Arts of enlightenment

Osaka Municipal Museum of Art hosts an unrivaled display of ancient works from the famed Tendai Buddhist Miidera Temple


The exhibition “National Treasures of Miidera Temple,” presently at Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, tells a fractured story of the famed Tendai Buddhist temple that spread its influence across the regional temples of western Japan, from the establishment of a core of sacred imagery, staturary and mandalas in its Heian Period (794-1185) infancy, to the aesthetic appreciation of its treasures by an American scholar in the 19th century.

Given this expanse of time, tantamount to the entire history of premodern Japanese art, a viewer’s aesthetic enlightenment will likely come from selective meditation upon individual works — an incredible 60 of which are designated as national treasures or important cultural properties.

A 12th-century record dates the foundation of Miidera (also called Onjoji) to 686, and excavated roof-tile fragments in the exhibition — such as the 7th-century “Circular eave tile with plain six-petaled lotus” — lend archaeological support. The temple is said to have been established following the deathbed wish of Emperor Kobun, which was carried out by his son.

That 686 date may, however, be a later invention in order to subvert the legitimacy of the Enryakuji monastery founded in 785 by the monk Saicho (767-822) that came to be Miidera’s Tendai Buddhism rival. Miidera lies at the base of Mount Hiei in the city of Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, and Enryakuji sits above it on the same mountain.

In the 9th century, friction between two of Saicho’s disciples, the abbot Ennin of Enryakuji (793-864) and Enchin (814-891), both of whom had spent around five years in China studying the secret teachings of Tendai doctrine, resulted in Miidera being entrusted to Enchin in 859. In 866, Miidera was designated a subsidiary of Enryakuji with Enchin its director, and following Ennin’s death, Enchin became head abbot of Enryakuji in 868.

What representational practices were in place in Saicho’s day remains unknown, and there are thought to be no extant Tendai-sect paintings from his time. Hence the exhibition departs from Miidera’s flowering under Enchin and teems with administrative calligraphy extolling Enchin’s biography, such as “Four documents granting ecclesiastical ranks to Enchin” (850), and a wealth of statuary portraying “Chisho Daishi” — Enchin’s Buddhist name.

In 993, internal discord at Enryakuji resulted in Enchin’s disciples being expelled, and so 1,000 monks headed down the mountain bearing Enchin’s remains, papers and a portrait, establishing themselves at Miidera as the Jimon (temple) sect of Tendai as distinct from the Sanmon (mountain) sect of Enryakuji. The two temples raised their own contingents of warrior-monks, and destructive clerical feuds ensued, which the weaker Miidera usually lost.

The thrust of Esoteric Buddhism and Tendai doctrine in particular held that the essence of the religion was never going to be entirely comprehensible to humankind, in contrast to Exoteric Mahayana Buddhism, which proceeded as if mankind’s intellectual abilities could grasp such essences. Consequently Esoteric Buddhism took to magical and ritual practices concealed from all but the initiated. Rather than alienating the common folk, however, Tendai Buddhism flourished in part because it proposed that man could attain Buddhahood within his lifetime by meditating on images of the Buddha and performing certain rites.

To encourage the faithful to remain so, painting and statuary were the necessary edificatory tools to fill the gap between the ideal world of the Buddha and the less encouraging everyday one. Enchin’s representational program was highly critical of orthodox Tendai practice, and along with the great variety of didactic works he brought back with him from China, such as the “Gobu Shinkan,” (1194), showing deities in old and new forms from the Diamond World Mandala, he fostered significant digressions from conventional Esoteric Buddhist iconographic practice.

A principal departure is the 9th-century “Fudo Myoo” (“Yellow Fudo”) commissioned by Enchin, which even a publication in 1977 noted was considered too sacred to be reproduced in a photograph. In the present exhibition and catalog, however, that caveat appears to have lifted. “Fudo Myoo” — meaning “King of Light,” with “light” meaning “knowledge” — normally blue or sometimes red, is a composite creation of the different forms of the benevolent protector deity, beloved in Japan and evidenced by the sheer number of representations on show. Conventionally, Fudo Myoo deities were depicted with a fierce visage and the soft body of a child. In Japan, though, they came to be represented as muscular and virile, the vicious appearance symbolizing the destruction of wickedness.

Beyond this addition to the Tendai pantheon, the spread of Esoteric Buddhism brought with it a great increase in the number of deities worshipped. Buddhism’s syncretism meant that divinities were borrowed from afar, such as the water deity Suiten (Varuna) (15th century) founded upon the Hindu god, and were also sourced from local Shinto traditions, such that there was often no clear distinction between the gods of one or another religion. Of particular interest here will be the “Mandala of Kumano Shrine Divinities in their Shinto form and in their original Buddhist form” (13-14th centuries).

Such cross-pollination was widespread, and found symmetry in Tendai religious thought. While a variety of mandalas were in use, the “Mandala of the Diamond World (Kongokai),” a symbolization of spiritual things as durable as a diamond, and the “Mandala of the Womb World (Taizokai),” a symbolization of the material universe, were of particular importance. In Esoteric Buddhism, which emphasizes the attainment of Buddhahood in this life, the union of spirit and matter was called for, and resulted in representations such as the paired hanging scrolls of the “Dual World Mandala” (14th century).

Rounding out the exhibition are fusuma (sliding door) landscape paintings by Kano Mitsunobu (d.1608) and artists of the day that decorated Miidera’s subsidiary precinct of Kangaku-in, and a concluding section is given over to Miidera’s relations with the Meiji Era (1868-1912) scholar Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908). These bits of Fenollosa memorabilia, such as his telescope and phonograph, are an odd tribute to the 1,150 years of Tendai Buddhism since Enchin, and include a letter by Fenollosa’s wife informing the temple of how settled the two of them are at home in California. Such possessions, however, add a final esoteric thread.

“National Treasures of Miidera Temple” runs until Dec. 14 (9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Mon., open holidays and closed the following day; ¥300) at Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, 1-82 Chausuyama-cho, Tennoji Ward, Osaka City, a 5-min. walk from JR Tennoji Station or Kintetsu Abeno Station. For more details, call (06) 6771-4874 or visit index-omm-e.html