Cultural Anthropology Of Japanese Buddhism Cultural Studies Essay

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A comparison of two sculptural representations of the Buddha from the early and the late Heian periods will demonstrate the stylistic changes that accompanied the increasing "japanization" of Buddhist art at this time. In 784 the Emperor decided to move the court from Nara, headquarters of the great Buddhist monasteries, in order to escape the political interference of the monks. The introduction of Esoteric or Shingon Buddhism in the late eighth century coincided with the decision to locate the court in Heian-Kyo (later Kyoto). Shingon Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism became, respectively, the prevailing religious modes of the early Heian (sometimes called Jogan) period and late Heian (sometimes called Fujiwara) period. The effect of these strands of Buddhism on Japanese art are reflected in the two sculptures of the Buddha considered here.

      The first work is a wooden statue of the Yakushi Nyorai, the healing Buddha or the Buddha of medicine, from the early Heian period (circa 793 A.D.). It is located in the Jingoji temple at Kyoto. The statue was sculpted from a single piece of cypress wood which was left in its natural state. Painted detailing was applied only to the eyes and lips. This bare-wood style derived from the example of Chinese sandalwood sculptures (Kidder 22). The figure stands on a lotus blossom and is back by a simply ornamented halo and screen that barely protrude beyond the outline of the shoulders and head. The statue measures 5 feet 6.8 inches tall and is one of the first standing images of the Yakushi Buddha in Japan. The sculptor's name is not known.

      The second work is a wooden statue of the seated Amida Nyorai, the Buddha of unlimited virtue, and is from the Late Heian period. It was carved by the sculptor Jocho (d. 1057) in the first half of the eleventh century. The statue, which is heavily gilded and painted with lacquer, is 9 feet 4 inches in height. The Amida is seated on a golden lotus and in front of "a flame-like golden aureole, adorned with gilded flying apsaras in worshipful attitudes" and halos surround the immediate outlines of the head and body (Stanley-Baker 71). Jocho's work is located in the Hoodo or Phoenix Hall of the Byodoin, the private sanctuary and chapel of the regent Fujiwara Yorimichi (994-1074), in the Kyoto Prefecture.

      Images of the Buddha in Japanese art represent Buddhism's founder Guatama who engaged in a period of contemplation under a bo tree and thereby attained Buddhahood, becoming the Buddha or Sakyamuni. The Indian word Sakyamuni is rendered as either Shaka Nyorai or Shakamuni Butsu in Japanese. There are various types of "Buddhas" in Japanese art and each represents some particular aspect of Guatama Buddha or some stage of his life. The four Buddhas most commonly depicted in Japanese art are the Sakyamuni, Dainichi, Amida, and Yakushi (Boger 69). There are significant differences in the manner in which the various versions of the Guatama Buddha are represented. The Sakyamuni, for example, is Buddha as a prince, prior to his period under the bo tree. The Sakyamuni is typically shown with long hair that flows over his shoulders or is tied in a knot (Boger 69). But there are many variations, even among the depictions of a particular Buddha.

      According to the sutras. the Buddhist scriptures, a Buddha has thirty-two physical traits by which he is known. Such traits are used in various combinations. Thus, among the traits often employed are the snail-like curls of hair called rahotsu. This style of hair appears on both the Buddhas considered here. Another of the many traits is the slight webbing of fingers and toes which is visible on the Byodoin Amida Nyorai, but is not shown on the Yakushi Nyorai of Jingoji. Each Buddha can also carry particular symbols, indicating which of the particular Buddhas is being shone. The Yakushi is credited with healing both "physical and spiritual diseases" and the Yakushi Nyorai of Jingoji carries the traditional medicine cup in his left hand.

      A third iconographic element in Japanese Buddhas is the mudra, the symbolic gestures they make. Such gestures appeared in the earliest Indian depictions of the Buddha and came from a tradition of symbolic gestures established long before the Buddha was represented in human form. But these early "poses of the hands . . . were related only to the life of the historical Buddha" and their evolution into a complicated symbolic system took place over centuries (Saunders 10).

      Each of the Buddhas discussed here is shown with the mudra most common for its type. The Yakushi Nyorai of Jingoji holds his right hand up, palm outward. The open-palm gesture is called the semui-in. "Habitually, in the gesture of Yakushi, the thumb is inflected toward the palm, slightly bent [and] the ring finger and the little finger are very often curved in a supple and rhythmic gesture" (Saunders 64). This is precisely the version of the semui-in found in the Jingoji Yakushi.

      The semui-in gesture comes from a traditional Indian story in which a malevolent being, trying to harm the Buddha, drove a drunken elephant toward Sakyamuni as he sat under the bo tree. The Buddha raised his right hand, stopping and subduing the elephant. Thus the semui-in is a gesture indicating fearlessness. The Buddha's "benevolence triumphs over evil by inner strength and [this] illustrates the Buddhist concept of 'not hurting,'" appropriate to the Buddha of healing (Saunders 59).

      The Amida Nyorai at Byodoin displays a mudra which is one of several types of the "Amida jo-in," in which the thumbs meet over the interlaced fingers as the hands rest in the lap, palms up. In the particular variation of the jo-in employed at Byodoin, the bent index fingers are placed back-to-back. The jo-in symbolizes "the complete absorption of thought by intense contemplation of a single object of meditation" which results in the mind detaching itself from the 'real' world in order for the worshiper to identify entirely with the Supreme Unity (Saunders 87). The jo-in is symbolic of Guatama's attainment of Buddhahood during his period of contemplation under the bo tree.

      The simple differences in the two Buddhas under consideration are due in part to the fact that they represent two different manifestations of the Buddha. But the prevalence of the types of Buddha and the changes in artistic style were due to the change in religious traditions from the early to the late Heian period. In the late eighth century the monks of Nara had become involved in the business of the imperial Court "to the detriment of proper administration" (Stanley-Baker 59). In China such interference often resulted in active suppression of Buddhism, but in Japan the unusual method of moving the court was employed. The Court also encouraged the new Buddhist sects that were being imported from China in the hope that this would "curb the Nara clergy's power" (Swann 78). The fact that new centers of religion were being created away from Nara, and that new sects were directing the creation of art there, meant that Japanese sculpture had an opportunity to find "its own canons" and escape from the heavy Chinese influence of the prevailing styles (Kidder 22).

      Shingon, or True Word, Buddhism was the most important of the new sects. The central point in Shingon theology was the belief in "the essential identity of all things in the person of the Supreme Buddha" (Munsterberg 56). The world of the senses and the ultimate reality of Buddha were essentially undifferentiated in Shingon because they derived from the same cosmic principle. This even extended to denying the difference between the images and the deity himself. The images were usually concealed from the public in closed-off portions of the temples. The priests devoted themselves to the endless interpretation of an extremely complicated iconography -- this was the esoteric side of Shingon. It was not a religion that was easily accessible and the common people required the intervention of the priests to interpret the meanings of the art and writing produced in this period. As a result of its emphasis on esoteric meanings, symbolism became the most important focus in art and "Shingon artists were not primarily concerned with the creation of sensuous beauty" as earlier painters and sculptors had been (Munsterberg 57).

      The result was that the sculpture of the period was "dark and heavy, with an air of mystery and inward absorption, but so powerful as to seem forbidding" (Stanley-Baker 63). Stanley-Baker names the Yakushi Nyorai of Jingoji as typical of Shingon sculpture. Kidder describes the style as "bulky and massive, particularly through the thighs of the standing figures [with] a monotonously regular drapery fold that was now little more than a formula" (22). This description fits the Jingoji Yakushi perfectly. Though this Yakushi derives from earlier Chinese and Indian models, its exaggerated proportions and "crystallization of style" were logical developments at a time when no stylistic innovations were being received from outside sources and sculptors had not yet faced the problem of developing a new and specifically Japanese style (Kidder 22).

      The Yakushi of Jingoji has a heavy, brooding quality that is accentuated by the sharp folds of the robe as they outline the thighs and surround the bare chest. The narrowly-opened eyes look straight ahead and ignore the worshiper who must have been some distance below their gaze. The outsized hands and the elongated face are fleshy in appearance but are carved in a simple sharp-edged style that makes them appear hard. The same is true of the extremely stylized folds of the robe which, Stanley-Baker points out, were meant to "focus the viewer's attention, inducing concentration as if by hypnosis" (63). The figure is not inviting and, since it was probably intended as a subject for the monks' private contemplation, it did not need to make any appeal to the majority. The styles that were handed down from Indian and Chinese traditions are exaggerated in this style of carving as the sculptors took the models they had been given to their ultimate, highly stylized, conclusion. This stylization met the needs of esoteric Buddhism but it also signaled the need for a new style.

      Japanese art did not fully escape Chinese influence until the Late Heian or Fujiwara period. In the ninth century sculptors "discarded the heavy forms and forbidding attitudes" of Shingon sculpture and returned to the "gentler tastes of the Nara period" (Swann 95). In religious art the impetus for change was found in the rise of the Jodo, or Pure Land, sect of Buddhism. This form of Buddhism taught the worship of the Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Unlimited Virtues. The Jodo sect promised believers that they would "be reborn in Amida's Paradise, the Pure Land of Jodo" if they engaged in calling Amida's name (Boger 76). One popular preacher of Jodo, Genshin (942-1017), detailed the "horrors of hell and the delights of paradise," a version of salvation that made a simple and direct appeal to the common people (Tamburello 103). After the reign of Esoteric Buddhism, Jodo's popularity was due to the fact that it once again made Buddhism accessible to everyone. The means of salvation, the nembutsu or "ceaseless repetition of the name of Amida," became the most common type of meditation among lay people (Stanley-Baker 66).

      Jodo's effect is seen in the sudden emergence of numerous depictions of the Amida "with their expression of tenderness and compassion" (Boger 76). The Byodoin Amida Nyorai is one of the most famous examples of the new style of depicting the Buddha in the Late Heian. The difference between the Yakushi of Jingoji and the Amida of Byodoin is immediately apparent. The Amida "looks at the faithful with understanding," while the Yakushi could hardly be said to seem to be aware of the worshiper in front of him (Tamburello 104). The Amida invites the viewer to join in the contemplation in which he is engaged. Though he is in the position of deep meditation, as indicated by the jo-in mudra and the seated position, the Amida's gaze takes in the viewer and invites him to join in the meditation. The Amida speaks of possibilities and has an open, defenseless posture unlike the forbidding mudra of the Jingoji Nyorai which, rather than symbolizing fearlessness, almost seems to halt the viewer's approach toward the image. The elegantly carved, relaxed simplicity of the Amida's figure and robes also have the very sensuousness that the Yakushi lacks. This appreciation of sensuous beauty on the part of the artist invites the viewer to come forward and appreciate it in the same manner.

      In an art tradition in which a single basic image predominates so heavily it is clear that variation, even among the smallest details, is necessary to avoid stagnation. The Yakushi of Jingoji and the Byodoin Amida demonstrate the manner in which emerging trends in Buddhist practice gave new life to the creation of Buddhist art.


W Boger, H. Batterson. The Traditional Arts of Japan. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964.

     Kidder, J. Edward. Masterpieces of Japanese Sculpture. Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppan-Sha; Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1961.

     Munsterberg, Hugo. The Arts of Japan: An Illustrated History. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1957.

     Saunders, E. Dale. Mudra: A study of Symbolic Gestures in Japanese Buddhist Sculpture. Bollingen Series. 58. New York: Pantheon Books, 1960.

     Stanley-Baker, Joan. Japanese Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.

     Swann, Peter C. The Arts of Japan from the Jomon to the Tokugawa Period. New York: Crown, 1966.

     Tamburello, Adolfo. Monuments of Civilization: Japan. New York: Madison Square Press, 1973.