Three treasures of Japanese Buddhist art

- through Francois Leclercq

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As part of "Japonismes 2018: souls in resonance", celebrations commemorating 160 years of friendship between Japan and France, the exhibition "Nara, three treasures of Japanese Buddhism", presented at the Guimet Museum until to March 18, offers a unique opportunity to admire sculptures that are among Japan's greatest religious masterpieces.

These three sculptures come from ancient Asuka, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road which was the capital of Japan between 710 and 784 AD. It was there that the Asuka-dera temple, the first real Buddhist temple in the country, was founded at the end of the XNUMXth century. After the advent of a centralized national government and a legal system inspired by Confucianism and Chinese legalism, Buddhism then evolved to become the state religion. " Buddhism was officially introduced to Japan in 538 or 552. At that time, sculptors from the three Kingdoms of Korea visited the archipelago frequently, and Buddhist statues and sutras were then imported there. The production of Buddhist statues in Japan probably began with the arrival of these Korean craftsmen says Kensuke Nedachi, a professor at Kyoto University's Institute of Advanced Studies and adviser to the Nara department.

These three statues come from the Kohfukuji temple, "Executed by the greatest creators of their time, are loaned only very exceptionally “, insists Sophie Makariou, the president of the National Museum of Asian Arts Guimet. They took place, for a few months, in the historical library of the Guimet museum, designed as the heart of the building when it opened in 1889. Protected behind glass windows, and installed in an arc of a circle, they sit enthroned, in the semi-darkness from the library rotunda. In the center, a large Jizo Bosatsu or Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha is framed, symmetrically to enhance the visual impact, by two terrifying Kongô Rikishi statues.

Embodiment of Compassion

The Jizo Bosatsu statue, dating from the late XNUMXth century, depicts a strong-shouldered monk with a shaved head, dressed in a Kesa, standing on a lotus-shaped pedestal. The facial expression is soft. His left elbow is bent and his hand is raised at chest level. The right arm is slightly bent and lowered. The sculpture was painted using gold powder dissolved in glue. To create relief, the artist used Moriage saishiki, a decorative technique of layering colors and Kirikane, another decorative technique using cut metal sheets applied to the drapery. The motifs represent a circle of flowers (Danka), an arabesque (Karakusa), a gentian flower (Rindo), intertwined hemp leaves (Asaba Tsunagi) and a phoenix (Hoo). These colorful decorations date back to the second half of the XNUMXth century, when the sculpture was restored.

“The fundamental vow pronounced by the Bodhisattva Jizo Bosatsu, who is undoubtedly the most familiar and appreciated Bodhisattva to the Japanese, is to take upon himself the sufferings of living beings. » Shun'ei Tagawa, Abbot of Kofuku-ji Temple

This sculpture by Jizo Bosatsu embodies compassion. " The fundamental vow pronounced by this Bodhisattva, who is undoubtedly for the Japanese the most familiar and appreciated Bodhisattva, is to take upon himself the sufferings of living beings. explains Shun'ei Tagawa, abbot of Kofuku-ji Temple, in the exhibition catalogue.

On either side of this serene sculpture are exhibited two Kongô Rikishi, warriors carrying a Vajra dating from the XNUMXth century. On the right, the deity with the wide open mouth, the Agyo (“who forms the sound a”), represents movement. The one on the left, the Ungyô (“which forms the hum sound”), with a closed mouth and clenched teeth, immobility. These sculptures were intended to be installed on either side of a temple door to act as guardians. These deities aiming to protect the Buddhist world from spiritual and physical dangers are famous for their extremely realistic appearance, the result of meticulous observation of the human body. They were created in Japanese cypress wood. The eyeballs are made of rock crystal inserted into the orbits. The statues were covered with hemp fabrics on which white clay was applied before being painted. Documents from the Edo period attest that these statues would be the work of the sculptor Jôkei. There are traces of Kongô Rikishi in India where they are called Shitsukongöshin or Vajrapâni (gods wielding the Vajra). The latter were themselves influenced by the image of Greek, Roman and Indian deities.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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