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15. Hidden Treasures

by David Bilbrey

The “hollowing” of a statue carved with the yosegi-zukuri technique presented opportunities for busshi and their patrons to further enhance the holiness of an image. A statue carved for a temple is venerated upon completion, and the raw materials which comprise a statue also attain a permanent holy status, no matter the condition. There are several temples and museums in Japan which continue to adorn their alters with heavily fire-damaged sculptures, because the heavenly significance of what was once a butsuzo does not change due to any form of physical damage. There are also instances where new butsuzo may be either re-carved from reclaimed or damaged temple wood; or damaged statues may be placed inside the empty space of a new statue, to kid of “kick-start” or validate the holy status of a temple’s “replaced” central image.

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Photo Courtesy National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo, distributed by the Tokyo National Museum; TNM Image Archives, Source: 

Even in ancient times, a Buddhist statue serving as a reliquary was nothing new. The practice can be traced to the insertion of relics and texts inside pagodas and stupas, which permanently ’activated’ a reliquary’s bond with the Historical Buddha. However, the Kamakura Period (1186-1333) particularly enjoyed utilizing a yosegi-zukuri statue’s extensive negative interior space. Many sculptures attributed to the famed Unkei, for example, have been validated not only by temple records, but by the dedicatory objects fitted inside a then newly-finished statue before being sealed and venerated. In 2008, the record-breaking and widely publicized Christie’s auction of a Dainichi Nyorai statue was sold under the confirmation that it was carved by Unkei himself. This claim was substantiated by not only studying the exterior details and proportions, but also with x-rays and CT-scans which revealed that the objects inside the statue were identical with the types of dedicatory materials found inside other works confirmed to be by the master.

There were no hard rules as to what may be inserted from the inside of any given butsuzo. These objects, which are never intended to be seen by a temple patron, can vary greatly from statue to statue, and different purposes are thus served. A minimal technique for embellishing the interior surface area of a hollow butsuzo may simply be writing prayers or names (sculptor, patron, temple, dates, etc) on the interior surfaces. There are instances of scrolls, hair, human teeth, lotus seeds, and more. Some statues are rumored to contain relics of the Buddha himself, although these rare claims are few and far in-between and have never been substantiated to my knowledge.

Some objects which have been commonly discovered inside hollowed statues include rock crystal pagodas, rock crystal lotus buds and/or calligraphed planks depicting five-element pagodas (gorin-to, or five-wheel pagoda), or a chirin (circle of the moon), popularly used as grave markers beginning in the Kamakura era. The dedication necessary to craft these types of objects is not to be taken lightly, either, especially with a material as stubborn as rock crystal. Whether an individual object or a group of objects, great care was often taken to suspend the placement of the additional materials in the center of a statue’s chest cavity or the center of the head with copper wire, locations which represents the spirit, or heart, of the sculpture.

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Photo courtesy of the author

Having visited the temples of Ganjojuin and Jorakiuji in Japan several times, I have personally enjoyed studying the wooden gorin-to planks which have been removed from the interior spaces of repaired Kamakura statuary. In addition to dates and the names of the statue’s sculptors and commissioners, it seems as though every area of the gorin-to planks were filled with other inscriptions, often with ancient sanskrit prayers which have not been deciphered to this day. Even the 1cm wide edges of the boards may be packed with writing!

It is interesting to note that although dedicatory objects within Buddhist statuary has been a common practice amongst many artists across numerous cultures, in Japan the practice of inserting physical artifacts within its statuary gained prominence about 500 years after Buddhism was introduced to Japan. The opportunity for utilizing a statue’s reliquary potential was present in earlier centuries, specifically with hollow statues which were sculpted with clay, bronze and/or lacquer, but these cavities were largely left empty, aside from wooden armatures which sometimes formed the initial core of the statue. Invigorated importance was placed on physical connections to the Cosmic Buddha, prompting Kamakura period-based busshi to creatively push the boundaries in terms of strengthening a bond between the worshipper and the cosmos.

David Bilbrey

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

© Carving the Divine 2018