Sutra Illustrations

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Sūtras were illustrated in many different formats and media, such as bianxiang (transformation tableaux), but this entry is limited to manuscript illuminations and illustrations done primarily on palm leaf or paper.

Sūtra illustrations in South and Southeast Asia

In South and Southeast Asia the oral transmission of sūtras prevailed until the first century b.c.e. when written copies were first produced. By the tenth and eleventh centuries written sūtras were common and monastic complexes such as Nalanda produced illustrated texts. Sūtras were copied onto leaves of the tala or palmyra tree, the oldest extant example being one brought from China to Japan in 608. The palm leaves are approximately three to four inches wide by twelve to eighteen inches long. The text was written on both sides of the palm leaves, which were lacquered or prepared with pigments before the inscription of the texts. Strung together, the palm leaves were bound between covers of narrow boards upon which illustrations and decorative motifs were also drawn. Illustrated sūtras were also executed on paper that was cut, strung, and bound in the shape and style of palm-leaf sūtras.

The illustrations on these manuscripts were placed in single frames between lines of text or on the covers. Common subjects included individual deities and the

eight great events of Śākyamuni's life. In many instances, the figures depicted had no specific connection with the contents of the text and probably functioned as symbols of protection and reverence for the text. In other instances, particularly in later manuscripts, there were deities and narrative scenes based on the contents of the sūtra. The images were painted most often in ink and gouache, but also could have gold and silver accents. The miniaturization necessary to the format and the preeminence of the text hampered the development of continuous or complex narrative illustrations. Illuminated sūtras reached an artistic apogee in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, declined in number for several centuries, and experienced resurgence in number and quality in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, especially in Nepal, Tibet, Thailand, and Burma.

Sūtra illustrations in East Asia

East Asian Buddhists copied sūtras from as early as the fourth century in China, where the development of and the Chinese reverence for the written word led to sūtra copying on a large scale. Sūtra copying reached its peak in the Tang period (618–907) in China, the Heian (794–1185) and Kamakura (1185–1333) periods in Japan, and the Koryŏ period (918–1392) in Korea. The sūtras were copied chiefly onto hand scrolls, but the folded book (Japanese, orihon), in which a scroll was folded in accordion fashion, and the bound book of separate sheets of paper were also used. Although the initial impetus was the need for copies of the text, the copied sūtras also were revered as evidence of the sponsor's piety and merit. The veneration of sūtras led to increasing adornment involving dyeing, marbling, decorative designs, and illustrations, as well as the use of gold and silver inks.

The most common form of sūtra illustration is the frontispiece painting found at the beginning of hand or folded book scrolls. These paintings were often executed in gold and silver inks and formed a style common to all East Asian cultures. The subject matter frequently centered upon the Buddha preaching to a group of bodhisattvas, deva, arhats, and practitioners. A printed version of the Diamond SŪtra from Dunhuang dated 868 is the earliest dated versions of such a frontispiece illustration. The scene of preaching did not always reflect the specific content of the text. However, some frontispiece paintings illustrated the main doctrines or stories of the text either as single illustrations or as additions to the preaching scene.

A second broad category of paintings evoked, rather than directly illustrated, the text's message. Japanese illustrations of the Heian and Kamakura periods sometimes referred to poetry or stories about the ideas and episodes in the sūtra. These illustrations appear to be unrelated to the text, but have hidden script and rebus that, when decoded, related to the specific sūtra. The Heike Nōkyō of 1164 is a good example of this evocative style of illustration.

Illustrations were also painted in the upper sections over text that was written in the lower sections, or the illustrations were interspersed between sections of the text. In both cases the text and picture were more closely interwoven than in frontispiece illustrations, and therefore these paintings were often more literal renditions of the text.

Finally, there were sūtra illustrations that had no relationship to the text. These illustrations were linked to the sponsor or copyist of the sūtra and thereby emphasized the person to whom merit accrued for copying the sūtra. It is believed that the fan-shaped booklets from the twelfth century at Shitennōji are examples of a sūtra written over paper painted with genre, courtier, and landscape scenes that once belonged to the sponsor of the copied sūtra.

Regardless of format or material, sūtra illustrations functioned in many ways: as illustrations and evocations of the sūtra's content, as protective talismans of the text, as emblems of the sponsor, and as pure adornment to an object of reverence.

See also:Scripture


Egami, Yasushi, ed. Sôshkugyō (Nihon no Bijutsu no. 278). Tokyo: Shibundō, 1989.

Ōyama, Ninkai, ed. Shakyō (Nihon no Bijutsu no. 156). Tokyo: Shibundō, 1979.

Pal, Pratapadtya, and Meech-Pekarik, Julia. Buddhist Book Illuminations. New York: Ravi Kumar, 1988.

Tanabe, Willa Jane. Paintings of the Lotus Sutra. New York: Weatherhill, 1988.

Willa Jane Tanabe

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Sutra Illustrations

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