanese Buddhist art was strongly influenced by trends in China. The Tenpyō era in Japan coincided with the height of Tang dynasty culture on the continent. Chinese sculpture in this period was marked by more realistic expressions and a strong sense of movement. Japanese sculpture also starts to become more dynamic around this time.

Another important consideration in this context is the materials and techniques that were used to make the images. Up to this point, the most common styles were gilt bronze images, in which sculptures were cast by pouring molten bronze into a mold, and carved images often made from a single piece of wood. Now, new methods arrived from Tang China, in which clay, dry lacquer, and other pliable organic materials were pressed in layers onto a simple framework. This method was especially widespread during the Tenpyō era (729–749), and this new method gave further momentum to the trend for sculptures that were more realistic and faithful to life than ever before.

One of the most treasured examples of Buddhist art from this era is the image of an Ashura demigod in the temple collection of Kōfukuji in Nara. This Ashura is so popular he even has his own fan club. The reason for this popularity is to be found in the remarkably lifelike look of melancholy on the features of the demigod—an astonishingly faithful recreation of an expression we are used to glimpsing at certain moments on human faces. This kind of realism was a breakthrough that was made possible by the new methods of sculpture brought over from China in this period.

It is easy to imagine how this new layering technique allowed sculptors to produce nuanced and detailed expressions that would have been impossible by carving an image from a single piece of wood. By applying small amounts of material with a spatula, artists were now able to bring out details down to single strands of hair. Paying attention to materials in this way is another important part of finding a way into a deeper dialogue with Buddhist sculptures, and learning to appreciate them better.

The famous Ashura from Kōfukuji temple.
The famous Ashura from Kōfukuji temple.

4. The Heian Period (794–1184)

Look around the countries of Asia and it is hard not to be struck by the way in which the sculptures of each country tend to have facial features that resemble those of the local population. Japan is no exception. As I mentioned, when Buddhism first arrived in the sixth century, the earliest images were clearly made in imitation of Chinese models. This tendency continued, and for the next several centuries, the changes in Japanese Buddhist sculpture tend to track developments and trends on the continent. During the Heian Period, however, a decisive change took place, and a distinctively Japanese style of sculpture emerged for the first time.

During the early years of the Heian period, Buddhist sculpture was still subject to considerable Chinese influence. But a century into the period, an event took place that brought dramatic changes. This was the decision in 894 to abandon the practice of sending embassies to Tang China. Now that representatives of the Japanese court were no longer traveling to China on a semiregular basis, the influence of Tang culture began to wane, and a distinctively Japanese style of sculpture was born, known as wayō, or Japanese style.

One person who made an important contribution to the emergence of this new wayō style was the sculptor Jōchō, who made the image of a seated Amida Buddha (Amidhaba) that dominates the remarkable Hōō-dō (Phoenix Hall) at Byōdōin in Uji, just outside Kyoto. Contemporary sources praise this sculpture as representing the “true image of the Buddha.” It became a classic model that had a huge impact on the subsequent development of Buddhist sculpture in Japan.

The characteristics of this famous image include a roundish face, narrow eyes, and a relatively small mouth and nose, with a somewhat diminutive, lean physique. Everyone who saw the image at the time must have been struck by its novel yet familiar appearance: The Amida Buddha had suddenly taken on Japanese facial features.

Seated image of Amida Buddha at Byōdōin.
Seated image of Amida Buddha at Byōdōin.

After the Heian Period, we enter the Kamakura Period (1185–1333), when shōguns and the samurai class took control of the reins of government and the court nobility went into decline. Japanese Buddhist sculpture reached one of its heights during these years, in the remarkable images produced by artists like Unkei, Kaikei, and other artists of the so-called “Kei-ha” school (many of whom used names that included the character 慶, or Kei). There is a lot to say about this influential school of artists, so I will save my remarks for when I come to discuss their works later in this series.

I said at the beginning of this article that we should look to engage in a dialogue with Buddhist sculptures. This is made easier by the kind of basic knowledge that I have tried to outline in this short introductory essay, and that I will explain in more detail over the course of this series. As we continue our dialogue with the pieces, we come to understand more about the social conditions of the times, and in time learn to read the deep spiritual significance that this religious art had for the people who made it.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Standing image of a bodhisattva, Tokyo National Museum. © Muda Tomohiro.)

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