Gallery of Ancient Japan

Gonzo, Teacher of Kukai (color on silk; 12th century)

Kukai, along with Saicho, was instrumental in introducing esoteric Buddhism into Japan around 800 AD. While his first teacher was Gonzo, shown here, an exponent of Nara Buddhism, Kukai learned esoteric Buddhism primarily from Hui-kuo, the eighth patriarch of Shingon Buddhism. Kukai was his most illustrious pupil and returned to Japan from China in 806 to found Shingon practices at Mt. Hiei. Both he and Saicho, who had also studied esoteric Buddhism in China, helped to shift practices at Hiei to esoteric practices. However, Kukai insisted on Shingon as the only "True Words" of the Buddha and left to found his own monastery, Kongobuji (Diamond Tranquility) on Mount Koya south of Osaka. He would later become the favorite of the Emperor Toji and Shingon would sit at the center of Japanese Buddhist practices in official circles from then on.

Copyright, 1995, Corel Corporation. See the Corel License Agreement under which these pictures are published. This image is to be used only for educational activities in connection with the classes connected to this site.


Zemmui, Teacher of Patriarch of Tendai Buddhism (color on silk; 12th century)

Zemmui was an Indian Buddhist monk that studied esoteric Buddhism and is one of the Ten Patriarchs of Tendai Buddhism. The picture here is highly unusual in Japanese art; in fact, it is one of a kind in its use of colors, the representation of facial features, and the overall pose of the priest. Notice how the cloth folded around his form makes an abstract pattern almost independent of reality. Zemmui is holding a sutra scroll and at his side is Tamon-ten (in Sanskrit, Vaisravana), a guardian god of Buddhism. Tamon-ten holds a diamond handled sword and wears a fierce expression; his job is to protect believers from evildoers.

Copyright, 1995, Corel Corporation. See the Corel License Agreement under which these pictures are published. This image is to be used only for educational activities in connection with the classes connected to this site.


Ryokai Mandara (detail from the Taizokai Mandara)

Esoteric Buddhism was founded on the principle that the two aspects of Buddha, both the unchanging cosmic principle and the active, physical manifestation of Buddha in the natural world, were one and the same. The truth of the cosmic order, which is contained in the relationships between the Cosmic Buddha and all his manifestations, cannot be known verbally.

One method for understanding this truth was to comprehend it visually and symbolically; to this end, Japanese esoteric Buddhists imported the mandala (in Japanese, mandara), or circle, to express symbolically the order of the universe related to the cosmic Buddha. Since the Buddha occupied two separate realms, the mandala form that the esoteric priests imported was the Mandala of the Two Worlds, or Ryokai mandara (Ryo=two, kai=world, mandara=mandala). On the east side of the temple would be placed the Diamond World (Kongokai in Japanese, Vajradhatu in Sanskrit), which represented the world of the transcendental Buddha. It was called the Diamond World because it embodied a static, crystal clear, and adamantine truth of the universe. In the Diamond World, the Cosmic Buddha (Dainichi Nyorai in Japanese), sits in the center of assemblies of Buddhas arranged in a three by three square.

The other world, the Womb World (Taizokai in Japanese, Garbhadhatu in Sanskrit), was the world of physical phenomenon. In this mandala, the Dainichi Nyorai sits in the middle in relationship to all his physical manifestations ranged in several courts radiating outward from him. In the detail here, we see nine physical manifestations from the Lotus Holder's Court (which sits on the right side of the Court of Eight Petals, which is the court of the Cosmic Buddha). The physical manifestations of the Lotus Holder's Court represent the purity of all things. In the picture, you can see Buddha in several different aspects. To the bottom right, he is a three-headed, angry creature that represents the Buddha's ability to overcome evil (the three heads symbolize vigilance over evil). Most of the Buddhas, however, represent compassion or mercy. Not only are all the Buddhas surrounded by unique symbols, each one has a unique pairing of hand gestures, called mudras. The mudras are key in Buddhist practice; they recreate hand gestures from the life of Buddha. Not only did Buddha teach in words, he taught symbolically in hand gestures. Like all Buddhist art, a large part of the symbolic meaning is located in these hand gestures. For instance, the middle figure is making the semuiin gesture with his right hand (in Sanskrit, abhayamudra ). This means "fear not." Yes, an esoteric devotee could name each and every hand gesture in the picture you're looking at!

An esoteric devotee would be asked to starre and meditate on each of these Buddhas in turn. He would meditate on their symbolic meaning as it is represented visually and he would meditate on that deity's relationship to the other deities as those relationships are represented visually. When he's fiinished with the Taizokai Mandara, he would move on to the Kongokai Mandara. Once he's meditated and, through visual and symblic understanding, come to comprehend all the Buddhas and their relationships across the two worlds, he will have unified himself with the Cosmic Buddha. Beginning priests would be asked to throw a blossom at each of the two mandalas; the deity that the blossom landed on would be adopted as that person's personal deity for the course of his study.

The Ryokai Mandara is the oldest color mandala still in existence in Japan. It is believed to have been a copy made in China and brought to Japan in 859 by the Tendai priest, Enchin.

Copyright, 1995, Corel Corporation. See the Corel License Agreement under which these pictures are published. This image is to be used only for educational activities in connection with the classes connected to this site.


Shaka Nyorai (color on silk; 12th century)

The Shaka Nyorai is the Enlightened Buddha (Nyorai means Enlightened and Shaka is the Japanese name for Shakyamuni, the historical manifestation of the Buddha as Siddhartha Gautama). This is the only Japanese painting of the Shaka Nyorai alone without any attendants, gods, or other manifestations. In this painting, the Shaka is seated on a lotus throne and is clothed in very simple drapery, as opposed to the elaborate, court culture dress he often wears in Japanese paintings.

Copyright, 1995, Corel Corporation. See the Corel License Agreement under which these pictures are published. This image is to be used only for educational activities in connection with the classes connected to this site.




Death (Nirvana) of the Shaka (color on silk; 1086)

The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, died and achieved Nirvana (or Parinirvana , "absolute extinction"), near the River Vati under sala trees. Since absolute extinction is the goal of Buddhist practice, this is the most important moment in Shakyamuni's life. This painting is the earliest painting of the Shaka's death, and the oversized body of the Buddha is attended by grieving bodhissatvas, gods, and by the Ten Great Disciples. At the upper right, the Buddha's mother, Maya, is descending from heaven. The compositional principle, as you can plainly see, is to distinguish the peace of Buddha's nirvana with the dramatic, highly colored suffering surrounding him. This is also the earliest dated painting in Japanese history—the date inscribed on the silk is 1086.

In the two details accompanying the overall picture, you can get a tremendous glimpse into clothing fashions of the late Heian period. In the first detail, the figure is wearing clothing typical of Buddhist priests—the clothing is modest but highly colored. In the second detail, you can see typical Heian court clothing. Notice how the clothes have gold woven into them.

Copyright, 1995, Corel Corporation. See the Corel License Agreement under which these pictures are published. This image is to be used only for educational activities in connection with the classes connected to this site.


Fugen Bosatsu (color on silk; middle 1100's)

Fugen (in Sanskrit, Smantabhadra) was the bodhisattva that protected devotees of the Lotus Sutra , or Hoke-kyo in Japanese. Of all the sutras, the Lotus Sutra is the only one that specifically promised salvation to women, so Fugen was a popular deity among women in Heian upper classes. Paintings and sculptures of Fugen are very popular and devotion to Fugen and these images seems to have dominated upper class women's life in the Heian and Kamakura periods.

Copyright, 1995, Corel Corporation. See the Corel License Agreement under which these pictures are published. This image is to be used only for educational activities in connection with the classes connected to this site.


Ao Fudo ("Blue Fudo") (color on silk; eleventh century)

Among the unique transformations that the Heian Japanese wrought on Buddhist representation are the pictures of the Fudo, which were immensely popular. Of these, three remain: the Yellow Fudo (which you are not allowed to see), the Red Fudo, and the Blue Fudo. There are five fudo in all; as manifestations of the Buddha, they constitute the Myo-o (in Sanskrit, rajas), or "Great Kings." They served as guardians of the world and destroyers of evil; in line with the latter function, the Japanese depictions of the Myo-o portray them with twisted, frowning faces and protuding fangs. The Yellow Fudo holds a diamond sword (representing wisdom), and the Blue Fudo is surrounded by flames. This fierceness, however, is only limited to evildoers; to the believers, the Fudo is merciful and loving.

In the detail here, we have a representation of Seitaku, one of Ao Fudo's servants, whose job is to subjugate evil. He sits below the Ao Fudo to the right and his hands are lifted in prayer.

Copyright, 1995, Corel Corporation. See the Corel License Agreement under which these pictures are published. This image is to be used only for educational activities in connection with the classes connected to this site.


Mount Koya Raigo Triptych: Detail (color on silk; middle 1100's)

The late Heian nobility eagerly adopted Pure Land Buddhism, which promised its adherents entrance into a Land of Pure Bliss, or Paradise, on their death if they had faith in the Amida Buddha. Pure Land Buddhism had entered Japan with the monk, Genshin (942-1017), and soon became popular among the upper classes (it's real heyday, however, would come in the medieval period). Pure Land Buddhists believed that the death of a believer would be accompanied spiritually by a great celebration, called a raigo , in which the Amida Buddha would come to the newly released spirit with twenty-five Buddhas and thousands of bodhisattvas, all accompanied by a purple cloud, flowers, perfume, and music.

Among the upper classes, raigo paintings and sculpture became very popular, as they depicted the Amida Buddha coming down in celebration in relation to dead relatives or to one's own house. Some of these paintings are clearly yamato-e , or Japanese paintings, as distinguished from kara-e , or Chinese paintings (yamato-e depict scenes from Japan or Japanese life; kara-e depict scenes from China or Chinese life). They are yamato-e in that they gave artists a chance to paint Japanese landscapes.

The detail here comes from a hanging silk triptych (three panels) at Mount Koya. The detail itself is only a very small part of the painting, but is the figure at the very front of Amida's entourage and represents Kannon with a golden pedestal on which to carry of the spirit of the deceased. Not pictured is the whole itself: Amida sits cross-legged in the middle while descending on a lavender cloud. Two figures dominate the front of the painting. To the right of Amida is Seishi praying, to the left is Kannon holding the golden pedastel for the spirit of the deceased. Kannon (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit), as the bodhisattva of compassion, is the most important of the bodhisattvas. Originally male, Kannon was eventually transformed into a female figure in Chinese and Japanese art, as here.

This is a magnificent painting for getting into the very soul of Japanese Buddhist life as practiced in the late Heian and the medieval period. Look closely: this is what you, as a deceased believer, will see on your deathbed. What world view is represented by Kannon and her pedestal? How does this image affect the way you view the events of life and history?

Copyright, 1995, Corel Corporation. See the Corel License Agreement under which these pictures are published. This image is to be used only for educational activities in connection with the classes connected to this site.



Shigisan engi emaki : Bales of Rice sent to Myoren
Shigisan engi emaki : Myoren Sending Back the Rice (Detail of left side)

Among the greatest artistic achievements of the Heian period was the illustrated scroll, the emakimono ("pictures rolled"; sg., emaki ) . Originally a genre developed in China, the emakimono masterpieces are the product of the late Heian period.

One unfolded the scroll from right to left; one would unfold an illustration and then read a narrative to the left. The juxtaposition of image and narrative had a long tradition in Heian Japan dating back to screen painting. However, because emakimono were published on paper, we have very few samples. The three remain from the Heian period are the Genji monogatari emaki (early 1100's), an emaki of Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji , the Choju jinbutsu giga , ("Animals at Play"), a collection of caricatures of animals playing at human games, from around 1130-1150, the Ban Dainagon ekotoba , painted by Tokiwa Mitsunaga before 1180, and the Shigisan engi emaki from around 1150.

The Japanese literary genre of engi is a narrative that chronicles the founding of a Buddhist establishment, in this case, Chogosonshiji, founded by Myoren. The painting style is in otoko-e , or "men's pictures." This style is characterized by active movement; the artist uses strong ink calligraphic lines and weak color pigments so that the colors don't overwhelm the black or gray lines. All the emakimono were classified as yamato-e , or "Japanese painting," in distinction to kara-e , or "Chinese painting." The main criterion for differentiation was the yamato-e concerned subjects drawn from Japanese culture and life while the kara-e were based on Chinese themes or subjects.

In the two pictures, Myoren kidnaps the granary from a local squire by floating to himself under his golden begging bowl; the first picture registers the amazement of the squire's hapless servants. The second picture is a detail from the left hand of the picture showing the rear of the miraculously transported granar and animals. To the right of the picture, but not shown, is Myoren ordering the squire's servants to load the rice into his golden begging bowl and return it.

Copyright, 1995, Corel Corporation. See the Corel License Agreement under which these pictures are published. This image is to be used only for educational activities in connection with the classes connected to this site.




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1994, Richard Hooker
Updated 7-7-97