Amida’s descent and celestial beings and the use of clouds as an artistic convention

An excellent opportunity to examine and study the Art of Hiten (celestial beings) should not be missed…at the Suntory Museum from November 23rd (Sat.), 2013 to January 13th (Mon.), 2014

Reblogged:
Suntory Exhibition: In commemoration of the completion of the Heisei renovations to the Phoenix Hall of Byodoin Celestial Dance: The Art of Hiten

National Treasure Worshipping Bodhisattvas on Clouds South figure 1 Heian period, 1053 (Tengi 1) Byodo-in Temple, Kyoto

National Treasure
Worshipping Bodhisattvas on Clouds South figure 1
Heian period, 1053 (Tengi 1)
Byodo-in Temple, Kyoto

1.Origins and Transmission: From India to Japan

Hiten are essentially celestial beings classified at the highest level of the realms of karmic existence known in Buddhist belief as the Six Paths. Since celestial beings are able to float in mid-air, in the Buddha realm they soar overhead and scatter flowers, playing musical instruments, burning incense, and otherwise exalting the enlightened beings. It is in this capacity that images of Hiten have accompanied depictions of Buddhas from the birthplace of Buddhism in India, through Central Asia, to China and its Western Regions. Each place engendered its own particular style of expression: In Gandhara they were influenced by Western Hellenism. In China and its Western Regions they were melded with indigenous traditions and magnificently adorned the walls of temple grottoes. Thus, Hiten advanced on a grand, continental scale along the axis of the Silk Road, eventually making their way to Japan, even while retaining components from distant Europe. This section traces one segment of the development of the Hiten form through a small but revealing selection of examples from regions from India to China. Upon reaching Japan, they exhibit a diversity of forms that reflects this evolutionary path. Of these, the former wall paintings from the Horyu-ji Main Hall inner sanctuary (No. 21) and the East Pagoda finial from Yakushi-ji (No. 25) are celebrated as classic examples illustrating what one might imagine to be the prototypical form of Hiten.

Mara

Mara

Relief carving of scenes from the life of Buddha:“The Temptation of Buddha by Mara,”“Subjugating the Demons and Achieving Enlightenment,” “The First Sermon”
Gandhara, 2nd-3rd century
Ryukoku University

Buddha Triad (uncovered from the Kawara-dera temple site) Asuka period, 7th century  Asukamura Board of Education

Buddha Triad (uncovered from the Kawara-dera temple site)
Asuka period, 7th century
Asukamura Board of Education

2. Scenes of the Heavenly Realm: From Images of the Pure Land to Ornamentation

The Buddhist sutras recount that not only Hiten, but also figures such as sacred Karyubinga and Gumyochobirds also dance in his honor, while the trees and earth of the Paradise glitter with the Seven Treasures. These are just some of the many ways that the wondrousness of the Buddha realm is expounded. Scenes of this heavenly world are illustrated in Pure Land paintings, through which it is possible to see in concrete form the ideal paradise to which the people of the times aspired. At the same time, sculptural images of Hiten, dancing bodhisattvas and other figures, jeweled canopies, glowing nimbuses, and the various decorative ornaments adorning the icons were not only fitting accoutrements for the Buddha; they also served as three-dimensional expressions of the Pure Land in our own world. This section examines the landscape of the Pure Land world, starting with painted depictions of the Western Paradise and continuing with examples of groupings of bodhisattvas, Karyobinga and Gumyocho birds, and other beings that worshipped the Buddha with the Hiten. The Hiten-covered nimbuses and pataka banners, keman ornaments, and other sacred adornments can further be seen as a means of expressing and recreating the scenery of the Pure Land in the present world. Through works such as the banner cap(No. 53), keman sanctuary ornament (No. 54) that are said to have decorated the Konjikido Golden Hall of Chuson-ji, the resplendent heavenly world idealized by the people of the time, will surely take shape before your very eyes.

 

National Treasure Keman Buddhist sanctuary ornaments Heian period, 11th century Nara National Museum

National Treasure
Keman Buddhist sanctuary ornaments
Heian period, 11th century
Nara National Museum

3. Development of the Hiten: Divine Attendants of the Amida’s Descent

By the latter half of the Heian period, the deeply held desire to be reborn into paradise brought about the rapid spread of belief in a “coming of Amida” in which the Amida Nyorai and various sublime bodhisattva attendants descended to this world to receive a person into the Pure Land paradise on his deathbed. This belief inspired paintings and sculptures depicting the descent of Amida attended by bodhisattvas. Their brilliant dancing and exquisite music-filled figures surely gave strength to those who hoped to be reborn and at the same time served as assurance of the pleasures of rebirth into the next life. The Hiten and bodhisattvas, which originally should have supposedly been different kinds of beings in the Pure Land, both worshipped and served the Nyorai and both drifted through the air on floating clouds, grew more and more alike. Hiten also evolved into members of Amida’s entourage along with the bodhisattva attendants and took after the 25 bodhisattvas that were believed to accompany Amida in his descent to welcome the spirits of the dead. In addition, the clouds that had long been associated with Hiten became a convention for expressing movement through space. This section follows the development of the image of the Hiten through paintings of Amida’s descent as well as through sculptural representations

National Treasure Keman Buddhist sanctuary ornaments Heian period, 11th century Nara National Museum

Important cultural property Descent of Amida with twenty-five bodhhisattvas Kamakura period, 13th -14th century
Fukushima Museum

4. The Byodo-in Phoenix Hall: The World of the Pure Land Paradise and Dancing Hiten

Built in 1053, the National Treasure Phoenix Hall of Byodo-in, together with its gardens, has as a whole been celebrated since the Heian period as an Amida Hall that replicates the Pure Land paradise. Framed by architectural elements echoing the pagodas depicted in Pure Land paintings, the figure of Amida Nyorai is enshrined atop a dais that was once bedecked with mother-of-pearl, and covered by a double canopy patterned with magnificent Hosoge flowers. The surrounding doors and pillars are painted with images of the Nine Levels of Rebirth in the Pure Land replete with dancing bodhisattvas, and on the small wall above the horizontal top beam are carved figures of worshipping bodhisattvas on clouds in various forms of dance and playing musical instruments. Figures of Hiten are also fitted onto the nimbus behind the principal Buddha image, creating an interior space overflowing with images of Hiten that surround a central Amida Nyorai figure in a display truly befitting of a sacred Buddhist space. In special tribute to the completion of the restoration of the Phoenix Hall for the first time in nearly a half-century, this section presents all fourteen figures from the National Treasure Worshipping Bodhisattvas on Clouds (No. 70) as well as the National Treasure Hiten from the nimbus of Seated Amida Nyorai (No. 69) which adorn the nimbus of the principal image and are being shown outside the temple grounds for the first time ever. These Buddhist images and the resplendent hall interior resulting from the recent restoration work can be considered the crystallization of the Japanese interpretation of the Pure Land and Hiten that were transmitted along the Silk Road, demonstrating a maturity of form that historical records have termed a “solemnity of Buddha statuary unparalleled in all history.”

National Treasure Hiten from the nimbus of Seated Amida Nyorai South figure 4 Heian period, 1053 (Tengi 1) Byodo-in Temple, Kyoto

National Treasure
Hiten from the nimbus of Seated Amida Nyorai South figure 4
Heian period, 1053 (Tengi 1)
Byodo-in Temple, Kyoto

SUNTORY MUSEUM of ART

 

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