Books / Reviews

Accounts and Images of Six Kannon in Japan

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

An 11th-century text, “A Tale of Flowering Fortunes,” described the Six Kannon who “filled the worlds in the 10 directions with innumerable rays of light, which manifested in their colors the bodhisattva resolve to benefit all living beings everywhere.”

Accounts and Images of Six Kannon in Japan, by Sherry D. Fowler.
440 pages
UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII PRESS, Nonfiction.

Sherry D. Fowler’s “Accounts and Images of Six Kannon in Japan” is an art historical study in the form of a journey to recover the scattered archaeological fragments of the past. The generalized subject is Kannon (in Sanskrit, Avalokitesvara), the compassionate and venerated deity of Buddhism. Fowler’s specific focus is its cult of six, the celestial compartmentalization being an expedient directory to “who” can help with “what” in the answering of prayers.

The reader’s traveling companions are introduced in chapter one, and number seven: Sho (Noble) Kannon, Thousand-Armed Kannon, Horse-Headed Kannon, Eleven-Headed Kannon, Juntei (Pure) Kannon, Fukukenjaku (Rope-snaring) Kannon and Nyoirin Kannon, who holds the wish-granting jewel. Depending on the Buddhist sect, Tendai or Shingon, Juntei or Fukukenjaku are considered alternates, appearing in one or the other of a sect’s grouping of benevolent beings.

They are a cast of not altogether fixed iconography, but are usually multi-armed, sometimes multi-headed, and are colored from among blue, yellow/gold, white or flesh tone. There is one deity for each of Buddhism’s six transmigratory paths of existence (hell, hungry ghosts, animals, asuras or fighting spirits, humans and heavenly beings), assisting in salvation and better rebirth.

The cult was initially patronized by elites, so Fowler’s historical retrieval of texts and images for the Six Kannon in Japan begins in the 10th to 12th centuries in Kyoto. It was, however, the textual description of the Six Kannon in the Chinese text “Mohe Zhiguan” by Zhiyi (538-597) that was adopted and modified in Japan to give legitimacy to the cult’s local implementation and development. Fowler then shifts her geographical address to extant artifacts of the 12th to 18th centuries found on the island of Kyushu, both a place of active Six Kannon worship and a site of the comingling of Buddhist with pre-existing Shinto religious practices. Returning to Kyoto to discuss the superlative Six Kannon set attributed to Higo Jokei in Daihoonji, Fowler then turns to other Japanese areas for their sculptures, paintings and temple bell decorations, eventually touching on the West’s early reception of Japan’s Six Kannon from the 19th century.

A recurring concern throughout is with the instability of the number six, as the deities have also historically been configured as groups of five or seven, sometimes mistakenly. Fowler later follows with the morphing of the original Six Kannon into a supernumerary assembly of 33 that took impetus from that number of deity manifestations mentioned in the Lotus Sutra. The increased number was consonant with the supposed multiplication of power in a collectivity, and the 33-deity concept developed in tandem with the popularization of 33-stop pilgrimage routes from the 15th century. Pious enthusiasm fueled this together with a flourishing print culture, though the expanded cast of deities resulted in the gradual demise of the emphasis on the cult of six.

Part of the book’s message is with the repurposing of Kannon in accord with evolving religious practices, or the multi-purposing of Kannon in historical overview. While early Kannon worship was tied to aristocratic anxieties about the afterlife, the roles and functions of Kannon gradually transformed to aid nonelites in their earthly concerns. These could include the staving off of calamities, safe childbirth, seafaring, animal husbandry, removing curses, exorcism, preventing children from crying at night and apparently also in at least one example, placating the spirit of an angry cat.

A further intriguing discussion of both historical and contemporary concern is the gender and identity reassignment of various deities. The guises and employs of Kannon have risen to the needs of changing circumstances and what different time periods have required of them.

Much of the visual material introduced within is not conventional art historical imagery. The previous century’s scholarship largely saw fit to either ignore or denigrate Buddhist sculpture produced after the 13th century, discerning it had peaked only to suffer protracted decline. The last 50 or so years, however, has observed some reconsideration and Fowler’s scholarship is exemplary for engaging a subject over its vast historical spread — 1,000 or so years of Japan-focused Buddhist art developments.

A further engaging aspect is the book’s feel for treasure-hunting and discovery. In one instance, aided by the internet, digital maps and GPS, Fowler rediscovers a stone monument dated 1562 that survives next to a parking lot in Kirishima, Kagoshima Prefecture. Rather than seeming like a detour, such details are marshaled to bring color and extension in her pursuit of fuller narratives and interpretative contexts. Doing this breathes new life and knowledge into the remnants of the past that were heretofore only known in bits and pieces.