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13. A Legacy Takes Flight

by David Bilbrey

One of the primary messages that the documentary Carving The Divine brings to our awareness is that carving Buddhist images in Japan is a 1,400 year-old tradition that has been unerringly handed down from master to apprentice through the generations. In other blog entries of Butsuzōtion, you may have noticed that a lot of time has been spent focussed on the Kamakura (1186-1333) period, which most art historians agree bookended the pinnacle of ancient Japanese sculpting. Indeed, the art produced during this period gives us exciting content to discuss and appreciate. However, with the exception of some details about Jōchō, the Heian period (794-1185) sculptor who is credited with infusing the unique Wayo style into Buddhist statuary and forever changing the landscape of Butsuzō carving, little has been said of the statuary produced prior to Jōchō’s 1053 benchmark sculpture group at the Byōdō-in.

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Maitraya, Wood, Figure Height 123.5cm, about 6-7th century. Published on June 25, 1942. Source: JYODAI NO TYOUKOKU (ANCIENT JAPAN SCULTPURES), ASAHI-SHINBUN Co., 1942, OSAKA and TOKYO, Japan. Author: OGAWA SEIYOU and UENO NAOAKI. Public Domain.

So, in terms of sculptural art, what was happening at the time Buddhism reached Japan from China and Korea in the 6th century? Generations before the time of Jōchō, the Asuka period (538–710) was underway with incorporating artistic influences from China’s Northern Wei Dynasty. Buddhist carvings and sculpture were often either imported from the Asian mainland, or artisans travelled to Japan in order to teach the ways and contemporary aesthetics for sculpting Buddhist imagery. The Kōryū-ji’s Maitreya (Pensive Bodhisattva) is an unmistakable example of a popular, imported Korean style and composition, as dozens of bronze figurines and several mid-sized wooden ones were consequently produced in Japan.

Early on, Kuratsukuri Tori, the grandson of a Chinese immigrant saddle-maker, would historically come to be called Tori-Busshi, and his name is synonymous with pioneering Japan’s enduring Busshi legacy which survives to this day. Even as a saddle-maker, Tori-Busshi worked in many mediums, including bronze, lacquer and wood carving. It was Tori’s intimate command of these materials which served to segue his profession from craftsman to sculptor. Tori’s generally flat surfaces and compositions optimized for frontal viewing were influenced by China’s Northern Wei Kingdom, but his sculptures radiated a gentler, overly peaceful quality which may have been influenced by Korean buddhist art. The merging of these aesthetics laid the groundwork for bestowing Japanese sculpture with a unique personality. His style became known as Tori Yoshiki, which literally translates into “Tori Style”.

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Great Buddha of Asuka-dera, Asuka-dera in Asuka, Nara Prefecture, Japan. Date: 29 May 2010. Author: 663highland. Permission: GFDL+creative commons2

During this early period, the majority of Buddhist sculpture was cast from bronze. Tori-Busshi’s earliest extant work is said to be the Asuka Daibutsu image at Asuka-dera, from 606. Tori quickly became the favored sculptor of Prince Shōtoku, Japan’s first great champion of Buddhism, and regularly carried out commissions from the Court and other patrons around Nara. Multiple destructions sustained by the Asuka-dera over the centuries has heavily damaged the Daibutsu, and most of the repair work is generally considered to be of poor quality, but we are fortunate to have this magnificent statue with us today.

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Bronze Statue of Shakyamuni Buddha Triad, dated ACE623 center 87.5cm body height, left 92.3cm, right 93.9cm, in Hōryū-ji Monastery, Nara, Japan. ACE623, publisshed 1899-1908. Source: Public Domain

In 623, his Shaka Triad was completed, which is still located in its original place of veneration at the Hōryū-ji, near Nara. Cast is bronze, this group is considered to be Tori’s masterpiece. His signature can be read on the back side of the halo, and the central figure in lotus position is flanked with a bodhisattva on each side. The flat surfaces suggesting the pedestal are enriched by an unrealistic, yet highly idealized treatment of the flowing robes.

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Kannon(Avalokitesvara) or Guze Kannonn, wood plated with gold, crown: bronze openwork gilt. early ACE 7th centuiry, body height 180 cm, crown height 30cm, Halo height 111cm pedestal height 33.5cm, in YUMEDONO Papillion, Horyuji , Ikaruga, Nara, Japan, Japan. Date: Early 7th century, published 1918-01-30. Source: Tokyo Bijutsu Gakko(Tokyo Fine Arts School and Tokyo Music School): HORYUJI OKAGAMI (64 VOLUMES) [The Great Art of the Horyuji Temple] Volume 51st, 1918-01-30, Tokyo, Japan Author: Tokyo Bijutsu Gakko. Public Domain.

Japan’s oldest extant wooden statue is of Guze Kannon. Carved from the single trunk of a Camphor tree, this statue bears the hallmark aesthetics of Tori-Būsshi, and at the very least it is safe to ascertain that this magnificent statue was produced by the Toriha, the schools and workshops inspired and trained by Tori-Busshi.

With significant works such as these beginning in the very early 7th century, the tradition of training sculptors to carve Buddhist statuary built its foundation as Tori-Busshi taught disciples and grew his school. Though the materials, surface details and popularity of various Buddhist characters may have shifted and evolved over time, little has changed in terms of how master Buddhist sculptors have passed on the knowledge of creating spiritual imagery to their apprentices in order to produce statuary for temples and patrons. This one thousand and four hundred year-old Busshi profession is amongst the most dedicated and time-honored artisan crafts in all of Japan.

David Bilbrey

Sculptor and Art History hound David Bilbrey lives in Southern California with his wife and two kids

© Carving the Divine 2018