Monday, July 21, 2008

Buddhism and Sainthood

Above is a sculpture that certainly surprised me when I first saw pictures of it, and caused me to take a second look at the art of Japan.
It is a sculpture in wood by another celebrated busshi, Unkei from the beginning of the 13th century. It is a statue of an Arhat or Buddhist saint. This one is the Indian patriarch Asanga, known as Muchaku in Japan. Unkei almost certainly used a Japanese monk as the model, since he had no images or descriptions of Asanga/Muchaku to work with.
The realism and drama in this sculpture is very striking, and to my eye, could give Donatello a run for his money. While that realism and drama make me want to say "Western," there's not a smidgen of anything Western in this work. Its origins are in the Buddhist Hindu figurative traditions of India as they were reinterpreted in China and Korea. The realism is purely Japanese. The tragic nobility of this arhat is entirely the work of Unkei.
Unkei witnessed the fall of the Fujiwaras from power and the outbreak of the Gempei War, a very bloody war for power between the Taira and Minamoto clans that devastated Japan. Buddhist monks and their temples felt the wrath of the soldiers for siding with one side or the other. The Taira soldiers put the great Todaiji temple at Nara to the torch and massacred the monks for siding with the Minamoto. They sawed the head off the giant bronze Daibutsu housed within its great hall. Ordinary Japanese, farmers and townsmen, fared even worse at the hands of the soldiers. Unkei witnessed, and may have experienced, profound suffering during the war that ended with the Minamoto victory and the establishment of the long military dictatorship of the Shogunate.
Confrontation with suffering and death was the great strength of Buddhism in Japan, and popular forms of Buddhism flourished in the aftermath of the Gempei War. Indeed, Unkei shows us just such a saint who looked death in the face, and remains unafraid.

This sculpture remains relatively little known in the West, and that may be in part because it is relatively inaccessible.  It forms part of a splendid sculpture group with another arhat, and Buddha (Miroku Butsu or Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future) all made by Unkei in his last years.  All three are housed in the Kofuku-ji Temple in Nara, Japan, a temple with many buildings and a large deer park that is usually wide open to tourists.  However, these sculptures are housed in a hall (the Hokuendo) that is only open to the public on occasion.

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