Buddhist Art in Japan

Japanese Buddhism

The introduction of Buddhism to Japan resulted in the creation of temples, monasteries, paintings, and sculptures of extraordinary artistic achievement.

Learning Objectives

Create a timeline of the introduction of Buddhism and the development of Buddhist art in Japan from the 6th through the 16th centuries

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Before the introduction of Buddhism , Japan was already the seat of various cultural and artistic influences.
  • The Japanese were introduced to Buddhism in the 6th century, when missionary monks traveled to the islands with numerous scriptures and works of art. The Buddhist religion was adopted by the state in the following century.
  • Countless paintings and sculptures were made, often under governmental sponsorship. Indian, Hellenistic , Chinese, and Korean artistic influences blended into an original style characterized by realism and grace.
  • Japan developed extremely rich figurative art for the pantheon of Buddhist deities , sometimes combined with Hindu and Shinto influences.
  • Zen art developed in the 12th and 13th centuries and reached its apogee in the Muromachi Period (1337 – 1573) following the introduction of the faith by Dogen and Eisai upon their return from China.

Key Terms

  • Dōgen Zenji: (1200 – 1253) A Japanese Zen Buddhist teacher born in Kyōto who founded the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan after travelling to China.
  • Zen: A philosophy of calm associated with the Buddhist denomination.
  • Silk Road: An extensive interconnected network of trade routes across Asia, North and Northeast Africa, and Europe, historically used by silk traders.
  • Myōan Eisai: (1141 – 1215) A Japanese Buddhist priest credited with bringing the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism and green tea from China to Japan.
  • haniwa: Terracotta clay figures made for ritual use and buried with the dead during the Kofun period (3rd to 6th century CE) of Japanese history.

Buddhism Reaches Japan

Before the introduction of Buddhism, Japan was already the seat of various cultural and artistic influences, from the abstract linear decorative art of the indigenous Neolithic Jōmon (10500 BCE to 300 BCE), to the pottery and bronze of the Yayoi period and the Haniwa art (terracotta clay figures used as funereal objects) of the Kofun period. The Japanese were introduced to Buddhism in the 6th century CE, when missionary monks traveled to the islands with numerous scriptures and works of art. The Buddhist religion was adopted by the state in the following century. Located geographically at the end of the network of trade routes through Asian, Africa, and Europe known as the Silk Road , Japan was able to preserve many aspects of Buddhism while it was simultaneously disappearing in India and being suppressed in Central Asia and China.

Buddhist Art

From 711 BCE, numerous temples and monasteries were built in the capital city of Nara , including a five-story pagoda , the Golden Hall of the Horyuji, and the Kōfuku-ji temple. Countless paintings and sculptures were made, often under government sponsorship. Indian, Hellenistic, Chinese, and Korean artistic influences blended into an original style characterized by its realism and grace.

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Kōfuku-ji: Five-story pagoda and Tōkondō.

The creation of Japanese Buddhist art was especially fertile between the 8th and 13th centuries during the periods of Nara, Heian, and Kamakura. Japan developed extremely rich figurative art for the pantheon of Buddhist deities, sometimes combined with Hindu and Shinto influences. This art tends to be very varied, creative, and bold.

The sculpture depicts a being with several human faces, each looking a different direction.

The Asura in Kōfuku-ji, Nara (734): A sculpture of an Asura, a type of supernatural being in traditional Buddhist cosmology.

Zen Art

From the 12th and 13th centuries, art in Japan further developed through the introduction of Zen art, which reached its apogee in the Muromachi Period (1337 – 1573) following the introduction of Zen Buddhism by Dōgen Zenji and Myōan Eisai upon their return from China. Zen art is primarily characterized by original paintings (such as sumi-e) and poetry (especially haiku) that strive to express the true essence of the world through impressionistic and unadorned representations. The search for enlightenment in the moment also led to the development of other important derivative arts in Japan, such as the Chanoyu tea ceremony and the Ikebana art of flower arrangement. This evolution considers almost any human activity with a strong spiritual and aesthetic content as art, including activities related to combat techniques such as martial arts.

Horyuji Temple

The Hōryū-ji Temple, one of the most celebrated Japanese temples, reflects the spread of Buddhism and Chinese culture in Japan.

Learning Objectives

Describe the creation, function, and characteristics of Prince Shōtoku’s Hōryū-ji temple.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Hōryū-ji Temple embraces architectural influences ranging from the Eastern Han to the Northern Wei of China, as well as from the Three Kingdoms of Korea, particularly those of Baekje.
  • The temple was originally commissioned by Prince Shōtoku of the Asuka Period (c. 538 to 710 CE) and was dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing, in honor of the prince’s father.
  • The original temple is believed to have been completed by 607 CE; after it was destroyed in 670, the temple was reconstructed but slightly reoriented in a northwest position around the year 711.
  • The current temple is made up of two areas: the Sai-in in the west and the Tō-in in the east.
  • The western part of the temple contains the Kondō (sanctuary hall) and a five-story pagoda . The Tō-in area holds the octagonal Yumedono Hall (also known as the Hall of Dreams).

Key Terms

  • Prince Shōtoku: (February 7, 574 – April 8, 622) A semi-legendary regent and politician of the Asuka period in Japan who served under Empress Suiko and commissioned the celebrated Hōryū-ji Temple.
  • Kondō: Usually the main hall of a Buddhist temple (literally “golden hall”), which started to be used during the Asuka and Nara periods.
  • pagoda: An Asian religious building, especially a multistory Buddhist tower, erected as a shrine or temple.

Hōryū-ji is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan, originally commissioned by Prince Shōtoku of the Asuka Period (c. 538 to 710 CE). It was originally called Ikaruga-dera (斑), a name that is still sometimes used. This first temple was completed around 607 CE. Hōryū-ji was dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing, in honor of the prince’s father. The original temple, named by modern historians and archaeologists Wakakusa-garan (若), was lost to fire after a lightning strike in 670. The temple was reconstructed but slightly reoriented in a northwest position around 711.

Characteristics of Hōryū-ji Temple

The reconstructed buildings embrace architectural influences ranging from the Eastern Han to the Northern Wei of China, as well as from the Three Kingdoms of Korea, particularly the Baekje Kingdom. With its origin dating back to early 7th century, the reconstruction has allowed Hōryū-ji to absorb and feature early Asuka period elements along with distinct elements only seen in Hōryū-ji, which were absent from the architecture of the following Nara period.

The current temple is made up of two areas: the Sai-in in the west and the Tō-in in the east. The western part of the temple contains the Kondō (sanctuary hall) and a five-story pagoda. The Tō-in area holds the octagonal Yumedono Hall (also known as the Hall of Dreams) and sits 122 meters east of the Sai-in area. The complex also contains monk’s quarters, lecture halls, libraries, and dining halls.

Distinguishing Features

Certain features distinguish the precinct of Hōryu-ji from similar temple architecture. While most Japanese temples of the period were arranged like their Chinese and Korean prototypes—with the main gate, a pagoda, the main hall, and the lecture hall all in a straight line—the reconstructed Hōryū-ji breaks from those patterns by arranging the Kondō (main hall) and pagoda side-by side in the courtyard.

Excavations at Yamada-dera, a lost temple dating back to 643, revealed corridors with thick horizontal poles placed in the windows at narrow intervals. By contrast, those at Hōryū-ji are thinner and placed at larger intervals.

Major Asuka- style characteristics seen in Hōryu-ji and resembling designs found in the Yungang Grottoes (from the Northern Wei in China) include the railings decorated with a swastika pattern and the cved reentasis columns . Another notable Asuka-style element found only in Japan and with the only surviving originals in Hōryu-ji is the cloud-shape hybrid bracket supporter. These Asuka characteristics are not seen in later Nara period temples.

Five-Story Pagoda

The five-story pagoda, located in the Sai-in area and standing at 32.45 meters (122 feet), is one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world. The wood used in the pagoda’s center pillar is estimated through a dendrochronological analysis to have been felled in 594. The central pillar rests three meters below the surface of the massive foundation stone, stretching into the ground . At its base is enshrined what is believed to be a fragment of one of Buddha’s bones. Around it, four sculpted scenes from the life of the Buddha face north, east, south, and west. Although the pagoda is five-storied, it is not designed for visitors to climb inside but rather is designed to inspire people with its external view.

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Hōryū-ji pagoda: The five-storied pagoda has certain characteristics unique to Hōryū-ji.

Kondō

The kondō, located side-by-side to the pagoda in Sai-in, is another one of the oldest wood buildings in existence. The hall measures 18.5 meters by 15.2 meters and has two stories, with roofs curved in the corners. Only the first story has a double roof; this was added later in the Nara period, with extra posts to hold up original first roof because it extended more than four meters past the building. The hall holds the famous Shaka Triad, bronze Yakushi and Amida Nyorai statues, and other national treasures .

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The kondō of Hōryū-ji: The two-storied kondō is another of the oldest wood buildings in existence.

Yumedono

Yumedono, or the Hall of Dreams, is one of the main constructions in the Tō-in area, built on the ground which was once Prince Shōtoku’s private palace, Ikaruga no miya. The present incarnation of this hall was built in 739 with the purpose of assuaging the Prince’s spirit. The hall acquired its present-day common name in the later Heian period, after a legend that says a Buddha arrived as Prince Shōtoku and meditated in a hall that existed here.

Exterior view. A circular, one-story building with roofs curved in the corners.

Yumedono, Hall of Dreams: Yumedono, a hall associated with Prince Shōtoku.

The Todaiji

The Tōdaiji is the most ambitious Buddhist temple complex of the Nara period in Japan.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the “golden age” of art during the Nara Period, including temple-building such as the Tōdai-ji.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Nara period in Japan (710 – 784 CE) marked the emergence of a strong Japanese state and is often portrayed as a golden age for art.
  • The cultural flowering during the Nara period was spawned by the transmission of Buddhism from contact with China and Korea.
  • The Japanese recognized the facets of Chinese culture that could profitably be incorporated into their own, which for the arts meant new technologies, new building techniques, more advanced methods of casting in bronze , and new techniques and media for painting.
  • Temple-building in the 8th century was focused around the Tōdaiji temple in Nara.
  • Constructed as the headquarters for a network of temples in each of the provinces, the Tōdaiji is the most ambitious religious complex erected in the early centuries of Buddhist worship in Japan.

Key Terms

  • Nara: Period of Japanese history lasting from 710 to 784 CE, during which Japan emerged as a strong state and witnessed an artistic golden age.
  • Tōdai-ji: A Buddhist temple complex located in the city of Nara, Japan; its Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden) houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana.

Background: The Nara period

The Nara period of the 8th century—so named because the seat of Japanese government was located in the city of Nara from 710 until 784—is often portrayed as a golden age in Japanese history. The period marked the emergence of a strong Japanese state and was characterized by a cultural flowering. The transmission of Buddhism provided the initial impetus for contact between China, Korea, and Japan, and the Japanese recognized facets of Chinese culture that could profitably be incorporated into their own. These included a system for converting ideas and sounds into writing; historiography; complex theories of government, such as an effective bureaucracy; and, most important for the arts, new technologies, new building techniques, more advanced methods of casting in bronze, and new techniques and media for painting.

The Tōdaiji Temple

Temple-building in the 8th century was focused around the Tōdaiji in Nara. Constructed as the headquarters for a network of temples in each of the provinces, the Tōdaiji is the most ambitious religious complex erected in the early centuries of Buddhist worship in Japan. Appropriately, the main Buddha hall, or Daibutsuden, was enshrined with the Rushana Buddha, a 16.2-meter (53-foot) Buddha completed in 752 that represents the essence of Buddhahood, just as the Tōdaiji represented the center for imperially sponsored Buddhism and its dissemination throughout Japan. Only a few fragments of the original statue survive, and the present hall and central Buddha are reconstructions from the Edo period.

The buddha is depicted sitting, eyes closed, with one hand raised.

Daibutsu of Tōdai-ji.: The Great Buddha statue (Daibutsu) has been recast several times for various reasons, including earthquake damage. The current hands of the statue were made in the Momoyama Period (1568–1615), and the head was made in the Edo period (1615–1867).

Clustered around the Daibutsuden on a gently sloping hillside are a number of secondary halls: the Hokke-dō (Lotus Sutra Hall), with its principal image; the Fukukenjaku Kannon (the most popular bodhisattva), crafted of dry lacquer (cloth dipped in lacquer and shaped over a wooden armature); the Kaidanin (Ordination Hall) with its magnificent clay statues of the Four Guardian Kings; and the storehouse, called the Shōsōin. This last structure is of great importance to art history as it stored the utensils used in the temple’s dedication ceremony in 752 and the eye-opening ritual for the Rushana image, as well as government documents and many secular objects owned by the Imperial family.

Exterior view of the simple, rectangular building.

Hokkedô at Todaiji in Nara Japan: The Tōdaiji (dating back to 728) is the most ambitious religious complex erected in the early centuries of Buddhist worship in Japan.