Posted on: 23 November 2015

In the beginning of the Heian period (794–1185), the priest Kūkai (774–835) brought from China into Japan a new type of Esoteric Buddhism known in Japanese as mikkyō. Esoteric Buddhist practices worshiped a wide range of deities using rituals that required special implements, mystical incantations, and secret hand gestures. Many Esoteric Buddhist deities show the strong influence of Indian Hindu imagery—distinguished by multiple arms and faces, often with wrathful expressions. Painted or sculptural representations of full compendiums of these deities are called mandalas.

After Kūkai, new trends in Esoteric Buddhism continued to stream into Japan from Tang China not only through the Shingon sect founded by Kūkai but also by way of monks of the Esoteric Tendai sect such as Ennin (794–864) and Enchin (814–891). These priests preached the possibility of accumulating merit in this life through esoteric rituals, and thereby gained the faith and support of Japan's aristocratic elite.

Before the Edo period, almost all Japanese sculpture was religious in nature. Buddhist sculptures were produced in Japan from the time Buddhism took hold in the seventh century, but the icons they represented came from India by way of China, bringing with them the influence of those countries.

One of the distinctive characteristics of Japanese sculpture is its use of wood as a primary material. Because sculptures were made of wood, various construction styles and techniques were developed, including joint-block construction (yosegi zukuri) and inlaid crystal eyes.

Japanese Buddhist sculptures from various historical periods exemplify the repeated waves of influence from the Asian mainland and subsequent Japanese innovations, leading to a rich variety of sculptural styles.

Seated Nyoirin Kannon, Important Cultural Property (Tōgen-ji Temple)

Text and image credit:
Copyright © Kyoto National Museum

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Buddhist seer Mahakashyapa is still one of the central figures of Japanese spiritual imagination.