World Heritage Site, Daigoji Temple, was founded on the summit of Mount Kasatori in southeastern Kyoto when the monk Rigen Daishi Shobo (832-909) is said to have discovered a spring from which flowed the “ultimate taste, representing the highest state of Buddhist wisdom.” From 876, he had produced statues of Juntei and Nyoirin — two forms of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvaran— and by the 10th century, Daigoji had come under Imperial patronage along with a lower precinct at the mountain’s base.
The sprawling complex became a leading institution in esoteric Shingon Buddhism that was brought to Japan by the Japanese monk Kukai. Initially Shingon Buddhism attracted the nobility, because it catered to worldly needs. It offered wish-granting and rites to subdue external enemies, to provide protection from disaster and to extend life, as well as rituals to bring about rain.
The religion was constituted by two main streams: the Hirosawa school centered at Ninnaji Temple and the Ono based at Daigoji. The latter was separated into another six streams, the central one originating within Daigoji Temple at the sub-temple Sanboin, for which the Miroku Bosatsu (future Buddha) is the principal object of worship.
The Miroku Buddha Hall, which normally houses the statue of Miroku Bosatsu made by Kaikei in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), also contains a small garden with white sand and gourd-shaped design decorations. Such a context is exceedingly different from the statue’s display in the secular setting of the Nara National Museum’s current exhibition, where objects of religious veneration become art works.
Of course, such artifacts retain their religious roles, even within the museum, where people can occasionally be seen offering prayers. The 10th-century “Yakushi Nyorai and Attendant Deities (Medicine Master Buddha),” in particular, is a work held in high regard by the devoted. Carved from a single block of nutmeg wood, it combines aesthetic styles a century apart. The way the robe covers over the buddha’s left foot is more common to Nara Period (710-794) sculpture, while the slightly oversized head and thick midriff were frequently characteristic of early Heian Period (794-1185) works.
The final section of the exhibition is dedicated to the more complex synthesis of Buddhist and Daoist teachings in the mystical mountain-dwelling ascetic practices of Shugendo, the practitioners of which venerated Shobo as the founder of the Tozan school of Shugendo.
Given the long life of the temple, it will come as no surprise that a vast collection of sacred documents, reliquaries, sculptures and pictorial art has amassed there. A staggering total of 69,378 historical documents were in 2013 designated as National Treasures, and the commemoration of this is the purpose of the present exhibition. Testament to the importance of this exhibition is the fact that of the 189 pieces on display, 62 major works are National Treasures and 85 are Important Cultural Properties.
“The Universe of Daigoji — Esoteric Buddhist Imagery and Sacred Texts” at the Nara National Museum runs till Sept. 15. 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. and Aug. 5-15 till 7 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Mon. and Aug. 11, Sept. 15. www.narahaku.go.jp