The Amida Nyorai was made for the Pure Land Buddhist sect during the late Heian, early Kamakura period. As an idealized and compassionate figure, its classic proportions and refinement appealed to all classes of people. Belief in the Amida Nyorai promised a chance of salvation to all worshippers in a time when most believed the world would end.
RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND: Pure Land Buddhism
The Buddhist universe is populated by innumerable Buddhas, ruling over all times and all space. Each directional Buddha presides over a "pure land." The most famous and beloved of these is the gentle and merciful Amida, who rules the Western Paradise. Amida Buddha vowed through his endless merit and compassion to create a land into which all who accepted his saving power would be reborn. There, his devotees could accumulate enough merit to reach nirvana
(extinction of the self).
Pure Land Buddhism is a simple, direct form of Buddhism. It rejects elaborate rituals and chants, propounding instead that the way to Amida's paradise lies in the fervent belief in Amida. All one has to do is chant the name of Amida ("namu Amida butsu") just once in true faith. Even said on one's deathbed (and even after a sinful life), these words will cause Amida and his attendants to swoop down and transport one up to paradise on a lotus throne (Amida Raigo). The lotus then opens up releasing the soul into a sumptuous world populated by gentle, celestial beings. Amida's mercy even allows doubters in, though they have to wait five hundred years for their lotus blossom to open.
Pure Land Buddhism in Japan
"Pure realms" were first described in Indian texts in the 3rd century B.C., but it was not until the 6th century A.D. that a distinct religion coalesced around this belief. In China during the T'ang dynasty (618-908) it became the national religion. During the mid-7th century Pure Land Buddhism was introduced into Japan. It was adopted on a vast scale during the late Heian period (late 10th to 12th centuries). Previously Esoteric Buddhism held sway, especially over the nobility. Its esteemed position rapidly faded in the rush towards Pure Land Buddhism spurred on by the notion of mappo.
) is the term for a time when the understanding of Buddha's law ends, heralding in an age of degeneration and suffering. An ancient prophecy foretold that mappo was to occur beginning in the year 1052. This precise date was calculated in reference to the date of Buddha's birth, 949 B.C. (Current scholars date Buddha's life to 563-483 B.C.). The first 100 years following Buddha's death was thought to be a golden age when his law was still understood. The next 1,000 years were a period of "copied" law, where Buddha's precepts would only be understood partially. The final period was that of mappo, a period lasting 10,000 years. Mappo would finally end with the coming of Miroku
), the future Buddha who would save the world.
To the people of late Heian Japan, it seemed as if mappo had arrived. Successive uprisings ended the domination of the Fujiwara family, and a brutal civil war broke out. This was compounded by a series of natural disasters including famine, drought, pestilence, and disease. As the numbers of innocent victims rose in the tremendous unrest, mappo was evident in the eyes of believers. Literature of the period reveals a world view of all-encompassing human suffering and misery.
The secretive, scholarly nature of Esoteric Buddhism offered little hope. As people could not "understand" Buddha's law, Pure Land Buddhism offered the simplest and fastest way to salvation. Since people could not be saved by their own efforts, they surrendered to the grace of Amida.
Pure Land Buddhism as a Mass Religion
Pure Land Buddhism appealed to all classes and types of people. The nobility learned about it through a book published by the monk Genshin (942-1017), entitled A Collection of Essentials for Birth in the Pure Land. In this book Genshin graphically described the ghastly hells and the lofty Buddhist paradises that one could be reborn into. Artists were commissioned to produce artwork that emulated his descriptions. The most famous of these is the delicate Chinese style buildings of the Byodo-in (phoenix hall) in Uji, Japan. The gardens were planted so that flowers would bloom through every season, and the trees were bedecked with colorful crystals emulating the jeweled trees of the Western Paradise.
Women, particularly noble women, were drawn to Pure Land Buddhism. Previous forms of Buddhism stated that because women were at a lower level of existence, they needed to be reborn as men before they could become enlightened. In contrast, Pure Land Buddhism welcomed women, rich or poor. In the end all one needed was faith in Amida.
Pure Land was the first form of Buddhism in Japan to actively engage and proselytize the lower classes. Preachers travelled to remote areas preaching Amidist doctrine and holding mass revival meetings, that included dancing and chanting. The simplicity of Pure Land rites made salvation available to everyone.
THE MIA'S AMIDA NYORAI: Context/Setting
The MIA's Amida Nyorai
probably once composed the central element of an Amida Raigo scene. Accompanied by figures of bodhisattvas and backed by an elaborate halo, it would originally have been placed on a temple altar. Amida Raigo
scenes visualized the moment when Amida flanked by the bodhisattvas Kannon and Seichi would swoop down holding a lotus throne upon which the devotee would be brought to the Western Paradise.The lotus dias upon which the Amida sits is not original to the sculpture, but is like those of the period. The lotus not only serves as a throne for celestial beings, it is also used to transport souls to the Western Paradise where they will be reborn. The lotus serves as a basic symbol of Buddhism. It grows up through the mud into a lovely, pure blossom. To rise above the fetid muck of the material world and remain pure in one's spirit is the goal of the Buddhist.
Amida (Chinese: Amitabha; Sanskirt: Amitayus) means "immeasurable light" and "immeasurable lifespan." Nyorai is a Sanskrit honorific title for the Buddha, meaning "thus come," or indicating that the Buddha comes from a place which is not here.
There are eight principal and six secondary symbolic ritual hand gestures or mudras. Mudras of the Amida combine two separate meanings. The first is that of the right hand raised in An-i-in or a mudra of appeasement or fear not. It both expounds the law and reassures the viewer. "The hand (right generally) is raised, palm outward, the fingers straight, with the exception of the thumb, which touches the end of the inflected index or of the middle finger..." (Saunders 67) The MIA Amida performs the mudra with both hands, forming a circle by touching single fingers to the thumb. The circle reflects the perfect form of Buddha's law, with no beginning and no end. The second mudra is that of wish granting (segan-semui-in), with the open palm lying in the lap turned toward the outside. The combination of both mudras identifies this sculpture as an Amida or Sakyamuni Buddha.
The notion of Amida's grace and compassion meshed perfectly with the luxurious court aesthetic of the late Heian period. As major patrons, the nobility's elegant taste formed the basis for the well-proportioned and lighter forms found in Pure Land Buddhist art. As cult objects Pure Land images were meant to inspire rather than frighten. Thus Buddhist art in Japan moved from austerity to intimacy and from power to delicacy. Compositional power was easily sacrificed for refinement of execution and understated color effects.
The MIA's harmonious Amida Nyorai was influenced by a colossal image of Amida carved by Jocho in 1053 for the Byodo-in. Jocho and the MIA's artist created a figure of strict geometric simplicity and classic proportions.
Media and Carving Technique
The Amida Nyorai is carved out of cypress wood. From the beginning of the Heian period, Japanese sculptors preferred wood over all other media. The ease of carving allowed for subtle variations in style. Earlier Esoteric Buddhist images were hewn from a single tree trunk. This lent a heavy massiveness used by artisans to create a vision of power and spiritual brooding. They deeply chiseled into the wood to add a sense of vigor to the unpainted surface.
Pure Land artists approached wood sculpture from a radically different viewpoint, beginning with the carving technique—that of joined woodblock carving.
Artists who carved images from single blocks of wood had to contend with many limitations. For instance, a single block sculpture could never be wider than the diameter of the tree from which it was carved. In contrast, the joined woodblock technique allowed artists to create as large or complex an image as desired.
This technique involved the following steps:
- the lead sculptor visualized and designed the completed figure constructed of many parts
- the sculpture was carved in many separate pieces, leaving the interior hollow. Relics, sutras, and other objects could be placed in this hollow, adding to the importance of the sculpture
- the pieces were pegged together (can see the separate portions where the wood splits on the Amida Nyorai)
- seams and cracks were covered over with fabric or paper
- the surface was then covered with gesso (baked seashells and water) or lacquer (the Amida Nyorai is covered with lacquer)
- gesso or lacquer was burnished to a smooth finish
- figure was covered with gold leaf and details were painted on
Like all works in the joined woodblock technique, the statue is made of many pieces pegged together. These consist of:
- the torso, from the shoulders down
- the left shoulder and arm
- the right shoulder and arm
- the left hand
- the right forearm and hand
- the lap
- the tip of the garment hem
- the left hip
- the right hip
- the head
The luxurious court aesthetic encouraged the lavish use of gold coverings on Pure Land Buddhist statues. Genshin's description of the blinding radiance of Buddha's skin also pushed artists away from the use of plain wood. Traces of sparkling gold that once covered the MIA's Amida
remain on the surface and in crevices.
The complex process of joined woodblock technique and the popular demand for sculptures such as the Amida Nyorai, led to a large scale workshop production. The head artist would be basically a designer, doing only important bits of sculpting, while his assistants would do a majority of the carving under his direction. This workshop process was efficient and economical, leading to a somewhat homogeneous style in the late Heian period. Artisans were no longer bound by the size and shape of the tree trunk. This let artists create the precisely balanced figure of the MIA's Amida.
The MIA's Amida Nyorai is in a remarkable state of preservation, considering its age. The hands, for instance, are original and intact; the hair curls are in good condition and the face exquisite. The sculpture has survived a temple fire during which the gold leaf surface was extensively damaged and its pedestal and halo lost. (Kanya Tsujimoto of the Nara National Museum, an expert on ancient wood, confirmed a late 12th-century date. He believed it to be one of the finest seated Amidas in the United States.)
*Use on the following tours:
- Asian Art
- Japanese Art
- Religion and Art
- Heroes and Heroines
- Highlights of the Collection
- Visual Elements
*Compare to other Pure Land Objects in the collection: the Taima Mandala, the Heian sutra, and the sutra containers.
The Amida is a mild, easily approachable figure with a downcast mediative expression. The figure has harmonious proportions characteristic of the late Heian period. The composition is a stable triangle and the sense of volume is restrained. It is an idealized and compassionate figure.
The Buddha is represented as a young, ideally proportioned male figure, dressed in simple monk's robes. The Buddha has 32 sacred identifying marks, some of those represented on the MIA's Amida are:
Hair done in tight, regular rows
curling to the right
Sharper carving of eyes, nose, brows
Eyes downcast, meditative
Crystal eyes embedded from inside the head
Joyous benevolent face,
overall tranquil expression
Shallow carving of the surface
Smooth surface modeling
Round sloping shoulders
Chest, neck, stomach,
arms lack muscle definition
Sense of volume is restrained
Slender, tubular arms
Perfect body proportions,
posture is relaxed; stable
Low, flat horizontally
Very soft, thin drapery falls into lovely parallel pleats
Snailshell curls: the Buddha cut his long hair
when he renounced his luxurious life as a prince.
Ushnisha: a cranial extension which is a
symbol of Buddha's omniscience
Elongated earlobes: these are the result of
heavy earrings the Buddha wore as a
prince. They symbolize his renunciation
Urna: a mark of the Buddha placed between his
eyebrows. It symbolizes his power to illuminate
the world with the light that radiates from
Mudra: hand gesture
of "fear not" or
Mudra: gesture of
seated lotus position