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Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011

The embodiment of Buddha Shakyamuni through art

Special to The Japan Times

"What is national treasure?" wrote Saicho (767-822), the founding monk of Tendai Buddhism, in his 818 "The Essential Teachings for Tendai Lotus Sect Priests," which he presented to Emperor Saga to bolster the standing of his esoteric order. His answer was pursuing the Buddhist path, and that "shining light into one corner is itself a national treasure."

News photo
Divine in Japan: The Important Cultural Property, "Standing Kannon Bosatsu" (7th century). HONNOJI TEMPLE, YASU-SHI

That text is itself now a national treasure, and casting a light on the religious evolution of the Saicho sect is the theme of "The Path to Tendai Buddhism: In Quest of the Eternal Shakyamuni" at the Miho Museum in Shiga Prefecture. It is an exhibition that pays homage to the religion's outstanding aesthetic sensibility, and it is accompanied by a magisterial and edifying catalog.

Take, for example, the sutra-copying project initiated by Empress Komyo (701-760) that exceeded 7,000 in number and spanned approximately 15 years. Among them is the "Angulimala Sutra" (8th century), which relays a tale of a young priest led astray by mis-teachings that end up with him murdering 999 people. He cut off their fingers and strung them together in a garland. When the priest was about to kill his 1,000th victim — his own mother — the Buddha Shakyamuni perceived his agony and took him as a disciple, and under Shakyamuni the priest attained enlightenment. The entire canon of sutras was commissioned in memorial to Empress Komyo's mother and father, and also as an entreaty for the happy reign of her husband.

Saicho trained in Buddhism at the foot of Mount Hiei, which bridges present-day Kyoto and Shiga prefectures, and was determined to seek the truth of Buddhism as set forth in the Lotus Sutra. The exhibition gets under way with the death of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, a time of great pain for his followers, though for him a sublime transition from the bodily state to celestial tranquility. In "The Passing of Shakyamuni" (14th century), all the bodhisattvas, celestials and creatures of the world gather around his lying figure. He is writ large, compositionally the most significant, but also quite literally in that he dwarfs an elephant.

Picturing the historical Buddha Shakyamuni was a much later development, as following Shakyamuni's death, he was initially represented by way of a relic, a chair in which he sat, or through his footprint. And indeed the Buddha was large, as depicted here by the 2nd-3rd century, 75.5 cm-long schist footprint from the ancient kingdom of Gandhara, also known as the Swat Valley, which runs along today's Afghan-Pakistan border.

With Shakyamuni departed, and seven Buddhas said to have appeared on earth in the past, the appearance of a future Buddha, presently in training in the fourth of the six heavens, was conceived. So came about the Miroku Bosatsu, here rendered in bronze through the lost wax-technique of casting. It was to take 5,670 million years after Shakyamuni's death, however, before the Miroku Bosatsu was to manifest, and until then, impatient as the public were for salvation and solace, the Buddhas proliferated.

A good example is found in the "Mandala of the Two Realms" (14th century), which pictures the Womb Realm and the Diamond Realm with the Vairocana Buddha in the center surrounded by a host of deities. The mandala shows the compassion of the Buddha spreading out in every direction, and it was introduced to Japan via the priest Kukai (774-835), who brought it back from China.

News photo
Treasured relics: "Reliquary," from Central Asia, Gandhara (1st century B.C.E.). MIHO MUSEUM

The later Tendai priests En'nin (793-864) and Enchin (814-891), who were successors to Saicho, also visited China and brought back similar works. Kukai's esoteric Shingon Buddhism proved to be a strong adversary to that of Saicho's, and so his legacy and the advancement of Tendai Buddhism was entrusted to En'nin and Enchin following Saicho's death, though frictions ensued.

A curious picture in the exhibition, "Tendai Daishi, Dengyo Daishi, Jikaku Daishi" (14th century) depicts the Chinese founder of Tiantai Buddhism, Zhi-yi, with Saicho and En'nin, a combination of which no other precedent is known.

Arguably the most engaging and stupefying work, however, is the "Standing Thousand-armed Kannon" (11th century), carved from a single piece of cypress wood, and unfortunately charred in its entirety by fire at some point in its history. Its two extra faces on either side of its head, one wrathful and the other showing a gentle expression, are simply sublime.

Those not satiated by the present exhibition will be delighted to know there are two concurrent and related exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, Shiga, and the Otsu City Museum of History, both in Shiga Prefecture.

"The Path to Tendai Buddhism: In Quest of the Eternal Shakyamuni" at the Miho Museum runs till Dec. 11; admission ¥1,000; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.miho.jp/english/index.htm.

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