I am often asked to explain the word Butsuzō. There are a couple of ways to address this question, but in order for me to provide an answer, it is not only important to understand who I am talking to, but I must also establish where I am talking from. In a classroom, the definition may appear to be simple. But as a sculptor, I personally cannot define Butsuzō without including some of the exhaustive creation processes involved with producing these amazing statues.
Strictly speaking, the literal definition is straightforward: Butsuzō is spelled in Japanese with two kanji letters: 仏 (Butsu, meaning “Buddha”), and 像 (Zō, meaning “image”). Together, the letters combine to become an “Image of Buddha,” which appears to be a cut-and-dry translation. However, it is important to explain that Butsuzō does not limit this type of art to sculptures which only portray Shakamuni (one of the few names attributed to the historical Buddha). On a broader scale, Butsuzō is regarded by both enthusiasts and scholars to be an umbrella term, assigned to cover a spectrum of sculpture of all mediums which falls under the general category of statuary produced for use in Japanese Buddhism. In addition to images depicting the Buddha in varying stages of meditation or teaching, we also include other groups and figures derived from Buddhism, such as Bodhisattvas, Deva, monks and even jyaki & oni (demons) as well as the head devil himself, Enma. This explanation is a sufficient way to answer “What is Butsuzō?”*
However, when I am speaking to an engaging audience, I often feel the need to elaborate that Butsuzō, in fact, represents far more than just “Buddhist images” produced by a sculptor. When I first started to aggressively pursue learning about this form of art, I was in a world which can only be described as a cross between longing for something familiar and being infatuated with something new. I was eager to chase down more temples and statuary which would upend my world like the Sanjūsangendō did. Although the thunder god’s statue was conjured from the incredible imagination of a Kamakura period sculptor, I also quickly learned that the skill and discipline needed to create aristocrat-commissioned Butsuzō demanded a master sculptor to be impeccably technical to a fault, and stripped of any freedom to exercise creativity. Most Butsuzō need to be produced in a manner which does not deviate from pre-established tradition or canon.
Dainichi Nyorai by Unknown sculptor, attributed to Unkei
A busshi (sculptor of Buddhist statuary) spends years perfecting the art of Buddhist image-making, which requires far more than raw sculpting talent and experience with the medium. To sculpt a temple’s central image of Dainichi Nyorai, for example, a busshi cannot simply dream up a unique and dynamic statue to “wow” the world, as Michelangelo and Bernini did for their respective marble interpretations of the biblical David. A busshi, though clearly capable of imagination, does not “discover” a startling new composition of Dainichi Nyorai within a large cube of timber. The pose, proportions and mudras (meditative hand gestures & positioning) of this deity are pre-determined, amongst many other iconographic details, which requires the artist to solve the issue of compositional structure before sculpting has begun.
One very popular sculpting technique called yosegi zukuri (we will discuss several different techniques in more detail soon) developed during the Heian period employed multiple blocks of wood which were assembled to roughly pre-shape a figure’s identity and composition. The main grouping of blocks needed to be glued or bound together firmly enough to withstand incessant hammer & chisel blows as unwanted wood was initially removed, effectively acting as a single unit of material. Larger sculptures were often hollowed from the inside, to prevent heavier masses of wood from cracking, as they were susceptible to drying unevenly and splitting over time. The arms and head were sculpted separately, and then architecturally married to the main body with dowels or tenon joins to complete the statue’s final composition. Finished statues were often polychromed (painted) or gilded with gold. Wood accents, eye lenses shaped from crystal and delicate ornaments of hammered metal & other materials were also regularly added to decorate many Butsuzō, which further enhanced the busshi’s already complex resume of mastered skills.
Yes, although an “image of Buddha” serves as a simple definition, I personally cannot introduce the term Butsuzō without explaining that sculpture of this classification was produced by artists who possessed the skills of an engineer, an architect, a jeweler, a metalsmith, a painter & a master woodcarver, who were not permitted to deviate from aesthetic tradition for most commissions. A busshi not only commanded the knowledge and skill to carve and shape a perfect divine image from lifeless volumes of wood, but he also mastered the discipline required to produce identical copies of holy representations as required by unforgiving patrons, throughout a lifetime of tireless passion & devotion to tradition. I am unable to imagine another ancient profession which demanded a more exhausting and endless volume of output with such an extensive and artistic skill set. That is what Butsuzō means to me!
*(One must be cautious, however, to not carelessly categorize Shinto statuary as Butsuzō, although the inspiration for carving Shinto images was born from the popular influx of Buddhist image-making).
Sculptor and Art History hound David Bilbrey lives in Southern California with his wife and two kids
© Carving the Divine 2018