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