• SHARE

Mention Mount Koya, a highland in the north-central part of the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture, and most people think immediately of the priest Kukai (774-835). Also known as Kobo Daishi, Kukai was the founder of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism, and Mount Koya became the new sect’s headquarters.

But an exhibition currently at Tokyo National Museum, titled “Kukai and Mount Koya,” goes beyond a history lesson to immerse viewers in the sea of artworks that flowed into the vibrant Buddhist center. It’s a powerful experience.

Visitors are plunged straight in with “Rokoshiiki,” a comparative study of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism by Kukai. The Chinese letters, written by the author with solid and rhythmical strokes, express the intellect and confidence of the 24-year-old seeker who had set his mind on studying Buddhism after a period of spiritual distress.

Born into an impoverished aristocratic family in Shikoku, the brilliant young man seemed set for an elite career as a statesman when, at age 18, he enrolled at the national college in the capital. His spiritual calling proved stronger, however, and he left the college to undergo spiritual training in the mountains, later adopting an itinerant life as a hermit-monk. Possibly around that time he took the name Kukai, which means “Empty Sea.”

Offering the uninitiated an accessible guide to the religious thought of esoteric Buddhism are a series of mandalas — schematic representations of the cosmos with images or symbols of deities arranged in geometric patterns, which serve as aids to meditation.

Among them, the “Mandala of Two Realms of Esoteric Buddhism” — from Kongobuji Temple (built by Kukai in 816) — awes the viewer with its sheer size, the large number of finely depicted deities, and its dark, faded hues. Its color is perhaps due to long exposure to incense smoke — and perhaps also has its source in a legend that the great warrior and minister of state Taira no Kiyomori (1118-81) made artists paint it using his own blood mixed with a red pigment.

It was Kukai who brought such esoteric practices to Japan. In 804, he sailed to Tang Dynasty China; when he returned in 806 it was with a commission from the Chinese priest Huiguo (known in Japan as Keika) to hand down the doctrines of esoteric Buddhism.

The climax of the exhibition comes with a series of standing statues by Unkei (?-1223) and Kaikei (late 12th to early 13th century) — the “Standing Statues of Eight Attendants of Fudomyo’o,” six of them by Unkei, and the “Standing Statues of Four Heavenly Kings” by Kaikei.

All the pieces are masterfully expressive. The eight boyish attendants are sculptured with realism, yet capture character “types,” ranging from a chubby, naughty type to an intellectual, brilliant type. The Heavenly Kings have fierce faces so vividly portrayed, with eyes and eyebrows turned upward, that it’s easy to imagine them speaking in thundering voices.

The level of artistry displayed by these works is exceptionally high, and compels the viewer’s attention.

Although tiny (just 30 cm tall), the “Standing Statue of Bishamon-ten,” which was kept inside a larger Bishamon-ten statue, is captivating with its perfect balance and expressive face.

Then there’s Kaikei’s “Standing Statue of Amida Nyorai,” filled with concentrated quietude — a testimony to the fact that Mount Koya became a center of Pure Land Buddhism during a surge of religious enthusiasm during the 12th century. Pure Land Buddhism teaches that the recitation of the nembutsu, Amida Buddha’s name, will win salvation for believers and rebirth in the Western paradise, the “Pure Land.”

The wistful, otherworldly yearning of these believers is beautifully captured in a set of three hanging scrolls displayed near the end of the exhibition, “Amida Nyorai and Attendants Descending From Heaven.” The gentle, whitish color tone of the work complements the peaceful expressions of the deities, some of them even smiling.

As with the Nanzenji exhibition now showing in Kyoto, this exhibition gathers an impressive number of works — 160 exhibits, including 21 national treasures and 96 important cultural assets. Its diversity is extraordinary, including religious artworks from Korea (dating from the 11th to 17th century) and both spiritual and secular Japanese artworks from the Momoyama and Edo periods (spanning the 15th-19th centuries).

In a less well-curated exhibition, this could indeed become exhausting, but the excellence of the show carries viewers along, buoying them up on a sea of artworks not “empty,” but full of power, beauty and history.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

PHOTO GALLERY (CLICK TO ENLARGE)