Japanese Buddhist Paintings

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    Aizen Myö-ö, Japan, early Muromachi period, c.1400, Hanging scroll; ink, colors, and gold on silk, Exhibition TitlePurchase, 1991 (6059.1)

January 29, 2008 - April 27, 2008
Japan Gallery

Exhibition Overview

To put The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan in a wider Buddhist context, the Department of Asian Art is displaying selections from the museum’s superb collection of Japanese Buddhist paintings.

Esoteric Buddhism was introduced to the Himalayas and Japan about the same time—in the 9th century—and in the parallel exhibitions, viewers can see how each region expressed the religion through art.

On display in Japanese Buddhist Paintings are important works from the 12th to the 15th centuries during the Kamakura, Nanbokuchö, and Muromachi periods—a time when numerous sects of Japanese Buddhism thrived. The sects conveyed a complex, sophisticated pantheon of deities to their followers through rituals that relied heavily on sumptuous paintings, sculptures, and other art forms. Arts for ritual use played an especially key role in Esoteric teachings (mikkyö), which are closely related to Vajrayana Buddhism, Bhutan’s official religion, although the two strains of Buddhism developed independently from each other.

With the shift of power from the nobility to the warrior class that started in the 12th century, the Japanese aesthetic also shifted. The new patrons preferred boldness to refinement, action to contemplative atmosphere, and realism to formality. It was a change that also affected Buddhist arts, responding to new support groups that included the powerful military class, cultured elite, as well as illiterate commoners.

One of the exhibition’s highlights is a splendid Taima Mandala depicting the Pure Land of the Buddha Amida, expressing the teachings of the popular Jödo, or Pure Land, sect. One of the finest images of its type outside Japan, the Academy’s Taima Mandala, decorated with gold and silver pigments, creates a convincing illusion of the world of the Buddha and bodhisattvas worshipped in Jödo temples.

In contrast, a lively image of the wrathful deity Aizen Myö-ö, especially revered by the elite Shingon sect founded by the priest Kükai (Köbö Daishi, 774-835), displays numerous Esoteric symbols whose true significance was revealed only to a limited circle of initiates, such as the vajra (thunderbolt), ghanta (bell) and chakra (wheel).  These symbols are also commonly seen in works in The Dragon’s Gift, and reveal the relationship between Japanese Esoteric Buddhism and the Vajrayana tradition.

Rare early sutras (Buddhist scriptures), narrative handscrolls, and sculptures will also be displayed, to provide a comprehensive view of the material culture of medieval Japanese Buddhism. The exhibition is an exceptional opportunity to explore the differences and similarities between these two traditions of Buddhism from distant parts of Asia. -By Takako Miyazawa