Buddhist treasures undimmed by time

by Rei Sasaguchi

Daigoji Temple has maintained its status as one of Japan’s leading Buddhist temples upholding the Shingon sect since its foundation in Kyoto over 1,100 years ago. Named a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1994, the temple is a veritable treasury of Japanese Buddhist sculpture, scripture, esoteric paintings and iconographic drawings.

Daigoji Temple’s Yakushi Nyorai

A striking exhibition about Daigoji is now on at the Tokyo National Museum, featuring 11 national treasures and 73 important cultural properties. The show’s centerpiece is the 176-cm-tall statue of Yakushi Nyorai (Bhaisajyaguru), the Buddha of Healing, which is the principal icon of Yakushi Hall, one of the temple’s key structures.

A magnificent wooden sculpture covered with gold foil, the Buddha, a national treasure, is believed to have been created when Yakushi Hall was built on Kasatoriyama Hill in Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward by order of Emperor Daigo in the early 10th century.

Founded in 874 by the monk Shobo, Daigoji developed remarkably under the patronage of Emperors Daigo, Suzaku and Murakami during the first half of the 10th century.

The group of Buddhist halls built atop Kasatoriyama Hill came to be referred to as Upper Daigo, while the temple complex constructed at the foot of the hill, consisting of the Golden Hall and the five-storied pagoda, came to be designated as Lower Daigo.

The temple further expanded its religious activities during the first quarter of the 12th century under the patronage of former Emperor Shirakawa. Many of its buildings were seriously damaged by fire and civil war in the 13th to 15th centuries, but were restored in the late 16th century with the help of such influential patrons as Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

The 221-kg Yakushi image now presides over an impressive array of Buddhist sculptures in the museum’s Gallery 4, which is beautifully laid out, reminding one of the interior of an actual Buddhist hall.

Following the tradition of Yakushi being worshipped widely at major Buddhist temples in Nara during the seventh and eighth centuries, the Buddha of Healing is flanked by the smaller, standing images of Nikko and Gakko Bosatsu (Bodhisattva), which are graceful but different in style.

The Yakushi Buddha is guarded by the handsome, 13th-century statues of Komokuten and Tamonten, two of the guardian kings of the four quarters, and by a pair of powerful nio figures from the Western Main Gate that date to 1134.

Among other objects of importance are a set of five myoo wooden figures that date back to the 10th century and are typical of esoteric Buddhist deities. The most important of the five is Fudo, or the “Immovable One,” an avatar of the Buddha Dainichi (Vairocana).

Gallery 4 features two works by the renowned Kamakura sculptor Kaikei: the seated image of Miroku (Maitreya), dedicated to Emperor Goshirakawa on his death in 1192, and the seated image of Fudo Myoo surrounded by vibrant red flames that dates to 1203.

The entrance to Gallery 1 is occupied by a charming 50-cm wooden image of the six-armed Nyoirin Kannon in a relaxed posture. Covered in gold foil, this is a very popular esoteric variation of Kannon (Avalokitesvara).

Daigoji Temple also has a notable collection of secular art. In Gallery 2 a selection of folding screens painted in the early 17th century is on display, including three attractive works by Tawaraya Sotatsu (active 1602-1630), the celebrated master of the Rinpa decorative school.