When admiring Butsuzō in a temple, shrine or museum, you may see statues that have not been painted or have patches of bare wood, exposed by paint that has flaked away or disintegrated over time. The cascading wood grain is wonderful, and almost always free of unsightly imperfections, such as knots and burls. As it turns out, a knot-free Butsuzō is no mistake, as the source wood is often engineered to be aesthetically perfect before it becomes a sculpture.
Vajra Warrior (one of a pair), mid 14th century: Unknown artist, Japan
In the early days of carving Buddhist art in Japan, works of wood tended to be made from either camphor or, more rarely, the imported and prized sandalwood. However, surging in popularity during the early Heian period (9th century) and afterwards, the most common wood associated with the production of Butsuzō is a cypress called hinoki (ヒノキ), which is considered soft, like pine. Despite the availability of other trees such as kaya and katsura, hinoki was a preferred timber for Busshi, as it was lightweight, relatively easy to carve (as long as your tools were always razor-sharp!) and strong & durable enough to last for generations.
Despite its natural abundance, the temple-building activity of the old days stripped the lands of most of its enormous ancient trees. Suddenly, there were no virgin hinoki forests for producing knot-free slabs for carving. Like a cedar, a young hinoki is festooned with branches every few inches, which forms knots in the wood — making an intricate task like woodcarving extremely difficult and aesthetically unpleasant for a Butsuzō.
Camaecyparis Obtusa: Hinoki Cypress: Photo by Dr. Nick V. Kurze
In Japan, the tradition of nursing hinoki tree farms to produce perfect lumber goes back for many years. A caretaker of a hinoki plantation raises acres of trees which were planted by generations of previous farmers, in a business that is often kept within the family. In order to design knot-free wood, a farmer must constantly stay of top of removing branches as they sprout from the trunk of a continuously growing tree. It is possible for multiple generations to prune each tree hundreds of times from the bottom all the way up to within a few feet from the top. Now imagine, if you will, dozens (if not hundreds) of acres full of thousands of branchless trees, with each one requiring this kind of attention!
But the end result is stunning, as these farms produce immaculate hinoki for sculpting even more incredible Butsuzō. As trees are cut down, new ones are planted. Because hinoki is slow-growing, it is not unusual for an individual farmer to never cultivate a tree he has cared for his entire life. It is a patient, dedicated and practical cycle which ensures that a sculpture made from a tree, even after being cut down, will outlast generations of monks and citizens of a community who regularly patronize temples and shrines to exercise their faith and way of life.
Sculptor and Art History hound David Bilbrey lives in Southern California with his wife and two kids
© Carving the Divine 2018