Buddhist hells are frighteningly human

by

Special To The Japan Times

Popularly known as Genshin (942-1017), the high-ranking Buddhist prelate Eshin Sozu was said to have been born following his devout mother’s prayers to the Kannon of Takaoji Temple in Taima, Nara Prefecture.

Genshin began the road to monkhood in youth, studying at Kyoto’s Enryakuji Temple on Mount Hiei, the center for Tendai teachings. His 1,000th memorial anniversary along with the pictorializing of distinctively dualistic Buddhist afterlives are the themes of the Nara National Museum’s present exhibition.

While formalized pictorial vocabularies existed earlier, Genshin is said to be responsible for amalgamating and popularizing the Pure Land Buddhist iconography of death and rebirth that remains with us today. A celebrated achievement was his promotion of the belief that Amida Buddha would appear to the faithful in their final moments, welcoming them to paradise.

The exhibition is a National Treasure trove of famous paintings illustrating Amida Buddha and his entourage of attending Boddhisattvas descending from clouds to lead believers into paradisiacal rebirth. Concrete images of salvation provided visual reassurances of what stood to be gained. This imagery was evermore poignant given the period belief that theirs was the degenerate age of the Final Stage of Dharma (mappō) that could only look forward to a future reflowering of Buddhism.

Genshin’s doctrinal contribution was his descriptions in his “Essentials of Rebirth in the Pure Land Paradise” (985), published when he was 43. It was a guide to the fundamental Tendai belief of rebirth in the paradise of Amida compiled from previous bodies of Buddhist scriptural knowledge. He explained the Six Realms of Transmigration people were said to traverse through according to their deeds in life, how to achieve potentially better rebirth and how to obtain release from the continued suffering of transmigration. The attention of the Heian Period (794-1185) aristocracy was especially attracted.

But it is Genshin’s descriptions engendering new pictorial forms showing the ugliness of the human world and the terrors of the numerous hells that are most engrossing. Disease and deformity in the “Scroll of Afflictions” (12th century) is both sordid and colorfully entertaining. A man shaves his pubic hair because he has lice. A woman squats and squirts choleric excrement from a platform whilst a dog below greedily laps it up. Other characters in the fragmented narrative endure dwarfism, rickets and halitosis. Alarmingly, a woman is disfigured by a blemish.

The choreography of death provides further indignity and disgust, as in “The Illustrated Scroll of the Nine Stages of Decay” (14th century). Initially, the corpse of a kimono-clad court woman is abandoned in a landscape. Successively, the body bloats, putrefies and has its flesh stripped away by wild animals. The end result is a desolate scene of scattered bones.

Dominions of condemned afterlife include the “Scroll of Hungry Ghosts” (12th century) in which the accursed are compelled to compulsively feast on human feces, without ever being satiated. Hell is compartmentalized into eight greater ones, ringed by 16 lesser ones, as illustrated in the “Hell Scroll” (12th century). These include persecutions in the damnable realms of “Excrement,” “The Five Prongs,” “Starvation,” “Searing Thirst” and “Pus and Blood.” And if the hell of “The Single Bronze Cauldron” was insufficient, the hell of the “Many Bronze Cauldrons” could await.

So, if the summer seems to have both dragged in length and soared in temperature, there are other uncomforting realms into which sufferers can imaginatively resituate to induce alternative perspectives.

“Millennial Memorial Exhibition: Imagining the Afterlife — Hells and Paradise Envisioned by the Buddhist Prelate Genshin” at the Nara National Museum; 9:30 a.m.- 6 p.m. (Fri., Sat. and Aug. 6-15 until 7 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Mon. (except Aug. 14). www.narahaku.go.jp