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12. Putting Buddhist Deities in their Place

By The Fudōist

Butsuzo, Japanese sculptural depictions of Buddhist deities, can be found throughout the nation in temples, household altars, and in alcoves along heavily-traveled routes. They are the embodiment of the buddha’s teachings and a vehicle by which the Buddhist adherent focuses his or her practice to overcome obstacles against enlightenment. Depending on the deity, the sculpture may aid the practitioner with mindfulness, compassion, restraint, and protection.

There are four major categories of deity within the Buddhist cosmos: buddhas (J: nyorai), bodhisattvas (J: bosatsu), wisdom kings (J: myo-o), and celestial beings (J: ten-bu). Of the countless named beings in the Japanese Buddhist pantheon, many of the extant sculptures depict a select few which were popularized by the aristocratic and lay Buddhist circles of ancient and feudal Japan.

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Amida Nyorai, Bishamonten, Fudō Myōō and two attendants by Unkei 1189. Tokyo National Museum. Public Domain.

As fully-enlightened beings and the embodiments of Truth, buddhas represent the ambition of Buddhist practitioners: release from the cycle of rebirth. The ultimate purpose of the buddha is to teach, to dispense wisdom in all its forms, and to exact healing on the mental, physical, and spiritual maladies of those still cycling through the realms of existence.

The most prominent buddhas in Japanese Buddhist sculpture are Dainichi (Sk: Mahavairocana), the buddha of the cosmos; Shaka (Sk: Sakyamuni), the historical buddha; Yakushi (Sk: Bhaisajyaguru), the buddha of healing; Amida (Sk: Amitabha), the buddha of the western paradise; and Miroku (Sk: Maitreya), the buddha of the future.

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Far Left: Yakushi Nyorai(Bhaisajyaguru) Heian period, around ACE900, Shishikutsu-ji , Katano, Osaka, Japan. Source: ASUKAEN ed. TOYO-BIJYUTU 15th vol., 1932-05-15. Author: OGAWA SEIYOU. Public Domain.

Left: Amida Nyorai. Kamakura period (1185–1333). ca. 1250. Rogers Fund, 1919. Public Domain.

Right: Shaka Nyorai, Saidaiji, Nara, Japan. Date: 1249. Source = Kamakura-period sculptor(s) (1185-1333); photo by Ogawa Kazumasa

Far Right: Dainichi Nyorai by Unkei Enjoji, Nara, Japan. Source: Nihon no Chokoku 6 - Kamakura Jidai (Bijutsu Shuppansha 1953) Date: 28 March 2012. Author: 今泉篤男 et al. Public Domain

Of the bodhisattvas, those most popularized through sculpture were Fugen (Sk: Samantabhadra), the bodhisattva of practice; Monju (Sk: Manjusri), the bodhisattva of highest wisdom; Kannon (Sk: Avalokitesvara), the bodhisattva of compassion; Seishi (Sk: Mahasthamaprapta), the bodhisattva of base wisdom; Jizo (Sk: Ksitigarbha), the bodhisattva of salvation from the Buddhist hells; and Miroku (Sk: Maitreya), the bodhisattva who will become a buddha.

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Far Left: Fugen Bosatsu (Samantabhadra) Heian period, first half of 12th century, Ōkura Shūkokan Museum of Fine Arts, Tokyo. Source: NIHON NO TYOKOKU ( JAPAN SCULTPURES), No.5, Heian Period, BIJYUTU-SHUPPAN Co., 1952-03-05, Tokyo, Japan. Author: Sculptor: Anonymous, 12th century, photo: Ken Domon (family name). Public Domain.

Left: Jizō Bosatsu by anonymous sculptor Kamakura period (1185–1333) Rogers Fund, 1918. Public Domain.

Right: Attendant Bodhisattva Seishi by anonymous sculptor. Kamakura period (1185–1333) Rogers Fund, 1912. Public Domain.

Far Right: Nunnery Eleven-Headed Kannon, Hokkeji, Nara, Japan. Source: Japanese Temples and their Treasures (The Shimbi Shoin 1915) . Author: Imperial Japanese Commission to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Public Domain.

The wisdom kings are the physical manifestations of the primordial buddha’s wrath against the poisons of the mind - anger, confusion, and greed - and the fearsome protectors of both the buddha and his followers, yet they are also the perfect representation of the buddha’s grace. So great is the buddha’s desire for all beings to exit from the cycle of rebirth that he physically places an extension of himself between the wanderer and a certain path to the hells.

Sculptors tended towards the wisdom kings Fudo (Sk: Acalanatha), the wrathful manifestation of Dainichi and chief of the five great wisdom kings; Gozanze (Sk: Trailokyavijaya), the subjugator of Hindu gods; Gundari (Sk: Kundali), the purveyor of immortality; Daiitoku (Sk: Yamantaka), the destroyer of death; and Kongo Yasha (Sk: Vajrayaksa), the wielder of diamond-like strength.

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Fudō Myōō by Kaikei. Kamakura period (1185–1333)

Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015. Public Domain

Like the wisdom kings, the celestial beings serve as protectors for the Buddhist cosmos; they do not, however, share their origins as emanations from the buddha. Some were once violent spirits who were ultimately brought into the buddha’s service through his gentle and thoughtful demeanor; others were reborn into their roles due to the accumulation of good karma. Of the four major classes of deity, only the celestial beings are essentially mortal and thus vulnerable to rebirth.

Among the celestial beings, sculpture favored the Twelve Celestial Generals of Yakushi Nyorai (J: Juni Shinsho), who correspond with the animals of the Chinese zodiac; the Four Guardian Kings of the Cardinal Directions (J: Shitenno): Tamonten/Bishamonten (Sk: Vaisravana), Jikokuten (Sk: Dhrtarastra), Zochoten (Sk: Virudhaka), and Komokuten (Sk: Virupaksa); and the Two Benevolent Kings (Nio), the guardians of temple gates.

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Four Heavenly Kings (pr mokuzō shitennō ryūzō)by anonymous sculptor (nanendō, Kōfuku-ji, Nara) (National Treasure) 1189 Source: Kōfuku-ji, Nara. Author: Unknown. Public Domain.

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The Fudōist

History enthusiast The Fudōist has extensively studied Japanese Buddhist art and iconography.

© Carving the Divine 2018