Buddhist Art – A Brief History

Like Japanese Buddhism itself, Japanese Buddhist art was a national variant of an international tradition. In Japan the Buddhist art forms that were periodically introduced from China and Korea were tempered in the crucible of local custom and usage, to yield a rich tradition of religious art and architecture.

The Buddhist Mainstream

Buddhism was formally transmitted to Japan from China and Korea in the 6th century. The forms of Buddhism and Buddhist art that first arrived in Japan were chiefly those of the Mahayana (J: Daijo Bukkyo) tradition. a theistic and catholic system of belief that stressed universal salvation and that was to remain the underlying framework of most sects of Buddhist belief and practice in Japan through the modern era.
From its inception Buddhism in Japan engaged the concern and patronage of ruling interests and became virtually a state creed. Temples and monastic compounds usually consisted of at least seven typical structures. include a to (pagoda), a main hall called the kondo (“Golden Hall”). a lecture hall called the kodo, and a kyozo or sutra repository. They were built as the seats of Buddhist worship and instruction. In the first wave of such construction. numerous temples were erected from the late 6th to the early 7th century in what is now the Kyoto-Osaka region, most notably Asukadera, Shitennoji, and Horyuji. After Heijokyo (Nara) was designated the national capital in 710, a new wave of temple construction in the early 8th century produced the great Nara-period (710-794) metropolitan monasteries, among them Kofukuji, Daianji, and Yakushiji.
A tremendous amount of Buddhist art was commissioned for the halls and chapels of these temple complexes. Paintings and sculptures representing various Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and guardian deities were the icons to which worship and ritual were directed. Important examples of such early art-works are the 7th-century gilt-bronze Shaka Triad (Skt. Sakyamuni) flanked by two bodhisattvas and Yakushi (Skt. Bhaisajyaguru), attributed to Kuratsukuri No Tori, at Horyuji; the 8th-century gilt-bronze Yakushi Triad at Yakushiji, and the 8th-century clay Nio (Skt. Vajradhara; Benevolent Kings) at Horyuji. Realistic portraits of famous monks, such as the 8th-century lacquer sculpture of Ganjin at Toshodaiji, were also enshrined at temples. A corollary art form that of the illustrated handscroll (Emakimono), was developed for Buddhist narrative instruction. The oldest in this genre is the 8th-cewntury biography of Shaka called the E inga Kyo (Illustrated Sutra of Cause and Effect).
The construction of Todaiji from 747 marked the apex of classical Buddhist art and architecture in Japan. The temple’s honzon, or principle object of worship, is a colossal gilt-bronze image – measuring some 15 meters in height – of the cosmic Buddha called Birushana (Skt. Vairocana). A technical feat. this giant sculpture – called the Nara Daibutsu (“Great Buddha of Nara”) – came to symbolize the power, wealth and intrusiveness of state-sanctioned Buddhism.

Esoteric Buddhism

In part as a reaction to the state Buddhism symbolized by Todaiji and the Nara Daibutsu, a new regime moved the capital to Heiankyo (now Kyoto) in 794. Largely coincidental with this move was the emergence into prominence of Mikkyo, “the secret teachings”, a system of exoteric Buddhist belief and practice that was to be articulated in the Shingon Sect and the Tendai Sect.
The Buddha Dainichi (Skt. Mahavairocana), a cosmic force that was already evident in Buddhist ideology by the time of the Nara Daibutsu, became the organizing principle of esoteric Buddhism and the focus of worship. Esotericism also involve a vastly enhanced pantheon of deities, many culled from non-Buddhist traditions, and an increased emphasis on elaborate ritual as a means of harnessing the power inherent in this pantheon.
Perhaps the most characteristic art form of esotericism is the Mandala, a schematic depiction of the cosmos and its various gods taht is used as teh focus of meditation and ritual. Key to Shingon and Tendai practice were the paired mandalas of the Diamond or Thunderbolt Realm (Kongokai) and the Matrix of Womb Realm (Taizokai), together referred to as the Ryobu Makara or “Two Mandalas”. An important early example of this format is the 9th century Takao mandara (Takao Madala) at Jingoji.
Unlike the metropolitan temples of the 8th century, Shingon and Tendai temples as a whole were constructed away from centers of urban concentration, usually in a mountain setting. For example, Enryakuji, seat of the Tendai sect, was built on the slopes of Mt. Hiei, and Kongobuji on Mt. Koya became the headquarters of the Shingon sect. In both cases buildings were distributed in an irregular fashion over a hilly, forested terrain.
The paintings and sculptures that filled these buildings. in keeping with their function as iconic representations of esoteric deities, displayed an aesthetic and stylistic tenor appropriate to the mystery of ritual and mediation at a remote temple. An important example of this tendency is seen in the 9th-century set of five statues of the Bodhisattvas of the Void (Go Dai Kokuzo Bosatsu), each in painted wood, at Jingoji. Also coincidental with the development of esotericism was a trend in sculpture toward the carving of votive statues out of single blocks of wood, their surfaces left unadorned with paint or lacquer in deference to the inherent sanctity of the sacred tree. The principal examples of this “plain wood” style are the Yakushi figures at Gangoji (early 9th century) and at Jingoji

Pure Land Buddhism

Even though exotericism remained a major element in Japanese religious life. by the close of the 10th century it had begun to give way as a system of popular belief to Pure Land faith and practice. In the Pure Land tradition worship focused on the Buddha Amida (Skt. Amitabha) and on rebirth in his Western Paradise, or Pure Land, called Gokuraku (Skt. Sukhavati). Artworks were essential to Pure Land doctrine and its next world emphasis on rebirth and salvation: as guides in meditational practices directed at visualizing Amida in his paradise, as markers of the “awesome splendor” of the Buddha, and as a means of accumulating religious merit. Indeed. the 11th and 12th centuries saw a dramatic increase in the production of Buddhist art and architecture.
A celebrated example of Pure Land art and aesthetics is the amidado (Amida hall), now called the Phoenix Hall (Hoodo). at Byodin in Uji. which was constructed in 1053 by Fujiwara No Yorimichi (992-1074), who, with his father, Fujiwara No Michinaga (966-1028), was one of the great patrons of Pure Land Buddhism and art. Like other temples of its day. which were much influenced by descriptions in Pure Land scripture of Amida’s palatial residence, Byodoin was at the same time a detached residence in the Shinden-Zukuri mode, where Yorimichi might live as well as pray.
Enshrined at Byodoin’s Phoenix Hall is a gilt-wood sculpture of Amida by the artist Jocho (? – 1057), who in this work and others like it set a technical and stylistic standard that would remain in place through the 13th century. On the walls of the Phoenix Hall is a series of paintings depicting the various degrees of rebirth in Amida’s paradise; these are attributed to the artist Takuma Tamenari, a member of a family dynasty of Buddhist artists believed to be the forerunners of the Takuma School.
One of the principal treatises of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism – one that had a major impact on art production – was a work by the Tendai monk Genshin (Eshin Sozu; 942-1017) called Ojoyoshu (985, The Essentials of Pure Land Rebirth), in which was set forth an exhaustive account of Amida’s nine sectors of paradise and the nine degrees of rebirth (kubon ojo) therein. This stimulated development of the kutai amidado (nine-image Amida hall), also called kutaido (nine-image hall), in which nine monumental figures of Amida were enshrined. An example of this format is seen at Joruriji, a temple built in the 11th century.
In painting, a key Pure Land genre was the so-called Raigozu, in which Amida and his heavenly entourage are shown arriving to welcome and guide the dying to paradise. Like the opulent amidado built at Byodoin and other temples, as well as the parallel development of the kutaido architectural format, the raigozu genre was heavily influenced by Genshin’s work. An important example of an early raigo painting is the mid-12th-century triptych Amida shoju raigozu (Descent of Amida and the Heavenly Multitude), now preserved on Mt. Koya but originally enshrined at Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei.
In Ojoyoshu Genshin did not limit his discussion to paradise; the first part of this treatise provided a horrific vision of the six realms of existence (rokudo), and especially various hells. as a means to awakening faith and penitence. This, too, was reflected in contemporary Pure Land painting, particularly in the emakimono format; by the 12th century and imagery of hell and karmic retribution was fully developed. Celebrated examples of this genre are the Gaki-Zoshi (Scrolls of Hungry Ghosts) and Jigoku-Zoshi (Scrolls of Hells). Another emakimono genre, that of temple histories (engi) and biographies of saints and monks, was also developed. An example of this popular genre is Shigasan Engi Emaki (The Legends of Mt. Shigi).

Zen Buddhism

In the 13th century the Zen sect, disseminated by Japanese and Chinese monks, took hold among the ruling military elites and introduced new currents in art. Zen monasteries, such as Kenchoji and Engakuji, emerged as both seats of religious discourse and centers for the secular cultural activities for which the Zen monks became increasingly known: literary studies, poetry, painting, and calligraphy.
Zen temples were strongly continental in flavor and differed significantly from the architectural models used in other sects. Layout, nomenclature. furnishings, and even structural details were derived from the Buddhist architecture of south central China. The typical Zen monastic compound, especially the semiautonomous subtemple known as tatchu. usually incorporated a carefully composed small garden. In keeping with the austerity of Zen taste, some of these gardens, in a format called “rock and sand garden” (karesansui), were landscaped without the standard pond or stream; the flow of water was evoked through the raking of smooth sand and gravel.
Paintings in a variety of genres figured in Zen ritual and monastic life. The public ceremonial halls of Zen temples enshrined depictions of the deities, great monks, and great events significant to Zen tradition. such as the portrayal of the death of Sakyamuni painted by Mincho for Kyoto’s Tofukuji in 1408. The private halls and quarters at a Zen compound accommodated a more informal imagery, such as painted portraits of the sect.
A category of painting that was particularly favored in Zen circles was the doshakuga, a picture of a Taoist or Buddhist subject that was rendered with innovative handling of brush and ink and employed simplified motifs. A prominent doshakuga subject was the White-Robed Kannon, as seen in Kannon enkaku zu (Kannon with Monkey and Crane), by Mokei at Daitokuji in Kyoto. Included in doshakuga imagery were depictions (called zenkizu; “scenes of God”) of quasi-legendary and eccentric figures exemplifying Zen ideals. An important example of this genre is Eka dampu zu (Huike Cuts Off His Arm), painted by Susshu Toyo in 1496 and now housed at Sainenji, Aichi Prefecture. Sesshu shows the second Chan Patriarch, Huike, proffering his severed right arm to Bodhidharma.
Another means for expression of Zen ideals trough painting was the calligraphic exerci9se called bokuseki (“ink traces”). A distinguished monk would write, often in a bold and assertive style, an evocative phrase for the edification of a disciple or visitor, and the product would be cherished for its artistic value and for its historical associations.
The impact of Zen aesthetics and doctrine was by no means limited to the monastic compound. The development of a pure landscape painting genre in Japan as well as the emergence of a mature suibokuga (ink painting) tradition. owes much to the influence of Zen and Zen monk-painters.

Buddhism under the Tokugawa Shogunate

The spread of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy in China and Korea also affected Japan, where the unifying ideology of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867) and its widespread educational system constituted an official state Confucianism. As Buddhism lost its centrality to politics and culture. Buddhist art gave way to secular forms, although Buddhist values remained visible in much of Japanese taste and aesthetics.
The arts, however, were not entirely devoid of Buddhist genres. While not organized into a formal school, the tradition of the Zen monk-amateur painter flourished to the end of the 19th century and has recently been given the named Zenga (“Zen painting”). Important painters in this genre were the monks Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769), and Sengai Gibon (1750-1837). In sculpture, a handful of eccentric artists produced roughly carved, highly personal interpretations in wood of various Buddhist icons. among these innovative artists were Enku (1632-1695) and Mokujiki Gogyo (1718-1810).

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