Japan, Buddhist Art in

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The juxtaposition of the words Buddhist and art may seem natural, requiring no comment. But this concept is of recent vintage and stems from encounters between traditional societies and modern interpreters. In the case of Japan, the creation of an elite canon of "Buddhist art" took place in the late nineteenth century, building upon earlier precedents. Over the twentieth century, numerous temple buildings, icons, and other objects received state-approved designations as National Treasure, Important Cultural Property, and Important Art Object. Artifacts not deemed artistically or historically important have receded from view. Many "art objects" left temple precincts for the art market and now reside in museums and private collections both in Japan and abroad. Icons in temple settings, whether on permanent view or revealed periodically, as often submit to the gaze of tourists and photographers as to visiting worshippers or temple congregations.

Japanese Buddhist art refers primarily to sculpture and painting of the seventh through thirteenth centuries, which is perceived to be the most creative period. Canonical objects were commissioned by elite patrons who founded temples and engaged the services of metalworkers, woodcarvers, painters, weavers, and lacquerers—artisans in every media. Initially, people without wealth and property who contributed their labor and skill in the service of the elite would not have participated in the religious practices their productions served. Over time some artisans rose in status as they held lower aristocratic rank or obtained honorary Buddhist titles for their service at court. By the thirteenth century some painters and carvers joined their patrons as donors, even signing their names inside images or on paintings. As Buddhism spread both geographically and socially, groups of devotees visited temples and made monetary donations for the construction and upkeep of images, halls, and festivals. Indeed, by the sixteenth century temples depended on patronage from all levels of society as merchants and artisans grew wealthy at the expense of the aristocratic and military elites.

Many scholars now challenge long-held assumptions about what constitutes "Buddhist art" and whether such a concept remains valid. Art historians and Buddhologists have renewed their scrutiny of objects, sites, practices, and beliefs long forgotten, giving more attention to functions and audiences than to aesthetic properties, and hence opening up later periods and commoner arts to scholarly inquiry. With this process in mind, this entry focuses specifically upon the dynamic of making and using "Buddhist art" in Japan: It only hints at specific objects, their style, iconography, and relationships to other objects. Monastic architecture, portraiture, and arts associated with individual schools of Buddhism are treated in separate entries. Unlike some Asian countries, Japan has preserved material and documentary traces of Buddhist patronage to a remarkable degree. Much that is discussed in this entry would have been equally true for other Buddhist countries.

Consecrated images

The most prominent Buddhist objects are cast, carved, modeled, or painted images of buddhas and bodhisattvas (collectively, butsuzō). In the eyes of makers and worshippers, these things were not sculpture, statuary, or painting, but were rather animate, living images that manifested the aura of the deities they represented. Materials—most commonly wood, silk, mineral pigments, and gold—were themselves sacred, prepared and worked by artisans who were part of the Buddhist establishment. When an image was finished, an eye-opening (kaigen) ceremony was held in which the officiant dotted in the pupils of the eyes to signify its birth as a sacred image. Once animated, an image would be placed on a temple altar or in a temporary space, to be provided with offerings of light, incense, water, and food.

Large altar platforms in the main halls of Buddhist temples from all periods generally held ensembles of images including buddhas, bodhisattvas, and guardian figures. In many cases these images date from different periods and have separate histories, and may have come from other temples or private residences. Whether an altar maintains its originally planned complement of images, or has been changed, a central buddha or bodhisattva image serves as the main icon of the hall. That image is generally larger in scale than attendant deities. In addition to buddha icons and ensembles in the main halls, most temples also established separate halls devoted to a single deity worshipped alone or as part of an ensemble.

Much smaller images, both carved and painted, were often made for particular occasions and may have been used only once or periodically. During ceremonies and lectures, images served as the fundamental deity (honzon), were offered greetings, offerings, prayers, music, and the like, and were then de-animated as the ceremony closed. Smaller images could be returned to shrine boxes or temple storehouses. Some images became the focus of monthly or yearly ceremonies or sūtra readings, but many were kept secret, locked away in cabinets that ultimately enhanced their efficacy and aided in their preservation.

Because buddha images must be made to exacting iconographical standards, most in fact copy other images, leaving little room for innovation on the part of their makers, except perhaps in stylistic detail or technique. The act of making and worshipping an image was a good deed, and inscribed or documented examples reveal that buddha images were dedicated to transfer merit to someone else, to cure illness, to improve the karma (action) of someone already deceased, to pray for future generations, and to beseech protection of family and state. Such motivations have remained constant for centuries.

Cast, carved, and modeled images

Small images initially came to Japan as the baggage of immigrants from the Korean peninsula during the mid-sixth century. Official accounts of the introduction of the dharma from the Korean peninsula devote considerable attention to gifts of buddha images, to their circulation among the elite, and to building temples to house them. The first images do not survive, but numerous sixth- and seventh-century examples of both imported and local manufacture remain. Most are of gilt-bronze, less than fifty centimeters in height; their iconographic and stylistic diversity reflects both earlier and contemporary developments on the mainland. Thus Shaka (Śākyamuni), Yakushi (Bhaiṣajyaguru), Miroku (Maitreya), and Kannon (Avalokiteśvara) predominate. These earliest images are generally not inscribed or recorded in documents, nor do they remain in their original settings.

During the seventh and eighth centuries, members of the court took up image-making on a grand scale, sponsoring a succession of massive projects designed to unite the populace, assert state authority, and create a material presence for the Buddhist establishment to rival those abroad. A succession of increasingly ambitious state temples built in Fujiwara-kyō and Heijō-kyō (among them Hōkōji, Daikandaiji, and Yakushiji) culminated in the building of Tōdaiji, with its colossal cast bronze and gilded image of Rushana (Vairocana), a project modeled directly on Tang-dynasty precedents. Because bronze was too costly for most image production, during the eighth century state and temple workshops employed a variety of carving and modeling techniques to achieve an increasingly lifelike appearance. Hōryūji, Tōdaiji, and Kōfukuji all contain numerous life-size or larger images of clay modeled on a wooden armature, as well as those modeled in lacquer-soaked cloth over a wooden frame. Mineral pigments and gold enhanced the surface of the images.

These costly and time-consuming techniques died out in the late eighth century as a result of patronage shifts and the closing of temple and state workshops. During the late eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, Buddhism spread throughout the provinces, where local leaders built temples in the mountains and on provincial estates. Image-making in wood proliferated, resulting

in a variety of regional styles, iconographies, and carving techniques.

Buddha and bodhisattva images were not the only deities within temple precincts in the eighth and later centuries. Powerful local deities (kami) played critical roles in the lives of temples and monks, as for instance when in 749 a Hachiman shrine was built at Tōdaiji. The making of carved images of kami began in the ninth century, and representations of Hachiman at Tōji, Yakushiji, and elsewhere attest their growing importance as protectors of the dharma. Due to the "Separation of Gods and Buddhas" edicts of the 1870s, however, the prominence of kami images and the shrines that housed them at Buddhist temples has largely been obscured or forgotten.

During the eleventh century in the capital Kyoto, members of the Fujiwara and ruling families dedicated themselves to temple-building and image-making on a grand scale. To meet their demands, wood-carvers devised an effective method for carving multiple blocks of wood, which were hollowed and reassembled to

create large numbers of relatively lightweight images in a variety of challenging poses. This "joined wood-block" technique, augmented in the late twelfth century by painted glass eyes and painted or gilded surfaces, became the norm in later centuries. From the eleventh century, carvers and their assistants organized themselves into family-based workshops where such techniques and styles were passed on from one generation to the next.

Hollowing out images created spaces where objects were deposited and inscriptions written. These inscriptions often give the date and circumstances of production, and include the names of donors and carvers. Objects deposited include dedicatory vows, sūtras, smaller images, and personal possessions. Where intact, these collections of objects provide revealing information about the beliefs and practices of image-making.

Painted images

In addition to three-dimensional images installed on temple altars or kept in small shrine boxes, the walls of some temple buildings were themselves painted with ensembles of buddhas (Hōryūji Golden Hall, early eighth century), deities of esoteric maṇḍalas and Shingon patriarchs (Daigoji pagoda, 851), representations of the nine stages of Amida's descent (Phoenix Hall, Byōdōin, 1053), and other subjects. But most walls were never painted or have lost their paintings due to repeated restorations. Instead, buddhas and bodhisattvas were painted on silk, mounted in scroll format, and hung only for special occasions ranging from state-sponsored rites to childbirth or death rituals. The largest of these were the size of temple walls, and represented AmitĀbha's pure land, the two-world maṆḌala of esoteric deities, and depictions of Śākyamuni's parinirvāṇa.

Painted images often incorporated a profusion of deities and landscape or architectural settings and local Japanese details. Representations of Amida's descent (raigō) for instance, often show Amida (Amitābha) and his entourage descending in a seasonal landscape to a dying believer recognizably in aristocratic dress and surroundings. In some cases, dreams or visions led to the creation of hitherto unseen iconography, as in the case of standing deities, different colorations or attributes, or unusual juxtapositions. Paintings depicting buddhas (honji) and their kami manifestations (suijaku), or shrine and temple precincts, produced from the thirteenth and later centuries, reveal the localization of Buddhist beliefs and practices.

Texts and tales

The arrival of Buddhism in Japan brought with it the written word and an enormous body of sacred literature, including sūtras, commentaries, practice manuals, and miraculous tales. Thousands of manuscripts survive from the eighth century on, some beautifully handwritten or printed, crafted of fine materials, or incorporating painting. Unlike living images installed on altars and wreathed in incense, flowers, and candle light during ceremonies, manuscripts brought individual devotees closer to the dharma, whether they themselves read or wrote the texts, or experienced them through lecture or oral storytelling.

Sūtra-copying was central to Buddhist practice in Japan from the earliest period, as every temple needed copies of basic texts. During the eighth century, most were produced at the state-sponsored workshop at Tōdaiji, but individual monks and lay patrons made their own copies for private use or donation. Like image-making and temple-building, sūtra-copying was an act of devotion and merit, requiring a reverent attitude. Sūtras were copied for a variety of occasions and reasons, and their completion was often accompanied by ceremonies or lectures. In the eleventh-century court, lavish projects to copy the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪka-sŪtra) mobilized teams of aristocrats who chose the finest materials—colored and decorated paper, gold and silver ink—to create manuscripts of extraordinary beauty and richness. The boom in sūtra-copying in the mid-eleventh century was related to belief that the world had entered the final era of the dharma (mappō). Many monks and lay patrons buried hand-copied sūtras in specially designed sūtra mounds (kyōzuka), in remote mountain settings where they were protected by local kami while awaiting the advent of Miroku (Maitreya). In some cases, letters or picture books of the deceased would be used as the paper for sūtras written out by their descendants on behalf of the departed. But most sūtra-copying projects were a simple matter of ink and paper, and a private vow from the writer; most ended up in temple or family storehouses. This practice of copying sūtras still flourishes at temples and in private homes.

In addition to sūtras, Buddhist literature abounds in biographies and miracle tales, many illustrated. The life of Śākyamuni was among the first narrative sequences to be represented in Japan in both sculpture (Hōryūji pagoda) and painting. But the initial focus on Śākyamuni quickly expanded to include miracle tales, both imported and localized. In the tenth century, the Sanbōe (Illustrations of the Three Jewels), written on behalf of a princess, included painted depictions of episodes from the history of Buddhism as well as of contemporary Japanese religious festivals and ceremonies.

Many temple icons were believed to have miraculous origins, and these origin tales (engi) were frequently illustrated in painted narratives. More extensive painted scrolls treat entire temple histories, from the making of icons, building of halls, to miracles wrought by their deities. A major genre of illustrated narrative was the sacred biography. In addition to Śākyamuni, the life of Prince ShŌtoku was illustrated repeatedly, first at temples he founded such as Shitennōji and Hōryūji, and at numerous temples that claimed him as founder. At least as early as the eleventh century, painted narrative cycles of famous patriarchs stressed aspects of their lineage and teaching. Interest in the lives of teachers peaked in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with the lavish productions of pictorial biographies of Pure Land patriarchs Ippen Chishin, HŌnen, and Ryōnen produced in numerous copies for distribution to branch temples. Some of these survive in such pristine condition that one wonders if they were ever viewed. The small scale of hand-held narrative scrolls proved unsuitable for more than intimate viewing, but at Dōjōji (Wakayama prefecture) picture-explaining monks (etoki hōshi) unroll a large-format scroll to tell the infamous story of Kiyohime's unrequited love for a monk and her transformation into a dragon, which follows the monk to Dōjōji and incinerates him with her fiery breath.

However, large hanging scrolls more commonly served for picture-explaining lectures directed at visitors and pilgrims. Prince Shōtoku's life may have been the first instance of this, but many such wall-sized biographies and origin tales exist from the thirteenth and later centuries, often now worn and tattered from repeated use. In the sixteenth and later centuries many temples and shrines utilized pilgrimage maṇḍala to instruct visitors about the history of their institution, its halls and deities, and miracles that had occurred within their precincts. These paintings served as effective fund-raising devices, as did representations of the six realms of existence (rokudō) with their emphasis upon punishment and hell. Such paintings, crude in execution but powerful in message, were carried about by itinerant storytellers who worked the roadsides, festivals, cities, and even private gatherings.

Practical needs

Buddhist temples and their affiliated shrines are repositories of the myriad finely crafted objects used to adorn temple halls, ritual implements employed in ceremonies, articles used by temple inhabitants, and precious gifts donated by lay patrons. These constituted part of a temple's material wealth, and thus could be sold if need dictated. Among the temples noted for their extensive storehouses are Hōryūji (seventh- and eighth-century textiles and metalwork, etc.), Tōdaiji (eighth-century objects in all media of foreign and native manufacture), Tōji and Daigoji (esoteric arts and manuscripts of all periods), Kōzanji (manuscripts and printed books, including those from China and Korea), Daitokuji (imported Chinese paintings, calligraphies, and tea utensils), and Kōdaiji (lacquerware and textiles), to name a few.

The many public and private ceremonies conducted at Buddhist temples or even in private residences utilized a variety of finely crafted objects for sacred adornment (sōgon) and in actual practice. Painted and woven banners were hung or were carried by participants in processions. Altar tables held ritual implements, incense burners, water dishes, and other items of bronze, gold, and silver. Monastic surplices, altar cloths, seat cushions, and other sacred textiles were made from donated women's garments. Black lacquer with sprinkled gold patterns or precious inlays of silver or mother-of-pearl, adorned tables, cabinets, and boxes for storing objects, clothing, and sacred texts. Large ceremonies and theatrical performances required musical instruments, masks, and costumes.

Because many temples also served as the private retreats for elite patrons, especially noblemen and women who themselves became monks and nuns, many paintings, manuscripts, textiles, lacquerware and other objects housed in temple storehouses cannot properly be characterized as "Buddhist art" even though they were perceived as "temple treasures."

The lower levels of society also participated in the material cultures of Buddhism, especially during the sixteenth and later centuries when a rise in quasi-religious travel by commoners created precursors of contemporary tourism. Temple icons, both carved and painted, were put on periodic display during temple airings and were sometimes sent outside temple precincts for fund-raising purposes. Devotional objects made expressly for purchase by visitors include printed Buddha images and sūtras, amulets and talismans, and painted wooden plaques (ema) upon which prayers to specific deities are written. Pilgrims often left paper "calling cards" on temple gates, they piled up stones in the form of a stŪpa, and deposited small carved Buddha images in the rafters of temple halls. In addition to pilgrimage, temples also established vast funerary precincts that have become extraordinary stone graveyards, most notably near the tombs of Prince Shōtoku, KŪkai, Hōnen, and other holy figures. While such material manifestations of Buddhist practice are not usually termed art, they are nonetheless a continuing feature of the visual culture of Buddhist practice in Japan today.

See also:Chan Art; China, Buddhist Art in; Hells, Images of; Honji Suijaku; Hōryūji and Tōdaiji; Huayan Art; Phoenix Hall (at the Byōdō in); Pure Land Art


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Karen L. Brock

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