Saturday, February 28, 2009

“Death of Buddha:” The Oldest Representation of Death in Japanese Buddhist Art

(This post comes to us from Zach. It's interesting to compare this image to the image Jane talked about below. Thank you Zach!)

When considering the events comprising the life of the Buddha, the scene of his death has continuously captured the Buddhist religious imagination, leading to various representations of it in art. It is on K
oyasan (Mt. Koya) in the Wakayama prefecture south of Osaka that “the greatest and oldest of these representations in painting in Japan is preserved” (Moran 97). The “Death of Buddha” painting is owned by the Kongobuji temple but is kept permanently at the Reihokan museum, which acts as a storehouse for artifacts from many surrounding temples (Moran 97). While the date of the painting (1086 CE) is clearly indicated, the work cannot be attributed to a specific artist, which interestingly raises questions regarding artistic intention when examining how this representation of the Buddha’s death differs from its counterparts in certain respects.

It is often suggested that certain essential elements, such as the Tree of Knowledge rearing itself behind the Buddha of the Sambodhi, continuously reappear throughout the history of Buddhist art (Foucher 26). “The Death of Buddha” painting, however, alters conventional artistic aspects in unexpected ways, providing a unique perspective on the moment of death. Descriptions of the painting note the overarching sense of peace and serenity in the figure of the Buddha, whose closed eyes suggest that he has either already expired or is in a state of profound meditation. Furthermore, he is positioned almost directly on his back, bent slightly to the right, which can be contrasted to other representations where he is positioned as leaning completely on his side (Moran 113). A casual glance at the painting reveals the Buddha to be much larger than any other figure in the work as he occupies a central placement, dominating the perspective.

With regards to formal features, the fact that the Buddha’s feet are visible is significant given the red lotus pattern on his left foot, which is by no means a common artistic feature (Moran 115). The symbol of the lotus is one of the most important in Buddhism as it represents the “purity of the Buddha’s truth rising above the ignorance of the world” (Fischer 5). This can be seen as relating to the wisdom imparted by the Buddha at the moment of his death. Another interesting formal feature relating to the representation of the Buddha is the absence of a halo when other figures in the painting have one (Moran 118). One could argue, however, that this relates to the eyes of the Buddha being closed as it serves to demarcate him as having expired.

Also noteworthy are the thirty-eight other figures that surround the Buddha, especially the group of bodhisattvas in the top left hand corner. None of these figures are presented as standing and a clear demarcation between those who are grieving and those who remain calm and composed is evident (Moran 122). The bodhisattvas are presented as contemplative, referring to their enlightened nature and understanding of death (Fischer 7). This can be contrasted with the varying degrees of grief visible in the fifteen bhikku monks and fifteen miscellaneous figures. Despite each figure belonging to a specific social or religious category (i.e. bodhisattva and bhikku), each one is aesthetically unique. One must also consider the appearance of the kara-shishi (Chinese Lion) who is overcome with grief, representing a broader interest in Mahayana Buddhism with the inclusion of such an animal. The inclusion of the lion reflects the freedom in Japanese artistic representation, as well as themes of authority and the motif of a “guardian figure” (Fischer 15). Thus, the painting combines both earthly and cosmic dimensions.

The “Death of Buddha” painting at Koyasan, through the depiction of the Buddha and those surrounding him, explores the problem of death as suffering, as well as the Buddha’s attaining of a “deathless” state with his conquest of suffering and death (Cuevas and Stone 1). This is seen through the varying reactions of sorrow and contemplation in the supporting figures. Interestingly, the work is held in such high esteem that it is only displayed for approximately one week per year (Moran 98). While the inability to attribute the painting to a specific artist renders certain formal features perplexing, the aesthetic quality of the work speaks for itself.

Detailed images of the painting are available through JSTOR, here.

~guest blogger, Zachary Alapi

Mario's Tanuki Suit

(This post is by Philip, who knows all about online game emulators. Thanks Philip!)

As a child, my parents always told me, “Mario eats his mushrooms and look how big he grows! Philip eat your mushrooms if you want to grow up into a big strong boy.” In Super Mario Bros. 3, if Mario ate leaves, he became a flying “racoon”. I figured that if mushrooms will make me big, then leaves could make me fly. I ate leaves and was not able to fly. Therefore, I decided that I would no longer eat mushrooms. Now that I have a bit more knowledge, I can better understand why Mario is so powerful and why his “racoon” suit made him even stronger.

Since my grandma used to say “Mama Mia,” and my Judo teacher had a big moustache, I always assumed that one day I could become a super-hero just like Mario. Mario was just like me except stronger and more Italian. Nevertheless, Mario would clearly be a manifestation of the other for his Japanese creators. The idea that power is to be found in the others is also confirmed by the Ebisu cults. The Japanese word ebisu means stranger or foreigner (Yoshida, 91). Ebisu is basically a foreign god who brings good luck and can be manifested as strangers who are also the source of good luck (Yoshida, 91). Thus, part of Mario's power comes purely because he is Italian and not Japanese. In addition, a similarity can be seen between Mario and the heroes of traditional and popular stories involving master-less samurai (rōnin-mono), or migratory strangers (watari-mono) (Yoshida, 91). The samurai and strangers are Japanese strangers who wander from town to town doing good deeds such as eliminating oppressors. Mario wanders around jumping on Koopa's to save the kingdom's princess. This basically amounts to the same thing, a unknown hero comes to save people from their tormentors. Yet, this does not explain why a leaf permits Mario to become a flying racoon-looking killing machine.

What I used to believe was a racoon-suit is actually a tanuki suit. A tanuki is usually considered to be either a badger or a racoon-dog in English (Casal, 49). In Japanese folklore tales, the tanuki can often fly, transform into different shapes, and a diverse range of other powers (Harada, 2). This would explain why Mario is able to fly, but it doesn't really tell us if why the leaf is the catalyst to this whole metamorphosis. In folk tales about tanuki, the animal's tricks usually revolve around leaves. A tanuki might appear as a human and buy goods with money which suddenly transforms into leaves (Casal, 52). Yet, tanuki are also known to wear lotus-leaves as hats (Casal, 54). Therefore, the leaf is an appropriate symbol for Mario's tanuki transformation.

Briefly, Mario derives power from his outsider status. The tanuki suit is inspired by actual tanuki folklore not just because the animal is cool. The leaf and the transformation it causes reflects these tales as well.

~guest blogger, Philip Tomlinson

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Chabana: Flower Arrangements for the Tea Ceremony

(This post comes to us from Sylvia. It complements Adam's, right below, don't you think? Thanks Sylvia!)

This image shows a space for a Japanese Zen tea ceremony. In this post I will be looking specifically at the flower arrangement depicted. It is an important part of the ritual and represents an interesting historical development which involved both imported and indigenous beliefs.

The word Chabana refers to flower arrangements for the Zen tea ceremony and can be translated literally as tea (cha) flower (bana from hana) (Kondo). This method comes out of a more overarching tradition of flower arrangement called Ikebana. Ikebana is believed to have first begun its evolution into its present form when Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century. From this point onwards, there was an intermingling of values and beliefs from both Buddhism and indigenous Japanese religions (Masanobo 6). Most explanations of the origins of Ikebana suggest that the practice drew on philosophical and practical concepts from both indigenous Japanese religions as well as Buddhism (Moriyama 355, Mittwer 22-24). For example, the indigenous religion of Japan (what we today call Shinto) places a strong emphasis on the natural world as sacred. As we have seen in class, all of the natural world as well as objects created by man were seen as possessing the spirit of a kami. This high regard for all locations and objects containing the kami including flowers and other plants was incorporated into the already existing Buddhist practice of flower offering and by the 16th century had became systematized into the stylized form of flower arrangement known as Ikebana.

Around this time an offshoot of the systematized and rigid Ikebana practice emerged; nagiere (lit. ‘thrown in’) was much less controlled and allowed the flowers and branches to fall naturally instead of being held up artificially as they had been in previous methods (Kouke). Chabana is included in the nagiere school of flower arrangement. The ideal in Chabana flower arrangement is to arrange the flowers from a position of ego-less non-attachment. If the arranger is successful she will not have brought any of her own presumptions about what is or is not beautiful. Instead she will have allowed the flowers to naturally fall into their own place (Mittwer, 40). Because Chabana is created specifically for a Zen tea ceremony, the purpose of a Chabana arrangement (both the method and observation of the outcome) is similar to other Zen practices. Feelings of emptiness, quietude and solitude are sought (Mittwer 35). One of the principles of Chabana is to keep arrangements in synch with the seasons using what plants and flowers are available in the region.

The example which I have chosen of a November Chabana arrangement falls under these guidelines since it is has less extravagant flowers and the primary focus of the arrangement is on a branch with coloured leaves.

~guest blogger, Sylvia Chomko

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

柄杓 (ひしゃく) ~ Hishaku (Ladle)

(This blog post is by Adam, featuring his own photos from Japan. Adam, ありがとう!)

You think you have it down as you pass beneath the torii at the end of the small alleyway. Left hand first, then the right, then scoop some into your cupped, now-pristine sinistral hand and rinse out your mouth. But wait, is this a full rinsing, or like a one-swirl, merely symbolic kind of swish? And where do I spit this out once I’m clean?? I’m just gonna have to wing it and hope for the best...

Conveniently, my first shrine was equipped with a foreigner-friendly pictorial guide to the “proper” Shinto purification procedure. Thus it came to pass that I held and used my first hishaku.

Ubiquitous in the sacred spaces across Japan are hishaku - dippers, or ladles, with long handles, sitting near sources of flowing water, waiting to purify faithful temple and shrine-goers. Depending on the size and popularity of the shrine, one can expect to find a solitary traditional bamboo ladle idling on a small basin of overflowing water or dozens of metallic hishaku stirring about, trying to access the freshest water coming out of a fountain spout. The enormous sink into which the water flows, called the temizuya, can always be located at the entrance of a shrine or temple to allow for purification prior to accessing the most sacred structures or spaces on the grounds. Older shrines tend to be located next to streams or other bodies of water so that visitors can cleanse their whole bodies of impurities by bathing in its pure waters (A Shrine Visit). Since ladles carry the water used in this ritual act of cleansing, it is easy to see how the hishaku can be tied in to the Japanese religious experience.

“It was traditionally thought that divine spirits dwell in places that are dented, or caved in, thus the hishaku was treated as a holy container.”

A common element in a traditional Japanese tea garden is the hishaku. Accompanying the ladle is, of course, the tsukubai, the small water basin from which one would wash their hands before commencing the tea ceremony, which isn’t exactly like visiting a sacred place, but isn’t that far removed either. In both cases, the hishaku is employed in the process of purifying the user.

Due to this association with purification, hishaku are found in several situations and celebrations. Those people partaking in nukemairi can be seen carrying with them a hishaku, being both a symbol of their pilgrimage and as a way of receiving alms. A hishaku without a bottom is used as hōnō, an object dedicated to the worship of the gods when beseeching deities for easy childbirth as well as in the celebration of Ohitsuosame shinji, a ritual th
at takes place on the Autumn equinox in Shizuoka Prefecture, where people ‘scoop’ water as an offering to the dragon kami residing in the pond at Ikemiya-jinja. Hishaku are also employed as torimono, a prop held during the performance of kagura, a ritual dance used to call down the power of the kami.

For New Year’s celebrations, new ladles are fashioned for the collection of water from a well or spring which can be spilt as an offering, used for cleansing of the mouth, and for making ozoni, a kind of vegetable and rice cake soup.

So it looks like hishaku, with their affiliation with water-based purification, are brought into various traditions and observances in Japanese religious life. I’ll ponder upon what sort of implications this might have for everyday Japanese life the next time I am handed a bowl of steaming hot ramen.

~ guest blogger, Adam Cappuccino

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rotting Corpses in Japanese Buddhist Artwork.

(This post is by Jane. Thanks Jane!)

The Kusōshi emaki is a hand scroll from early fourteenth century Japan which graphically depicts the nine stages of decay of a female corpse. This theme, called kusōzu, appears frequently in Japanese Buddhist artwork. The scroll is composed of ten narrative illustrations. The first is a pre-death portrait of the subject. She is depicted in aristocratic attire, with long black hair, a voluptuous figure, and red lips. The portrait suggests that this woman relished her beauty and wealth (Kanda, 25). In the second illustration the woman is newly deceased, lying on a raised mat and adorned with ornamental trimmings. Her undergarments are brushed aside and her right breast is exposed (Chin, 381).

The following eight illustrations show a shockingly frank and gruesome depiction of the corpse's decomposition. The lack of a background makes the rotting body appear all the more stark and isolated. The artist did not hold back at all; he confronts the viewer almost aggressively with the image of bodily decay. In fact, the precision of the anatomical depictions, which show the precise sinews of the muscles and the complete skeletal structure, suggests that the artist was painting an actual observed corpse (Kanda, 26).

The stages of decay proceed as follows: (0) pre-death portrait; (1) newly deceased corpse; (2) swelling; (3) rupture of the skin; (4) oozing of blood; (5) putrefaction; (6) discoloration and desiccation; (7) consumption by birds and animals; (8) skeleton; and (9) disjointing (Kanda, 26). The contrast between the first two illustrations and those that follow is significant. It seems as if the first two, which accentuate the sensual and feminine attractiveness of the subject, are meant to arouse desire in the viewer, making the lesson delivered by the following eight illustrations all the more poignant (Kanda 26).

To add insult to injury, the subject in the painting is not an anonymous woman. She is the ninth-century poet Ono no Komachi, known as one of the “six poetic geniuses” of Japan (Chin, 296). Perhaps not so coincidentally, Komachi's poetry is generally very physical in nature. She often refers to her physical body and uses some sexually suggestive imagery. Furthermore, her poetry frequently returns to the theme of fading female beauty (Chin, 300). The misogyny apparent in the use of this historical figure seems fairly obvious.

As Gail Chin points out, the symbol of the cadaver is significant to Buddhist thought because the corpse was one of three sights that prompted Siddhartha to seek the path of enlightenment. Paintings such as this one are meant to remind viewers of the impermanence of human existence and the repulsiveness the human body, especially the female one. They are meant to encourage renunciation of the body and to discourage sexual temptation and desires, specifically for Buddhist monks (Chin, 278). A similar use of the female cadaver as a symbol is seen in the literature of some early Indian Buddhists, who considered sexual desire identical to necrophilia since the female body secretes fluids comparable to the putrefaction of a corpse (Wilson, 60). However, the visual depiction of this theme is a specifically Japanese adaptation.

Modern scholars have generally interpreted the exclusive use of female corpses in the kusōzu genre as a testament to the prevalence of misogyny in Japanese Buddhist thought. Gail Chin denies this claim by arguing that because the female body is used to teach one of the most important Buddhist lessons, it must be inherently valued as representing Buddhist truth (Chin, 311). I however tend to agree with Bernard Faure, who criticizes Chin’s interpretation as being “overly charitable” and points out that the type of contemplation encouraged by this scroll, the “contemplation of the impure,” was intended exclusively for men (Faure, 276).

~ guest blogger, Jane Schroeder

Friday, February 20, 2009

Nyoirin Kannon

(This post on the statue of the Nyoirin Kannon is from Alexandra. Thank you Alexandra!)

This statue of the bodhisattva Nyoirin Kannon (Sanskrit: Cintamanicakra Avalokitesvara) dates back to ninth-century Japan and holds widespread esteem among devotees and scholars alike as a preeminent representative of Japanese Esoteric Buddhist art. It is housed in the Japanese Buddhist temple Kanshinji. In keeping with the tradition of secrecy and revelation of Esoteric Buddhism, the statue is kept hidden for the majority of the year, only being revealed to the public on two days. These special revelatory days, April 17 and 18, are thus times of widespread pilgrimage to the Kanshinji Temple when devotees trek through the mountains south of Osaka to beseech the wish-fulfilling powers of Nyoirin Kannon (Bogel 30).

The locus of Nyoirin Kannon’s power is considered to be contained within a jewel. This is the eponymous power to grant all wishes of devotees. Certainly the most bizarre incident involving this power of Nyoirin Kannon occurred in 1955 when a fanatic devotee of the bodhisattva became convinced the statue had somehow lost this jewel. Thus convinced the statue was void of power, the man hid himself in the main hall until nighttime when no-one was around determined to destroy the statue. Finding it too heavy to lift, the devotee crushed the statue’s two hands in his frustration and later ceremoniously burned them in a nearby rice field. Later the man turned himself into the authorities for his crime (Bogel 30). It would seem this is not only an example of aberrant religious behavior, but an indicator of the affective power this statue has maintained since its creation.

Within esoteric teaching there is the notion that religious implements, such as texts, relics and statues like the one in question, are not didactic aids which cannot fully convey the truth of the Buddha’s teachings, but are teachings themselves. All sights and sounds are thus the body of the Dharmakaya Buddha. Other traditions which reject this notion are referred to as “exoteric.” Kukai, the founder of the Shingon school of esoteric Buddhism, was explicit about this divide between exoteric and esoteric Buddhism, and the superiority of the esoteric path (Block and Starling 8). Many scholars consider this statue to have occupied the central position of worship (honzon) in the temple since its creation. If this is true then, the statue has been utilized by Esoteric Buddhist practitioners for more than one-thousand years in hopes of achieving the purported claim of esotericism—that the practitioner is capable of achieving full enlightenment within this present body. In fact, the jewel previously mentioned is also understood to represent this aspiration for enlightenment as well the wisdom which gives rise to its fulfillment (Jaanus).

In light of all this, one can potentially empathize with our quirky criminal devotee from before. If the Nyoirin Kannon statue had truly been considered to have lost its locus of power, then the devotee would have been left both without the path (since the statue itself is the teaching) as well as the fulfillment of the path. While the statue was repaired after its attack, one wonders how the devotee made amends with Nyoirin Kannon. Perhaps it was comforting that he could only see her twice a year.

~ guest blogger, Alexandra Prince

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Mothra: Kaiju Protector Deity

(Today's blog post is courtesy of Kim. Thanks Kim!)

Mothra, a popular adversary of Godzilla, is a kaiju, or popular Japanese monster. In the 1961 film Mothra she proves herself as a protector deity for the people of her land. The interplay between Mothra and humans is not unlike the relationship of kami and humans. Mothra is awakened when her spirit twins are stolen from her, at which point she leaves in pursuit after them. In this scene we see the humans crossing into the kami realm and taking what is not theirs. This disruption disturbs the balance between humans and kami and thus Mothra retaliates.

We see a similar situation with the ancient Ainu people and their kamui deities. The Ainu people displayed a reciprocal relationship between themselves and the kamui. They held the bear cub sacrifice in honour of their deities and to keep the channel of communication open between the deities and the humans. When the kamui are disturbed, their area is polluted, or their amoral personalities decide to act out there is a negative result for the Ainu people. This could appear in the form of a man dying in hunt or a poor catch of fish. Either way, however, whenever the boundary between the kamui realm and the Ainu realm is broken, the affect is felt on either sides of the divide.

Mothra arguably plays the same role throughout the film. She is a monster deity, a kaiju, who evolved from ancient Japanese fables. She demonstrates a reciprocal relationship between herself and the people of Infant Island. The twin sister spirits sing in prayer of Mothra, and because of this positive communication between the three, the sisters are able to summon Mothra to their rescue. In later depictions of Mothra she is not only the guardian deity for Infant Island, but she represents the environmental saviour of the earth.

In the film Godzilla vs. Mothra: the Battle for Earth, Mothra represents the saviour deity for all humanity. This film version depicts the twin sister spirits recounting the story of creation when a perfect society flourished under the guidance of Mothra’s other form, Battra. Through new technology the people of this time built a weather machine with which to control the skies. The creator deity Battra destroyed the machine and created chaos as a result of the people trying to control what is not theirs. Mothra appears to restore power and defeat Battra, unfortunately the people of in the village did not survive, and from this Mothra recreated earth.

Both these accounts of Mothra portray her as being ambivalent to society. I think this is a true feature of most kami. The kami of the Kojiki appear to work within the world with no particular concern for humanity. Humanity relies upon them, but they do not rely upon humanity. This is true of kami such as Amaterasu and Susa-no-wo, or Izanami and Izanagi. In both these narratives chaos circulates throughout the human and kami realm. The kami remedy these situations by creating a balance between the two borders. This is true too of Mothra. She only attacks when her realm is disturbed, when something is taken from her. Like other kami, Mothra is ambivalent with respect to humanity. Human beings may benefit or suffer from her actions--it all depends upon how they approach her.

Mothra is commonly known as a kaiju, or monster deity. I would argue however, that she is a powerful kami creator deity. Representations of Mothra in popular culture align with Japanese religious kami traditions. As I have discussed, based on the film interpretations of Mothra she is very much in tune with the religious realm. Mothra is a kami, protector deity of the earth, and if you ever meet her in battle she’ll be sure you know it.

~ guest blogger, Kim Adams

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Peaches (Yum!)

(Today's blog post comes to us from Laura. Thanks Laura!)

As we read in the tenth chapter of the Kojiki, Izanagi was able to fend off the hags of hell using only three peaches; in the text, it appears that the author took this action to be perfectly acceptable, since no further explanation is provided. For most Western readers, however, it seems that a bit more background information is necessary in order to really understand this incredible and unexpected power of the peach.

The idea of peaches as possessing some special power seems to originate in China, where there is a tale involving the Queen Mother of the West, who grows peaches that extend the life of anyone lucky enough to eat one by 3,000 years (Anderson 201). In China, peaches are therefore typically associated with longevity or immortality, and are often imaged as being carried by gods or immortals to symbolize their long lives (Rubin). As we know, much of Japanese religion was shaped by ideas and traditions which were introduced by contact with the Chinese, so it’s not unlikely that the peach would have a similar symbolic role in Japan.

One of the seasonal festivals, or sekku, a tradition which seems to have been introduced to the Japanese by China, is actually named after the peach. Momo-no-sekku (Momo means “peach”, and sekku means “seasonal) is a festival in which people pray for young girls’ health and growth; it is also frequently called Hinamatsuri or “doll’s festival” (Blankestijn). This is one of five seasonal festivals which are intended to eliminate misfortune and evil spirits. Peaches are associated with this ability because, as we saw in the Kojiki, it was believed that they had spirit-banishing qualities (MacKenzie 360).

During the festival, miniature dolls are created and arranged or seated in certain hierarchical orders, typically with peach blossoms nearby (Marsh). Peach blossoms are specifically used, because they were thought to signify feminine traits: gentility, composure, and tranquility. Since this festival is commonly referred to as “girl’s day” in modern Japan, this seems like a fitting decoration. During the festival, small cakes are given as offerings to the dolls, which are decorated with pale pink symbolizing peach blossoms (as well as white to represent snow, and green for grass) (Marsh).

One of the most important peach references in Japanese culture is in the myth of Momotaro, or the “Peach Boy”, which has now become one of the most popular children’s stories in Japan. In one version of the story, a childless couple find a peach floating down a river, which conveniently contains a boy who later goes off to fight demons and have various other heroic adventures (Antoni). In another version of the story, an old woman finds the peach, but instead of containing a child it restores youth to her and her husband after they eat it. After being thus rejuvenated, they make love and produce Momotaro. In this version of the story, the peach is depicted as producing fertility as well as longevity. It is also significant that Momotaro’s great quest is to fight and destroy demons, which reflects the Japanese conception of the peach as having some sort of demon-destroying ability.

Who knew there was so much more to peaches than just a delicious taste!

~guest blogger, Laura Wilson

Friday, February 13, 2009

Kami 紙 (2)

Here's another use of paper--omikuji. These are paper fortunes that you can purchase at shrines or temples. If the fortune is bad, you can tie it to something within the precincts of the shrine or temple; that will bind the karma of the fortune to the site itself, freeing you from the predicted outcome. In her history of the fortune cookie, Jennifer 8. Lee has suggested that the "Chinese" fortune cookie originated in Japan, and the paper slip inside was originally an omikuji-style fortune.

This is Lee's delightful lecture on the origins of "Chinese food":

Slavoj Zizek on excrement

I mentioned this lecture in one of the discussion sections yesterday--if you're interested in the work of Slavoj Zizek, you might get a kick out of this. Be forewarned though: it is quite gross.