Kaikei: the name behind the gods

by

Special To The Japan Times

Kamakura Period (1185-1333) Buddhist sculptures often come down to us under the individual names of makers (when known) though they were often fashioned in workshops by multiple hands. A significant 13th-century work would employ a dozen or so team members and assistants and draw on multiple specialists.

While Kaikei is called the sculptor of the Shinto deity “Hachiman” for Nara’s Todaiji Temple, over 30 craftsmen were involved and Kaikei was the project’s overseer.

A further characteristic of Kamakura Buddhist sculpture was the religious bonding of the social and financial strata that provided money for producing new statuary. Within Kaikei’s “Standing Amida Nyorai” (c. 1194) was found a list of sponsors naming some 12,000 devotees.

In another example, the monk Genchi commemorated the first anniversary of the passing of his teacher, Honen, who was among the most prominent figures in Pure Land Buddhism and deeply involved with Kaikei. Forty to 50,000 of Genchi’s followers sponsored the “Standing Amida Nyorai” (1212) as a memorial. Such fundraising campaigns were the spiritual equivalent of today’s crowd-sourcing.

Kaikei has long been recognized as a pinnacle among Japanese Buddhist sculptors, along with his contemporary, Unkei. The two are said to represent the perfections of Japan’s 13th-century religious sculpture as the leading figures of the Kei school of Buddhist sculptors of Nara. Kaikei, in particular, is said to have pioneered an incomparable aesthetic standard that combined realism and elegance with fervent devotion. The forms he established became the models for successive centuries.

Yet much about Kaikei is unknown. He was a disciple of Unkei’s father, Kokei, and not a blood relative, but he was a sculptor held in high esteem and held important connections to powerful families, the Imperial court and Buddhist clerics. Kaikei’s name was first documented in 1183, though his earliest known work is the “Standing Miroku Bosatsu” (1189), now in Boston. Three years later he made a second statue in homage to the retired Emperor, Go-Shirakawa.

Kaikei’s career blossomed with the numerous works he produced for the rebuilding of Todaiji Temple, a massive project promoted by the monk Chogen (1121-1206). Early on, Kaikei held no official title, but he moved up the Buddhist sculptor rankings to hōkyō (third-highest) in 1203 and then hōgen (second-highest) sometime between 1208-1210. It was only hōin, the top ranking, that he never received.

One exemplary work offers a glimpse of how this kind of period sculpture was witnessed in the past. Kaikei was tasked with recreating the 11-headed form of Avalokitesvara at Hasedera Temple in Nara after it was burned in 1219. With the original destroyed and its image kept so secret that no one really knew what it looked like, Kaikei’s icon was reputedly copied in secret from a painting held by another temple that refused to lend it out. Working from the painting, Kaikei and his workshop apparently completed the sculpture’s main body in 33 days in accord with the canonical 33 forms of Kannon.

Though Kaikei’s reproduction no longer survives, a relatively faithful copy of the masterpiece was fashioned by his disciple, Chokai — “Standing Juichimen Kannon,” (13th century). Originally such sculptural surfaces were richly colored in lacquer and this one is almost perfectly preserved because it was secretly shut away until the Meiji Era (1867-1912). Chokai’s reverence for his master’s formal and coloristic style also became a way for him to preserve it for our time.

“The Buddhist Master Sculptor Kaikei: Timeless Beauty from the Kamakura Period” at the Nara National Museum runs until June 4; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. until 7 p.m.). Closed Mon. www.narahaku.go.jp