Buddhist Art in Japan - Heian Period (794 - 1185)


In 784, the Emperor Kammu threatened by the growing secular power of the Buddhist institutions in Nara moved the capital to Heian-kyō (Kyōto), which remained the imperial capital for the next 1,000 years. The term Heian period refers to the years between 794 and 1185, when the Kamakura shogunate was established at the end of the Genpei War. The period is further divided into the early Heian and the late Heian, or Fujiwara era, the pivotal date being 894, the year imperial embassies to China were officially discontinued.

Buddhism began to spread throughout Japan during the Heian period, primarily through two major esoteric sects, Tendai and Shingon. Tendai originated in China and is based on the Lotus Sutra, one of the most important sutras of Mahayana Buddhism; Saichō was key to its transmission to Japan. Shingon (true word school) is an indigenous sect with close affiliations to Chinese influenced Buddhist thought founded by Kūkai (best known by his posthumous title Kōbō Daishi, 774-835) who traveled to China and studied Indian and Chinese Buddhism, as well as Chinese calligraphy and poetry. Emperor Kammu himself was a notable patron of the Tendai sect, which rose to great power over the ensuing centuries. Kūkai greatly impressed the emperors who succeeded Emperor Kammu, and also generations of Japanese, not only with his holiness but also with his poetry, calligraphy, painting, and sculpture. Shingon Buddhist practice is based on various rituals, including the chanting of mantras, puja, hand gestures (mudras) and meditation through visualization of mandalas. The central role of ritual in Japanese esoteric Buddhism led to a flourishing of the religious arts in the Heian period. These religious paintings, mandalas and statues provided practitioners with a way to contemplate on Buddhist deities and concepts. A famous example of Shingon Mandala is the Taizokai (Womb World) mandala. Part of the Mandala of the Two Realms, the womb world is composed of 12 zones representing different dimensions of Buddha nature. In the center sits the Vairocana Buddha within the lotus of compassion surrounded by attendant Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The Shingon sect believed that all beings have an innate Buddha nature.

The temples erected for the Shingon sect such as that at Mt. Koya were built in the Kii mountains, far away from the Court and the laity in the capital. The irregular topography of these sites forced Japanese architects to rethink the problems of temple construction, and in so doing to choose more indigenous elements of design. Cypress-bark roofs replaced those of ceramic tile, wood planks were used instead of earthen floors, and a separate worship area for the laity was added in front of the main sanctuary. The temple that best reflects the spirit of early Heian Shingon temples is the Murō-ji (early 9th century), set deep in a stand of cypress trees on a mountain southeast of Nara.

In the Fujiwara period, Pure Land Buddhism, which offered easy salvation through belief in Amida (the Buddha of the Western Paradise), became popular. This period is named after the Fujiwara family, then the most powerful in the country, who ruled as regents for the Emperor, becoming, in effect, civil dictators. Concurrently, the Kyoto nobility developed a society devoted to elegant aesthetic pursuits. The Hō-ō-dō (Phoenix Hall, completed 1053) of the Byōdō-in, a temple in Uji to the southeast of Kyoto, is the exemplar of Fujiwara Amida halls. It consists of a main rectangular structure flanked by two L-shaped wing corridors and a tail corridor, set at the edge of a large artificial pond. Inside, a single golden image of Amida (c. 1053) is installed on a high platform. The Amida sculpture was executed by Jōchō, who popularized the Chinese technique of creating a work from several smaller pieces of sculpted wood (yosegi). Although it limited the amount of surface detail the artist could carve into each piece, the method forced the sculptor to convey his intended message within these limits. This resulted in more refined and ephemeral-looking pieces. More importantly, it allowed several assistants to work on the sculpture at once, greatly speeding the process. Jōchō, as the master, did the finishing work. The technique also led to systematized proportions of body parts and simple surface details, as these sped the creation of the constituent parts and the formation of the finished piece.

Art historians often cite this new canon of proportions as evidence of Jōchō's genius. He based the measurements on a unit equal to the distance between the sculpted figure's chin and hairline. The distance between each knee is equal to the distance from the bottoms of the legs to the hair. The widely spaced and level knees thus form the base of a triangular design, conveying a feeling of stability and peace. The effect is further accentuated by the contrast of other elements in the design, particularly the figures' halos. These are intricately detailed, featuring dancing tennin, clouds, and flames. Jōchō's sculptures' expressions convey compassion and elegance, and the detailed and precise carving of the facial features projects a certain kindness.

The workshop method of dividing work among several craftsmen caught on, as did Jōchō's style. His school was imitated by sculptors across Japan for the over next 150 years, as Japanese sculpture devolved into a conformist orthodoxy before being reinvented in the Kamakura period.

With the rising importance of Pure Land sects of Japanese Buddhism in the tenth century, new image-types were developed to satisfy the devotional needs of these sects. These include Raigozu (来迎図?), which depict Amida Buddha along with attendant Bodhisattvas Kannon and Seishi arriving to welcome the souls of the faithful departed to Amida's Western Paradise. A noted early example dating from 1053 are painted on the interior of the Phoenix Hall of the Byōdō-in, a temple in Uji, Kyoto. This is also considered an early example of so-called Yamato-e (大和絵?), or "Japanese-style painting," insofar as it includes landscape elements such as soft rolling hills that seem to reflect something of the actual appearance of the landscape of western Japan. Stylistically, however, this type of painting continues to be informed by Tang Dynasty Chinese "blue and green style" landscape painting traditions. "Yamato-e" is an imprecise term that continues to be debated among historians of Japanese art.

  • Oagida of Daigo-ji in Kyoto. It was built in 951.

  • Kongokai (vajra) mandala - Shingon tantric buddhist school

  • Mandarado of Taima-dera in Katsuragi. It was built in 1161.

  • Pagoda of Ichijō-ji. It was built in 1171.

  • Buddha's Nirvana. Hanging scroll, 267.6 cmx 271.2 cm. Color on silk. Located at Kongōbu-ji, Mt. Koya.

  • Five storied pagoda at Murō-ji. It was built in 800.

  • Wall Painting on East door of Byōdō-in, Detail

  • Wall Painting on South door of Byōdō-in

  • Achala Vidyaraja (Wisdom King), 1100-1185.

  • Bodhisattva Samantabhadra.

  • Amitabha Buddha. Late Heian,Color on silk Yushihachimanko Juhachika-in Temple. Central of three hanging scrolls.

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