Buddhist sculptures treasures of antiquity

Daiho’onji, Kyoto

Standing Ananda by Kaikei (Kamakura period, 13th century)

By Robert Reed / Special to The Japan NewsIt is often said that history is flawed to the degree that it is written by the victors, but what of art history? Works of art by nature will speak for themselves, but in order to do so they must first survive. That is especially true of ancient art, for which the rise and fall of civilizations and the ravages of war often make survival something close to a miracle. But miracles do happen — which is why we have the word to speak of them.

The exhibition “The Buddhist Sculptures of Daiho’onji, Kyoto: Masterpieces by Kaikei and Jokei” now running at the Tokyo National Museum Heiseikan in Ueno is the product of one such miracle. Kyoto’s Daiho’onji temple was established about eight centuries ago in the northwest outskirts of the city. Its location was maybe part of the reason its Main Hall built in 1227 survived the Onin War (1467-1477) and other disasters and is now considered the oldest wooden building in central Kyoto today standing on its original framework.

But although the building is designated a National Treasure as one of the few extant examples of temple buildings of the Kamakura period (late 12th century to early 14th century) built in the Esoteric Buddhist style, the survival of the building itself is only half the miracle.

As we see in this exhibition, the other half is the Buddhist sculptures that survived along with it. One we see is the Standing Senju Kannon Bosatsu dating back to the 10th century in the Heian period (late eighth century to late 12th century). The highlight of this exhibition, however, is not Heian sculptures but the Kamakura period sculptures by leading members of the renowned Keiha school of Buddhist sculpture, most notably Kaikei, his student Gyokai and Higo Jokei, a student of Unkei, the other famed leader of the Keiha school.

The exhibition begins with Gyokai’s Seated Shaka Nyorai (Sakyamuni Buddha) that is the main object of worship at Daiho’onji, and it leaves that temple for the first time for this show. Also appearing for the first time outside of Daiho’onji is Kaikei’s masterwork from his last years, the Ten major disciples of Buddha (Important Cultural Property). The 10 disciples were not objects of worship in themselves but, like the disciples of Christ in the Christian tradition, they were considered important in spreading the Buddhist faith and are traditionally shown with Sakyamuni Buddha in paintings of famous events from the Buddha’s life like the preaching on Vulture Peak.

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  • Daiho’onji, Kyoto

    Seated Shaka Nyorai (Sakyamuni Buddha) by Gyokai (Kamakura period, 13th century )

  • Daiho’onji, Kyoto

    Standing Jundei Kannon Bosatsu (Cundi) by Higo Jokei (Kamakura period, dated 1224)

  • Daiho’onji, Kyoto

    Standing Furuna (Purna) by Kaikei (Kamakura period, 13th century)

  • Daiho’onji, Kyoto

    “Standing Mokukenren” (Maudgalyayana) by Kaikei (Kamakura period, 13th century)

When the Tendai Buddhist priest Giku founded Daiho’onji, the temple’s purpose was to be a place of worship to revive belief in the original Buddha, Sakyamuni. So the combination of Gyokai’s Seated Shaka Nyorai (Sakyamuni Buddha) and Kaikei’s sculptures of the 10 major disciples in the temple’s Main Hall was in effect a re-creation of Sakyamuni’s preaching at Vulture Peak, an event described at the beginning of the Lotus Sutra.

Along with his contemporary, Unkei, Kaikei is widely considered one of the greatest Buddhist sculptors, or busshi, of the Kamakura period, and we know his fame was well established in his lifetime because of the commissions he received from the Kamakura shogunate and famous temples of Nara and Kyoto, and the fact that he was awarded the Hogen rank in 1208, the highest recognition for an artist of the time.

The Keiha style that Kaikei and Unkei were prominent in is marked by at times almost striking realism that we now associate with Kamakura period Buddhist sculpture in general, and which is often attributed to the shift in the era from the Heian period court culture to the Kamakura period samurai culture that pushed it aside. Such realism is seen quite clearly in several of the sculptures of Kaikei’s 10 disciples, such as Standing Mokukenren (Maudgalyayana) and Standing Furuna (Purna).

However, Kaikei’s work is also loved for the grace and dignified beauty of his own style known as Annami. This kind of beauty is perhaps best seen in two other sculptures of the same series, the Standing Ananda and the Standing Anaritsu (Aniruddha).

The third highlight of this exhibition is Daiho’onji’s group of six sculptures known as Roku Kannon Bosatsu (Six manifestations of Avalokitesvara, Important Cultural Property, dated 1224) by Higo Jokei. Executed in roughly human proportion and being the only set of the six Kannon Bosatsu from the period preserved with their original halo backings and pedestals, these statues are a stunning sight lined up together down the center of one of the galleries.

Jokei is known as an incredibly skilled carver of wooden statues. That skill is seen in the way he brings softness to the ends of the tied knots of hair on the statues’ heads and the way he achieves such natural draping folds to the robes as to give the impression that they are being ruffled by a breeze.

There is much more to this exhibition than these amazing sculptures, however, because Daiho’onji also succeeded in preserving thousands of ancient hand-written Buddhist sutras, and a number of important paintings of Kyoto in the 13th century and later depicting the temple are also on display. Even for people who have no particular interest in Buddhist art, this show is definitely worth a visit because these sculptures surely represent some of the finest Japanese art of their day.

“The Buddhist Sculptures of Daiho’onji, Kyoto: Masterpieces by Kaikei and Jokei” runs through Dec. 9 at the Tokyo National Museum Heiseikan in Taito Ward, Tokyo.

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