Call me an overgrown kid, but I’ve always loved figures. From the earliest age, my action figures inspired me to create things with my hands, and I’ve always found sculpting to be easier than drawing. Before the internet, I spent countless hours pouring over the art books in my university’s library, and I was always eager to begin or enter a conversation in regards to world-class sculpture. However, my midwestern college failed to introduce me to Asian sculpture, particularly Buddhist art. Sure, I wasn’t completely oblivious; we briefly heard about the Taj Mahal and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat in class, but we only focused on art from the western hemisphere. I guess my professor figured that most of the students would never know what they were missing if they weren’t aware of what they’d never heard of. In my case, anyway, that was true.
It’s no surprise, then, that I had a severely biased misconception in regards to almost all Asian sculpture: Buddhist statuary wasn’t real sculpture, right? There’s nothing significant about “Buddha sitting down!” But having a wife from Tokyo has allowed me to visit Japan about once every two years since the mid-90s (which I loved because I was always chasing pop culture collectibles). I finally visited the Sensō-ji in Asakusa on New Year’s day in 1998, but I was too distracted by yakitori vendors, souvenir shops and hundreds of thousands of people to recognize the cultural importance of the Sensō-ji. In the end, exhausted from wading though an ocean of humanity just to throw a 5¥ coin into a collection box, I told myself that this was the last time I would grace the mighty Asakusa.
In 2002, we visited the Kōtoku-in’s Daibutsu in Kamakura. Although bronze was my medium of choice at the time, the Giant Buddha didn’t connect with me. I scoffed at the efforts of the ancient sculptors and foundrymen; with all of this metal at their disposal, the best they could do was a 44’ tall monument of — Buddha sitting down? It was too symmetrical, obnoxiously disproportioned… and utterly anti-dynamic. I made up my mind long ago that Greek bronze was the pinnacle of sculptural achievement, and visiting Kamakura just seemed to cement my ignorant belief that Buddhist art held little historic significance.
But in 2006, I found myself in Kyoto for three days with my father-in-law footing the bill… an offer I couldn’t refuse. It’s OK, I told myself, I’ll soon be back in Tokyo to hit up the PVC figurine shops. Little did I know that my arrogant and stuffy outlook on ancient Japanese art was about to be absolutely decimated. The first stop in Kyoto was the Sanjūsangendō, which boasted housing over 1,000 sculptures. Sounds amusing, I thought, but how exciting can Buddhist art really get? We arrived at the world’s longest extant wooden structure, paid a modest entrance fee and removed our shoes. I had no idea that my next few strides would literally be the final steps of my old, sheltered self. When I stepped around the corner, my chest exploded, and all of the sounds around me were drowned out by my own heartbeat. What had I just walked into? In my wonderment of being inside such an astonishing temple, everything I thought I knew about sculpture was instantly ripped away, exposing me to my own shame. I had no idea whatsoever that creating sculpture like this with a temperamental and moody medium such as wood was even possible, much less… allowed.
Attribution: Photo by Bamse: Statue of Raijin in Sanjūsangen-dō, Kyoto, Japan. About 1m tall, dated to 13th century Kamakura period. It has been designated as National Treasure of Japan.
Photo Public Domain: Sanjūsangen-dō, Kyoto, Japan
I woke up after a nearly half hour’s trance to my wife hitting me on the shoulder. “We have to keep moving,” she said, laughing. I wasn’t aware that I’d been frozen solid by the building’s very first figure: a dynamic 800 year-old sculpture of a frenzied god encircled by a ring of taiko drums. The composition shattered static planes and was infused with an impossible energy — certainly, this wasn’t once a tree… was it? The eyes were unmistakably alive and staring right through me. “That’s Raijin, the thunder-god”, was her immediate answer to my whispered question in regards to the figure’s identity. I was offended that she’d never brought this incredible masterpiece to my attention in all the years we’d known each other. “Everybody knows Raijin, dummy, except you. Now move.” Indeed, we had over one thousand more sculptures to admire in this building alone. Not only were there the Nijūhachi Bushū in the front row, but behind them was a life-sized army of gilt-wood Bodhisattva sculptures — and the awesome central image alone of Senjū Kannon (which is most certainly not just “Buddha sitting down”) was powerful enough to deserve its own city.
Oh God, I thought. We only have three short days to see Kyoto. What was I in danger of missing?
As it turns out, I actually saw quite a bit… But it wasn’t nearly enough. Days later, I left Kyoto, humbled and humiliated at the reality of how much I didn’t know about world-class sculpture at all. Instantly, collectibles and pop culture stopped calling to me. I quickly swore my allegiance to the old Buddhist statuary of Japan, which I’ve since learned are called “Butsuzō”. I dedicated myself to learning: I wanted to sculpt wood again, visit libraries and otherwise punish the internet in my desperation to learn more. I’ve made “yosegi-zukuri” and “gyokugan” part of my go-to vocabulary. I sought out the history and secrets that were mastered so many years ago and passed on from one generation of sculptors to the next. I even found myself desperate to get back to Kamakura to see the Daibutsu again, which finally happened (but we will have to re-visit that trip later!). That’s not to say I’ve altogether turned my back on the bronzes of Greece or the marbles of Italy — but I’ve been chasing that Kyoto high ever since, and Japan is not a country to disappoint. Now, I love visiting Asakusa and every temple and shrine I can reach! I want to share what I’ve learned about the mesmerizing world of Butsuzō, and I’m hoping to touch down on subjects such as Japan’s other major cities & temples, their historic sculptors and some of the techniques they used, and the figures they sculpted & their roles in Buddhism. They say there’s something in Japan for everyone, which makes it such an easy country to fall in love with — and I want to learn more and ask others to pass along what they have fallen in love with as well.
Sculptor and Art History hound David Bilbrey lives in Southern California with his wife and two kids
© Carving the Divine 2018