Buddhism had an important role in the development of Japanese art between the sixth and the sixteenth centuries. Buddhist art and religion came to Japan from China, with the arrival of a bronze Buddhist sculpture alongside the sutras. Buddhist art was encouraged by Crown Prince Taishi in the Suiko period in the sixth century and Emperor Shomu in the Nara period in the eighth century. In the early Heian period Buddhist art and architecture greatly influenced the traditional Shinto arts, and Buddhist painting became fashionable among the wealthy class.
The Amida sect of Buddhism provided the basis for many artworks, such as the bronze Great Buddha at Kamakura in the thirteenth century. Many of the great artists during this Kamakura period were Buddhist monks, and Buddhist art became popular among the masses with scroll paintings, paintings used in worship and paintings of saints, hells and other religious themes. Under the Zen sect of Buddhism, portraiture of priests became popular. However, Zen had less use for religious images and by the mid sixteenth century most painting in Japan was of landscapes and secular themes.
Buddhist art was introduced to Japan along with the Buddhist religion in 552 AD. Almost all the art produced in this Suiko period in Japan was to do with the new religion. “The introduction of the Buddhist faith had from the very start gone hand in hand with the introduction of Buddhist images. ” (Munsterberg 1985: 19) These Buddhist images included Chinese scrolls depicting the life of Buddha, at first copied by Chinese priests in Japan, later painted by the Japanese themselves. With the introduction of Buddhism, temples were needed for the practicing of the religion.
This consisted of a kondo, a hall whose purpose was to contain a sacred image of a Buddhist saint, as well as a pagoda or gojunoto, a five story tower. The development of Buddhist art was helped greatly by crown prince Shotoku Taishi (573-621) who travelled around the country, establishing Buddhist temples and appointing painters to paint the images to decorate them. In fact, one of the main reasons Buddhism became popular was due to his efforts. “Without [Shotoku’s] inspiring patronage Buddhist art could hardly have flourished so successfully among his countrymen. (Anesaki 1975: 20)
The main temple he built was the Horyu-ji temple near Nara, now the oldest wooden structure in the world. Inside the kondo, or golden hall, sit large statues of Buddha and two Buddhist saints (bodhisattvas). Also at Horyu-ji are carved wooden Guardian Kings of the Four directions, and the Tamamushi shrine. Similar temples appeared at this time through the Kinai provinces, or western Japan, where Shotoku travelled. Buddhist art continued to flourish under the reign of Emperor Shomu in the eighth century, who built the enormous sculpture of Buddha at Todai-ji.
This 16 metre high sculpture used up all the copper in Japan, which for several hundred years had no bronze production because of it. The construction of this temple, and similar temples in Japan’s provinces was “inspired by a fervent desire on the part of secular leaders of the time to create in Japan the ideal Land of the Buddha. ” (Ishizawa 1982: 15) In the imperial ordinance the Emperor issued in 743 he justified the using of the gold involved in the construction of the statue by stating the gold was “a testimony of the marvellous teaching of Buddha. (Tsuda 1976: 38)
However, it is likely the emperor also wanted the sculpture to show what Japan was capable of as an independent power from China. In any case, similar structures were constructed all over Japan because of an imperial decree that stated each province should build a pagoda and a temple. Artists of this Nara period also created statues where they removed the clay in the core and replaced it with a wooden frame to make it light enough to be carried in religious festivals. During the eighth century Early Heian period, Buddhist art and architecture intermingled with the traditional Japanese Shinto culture.
The Shinto and Buddhist faiths were not separate religions in the western sense, but instead could co-exist with each other. So Buddhism influenced the Shinto religion and Buddhist and Shinto leaders often co-operated, with Buddhist temples being erected within Shinto shrines. The pagoda and kondo at Muro-ji in Nara built in the ninth century had a thatched roof covered with hinoki, or cypress, which had previously only been used in Shinto shrines showing “the influence which the native Japanese architectural tradition was beginning to exert on Buddhist temples, just as Buddhist architecture was having a profound effect upon Shinto shrines. (Munsterberg 1985: 59)
The Buddhist priesthood significantly helped the development of art in Japan as many artists were Buddhist priests. Many artists were priests who learned art in China and brought ideas across to Japan. Priests studied painting and sculpture as regular subjects as part of their training for the priesthood. During the Fujiwara period, priests were ” treated with the utmost care and respect, because they were considered the only persons that could keep off all evil. (Tsuda 1976: 94) Because of this, many Buddhist images were made for the Fujiwara royal family and court.
The pictures the priests painted encouraged members of the higher classes to paint similar pictures, so that painting became fashionable among wealthy members of society. With Buddhist art popular with the nobility, in the later Heian or Fujiwara period this religious art developed quite differently. The start of the Fujiwara period was marked by the cutting off of ties to China, and the main source of influence from Buddhist art.
However “Buddhist painting… not only continued to flourish but it also developed along quite different lines. ” (Munsterberg 1985: 79) Architecture in this time became ornate and highly decorated, contrasting with the simplicity of earlier periods. The Death of Buddha or nehanzu produced in 1086 is one of the few paintings from this period with an exact date. It shows Buddha dying with people and other creatures such as demons and a lion mourning his death.
Trees are growing from the ground because even though it was winter it was said trees arose there. Another theme in religious painting of this time was to depict hell, such as in the Buddhist Hells Scroll of the late 12th century by Tosa Mitsunaga, which shows sinners descended into hell, with people screaming in agony, half-engulfed by flames. There were many great artworks produced under the Amida Buddhist sect. Paintings representing the Amida Buddha welcoming the faithful were produced by the priest Eshin Sozu, who developed the pure land doctrine.
The belief in the pure land paradise of the Amida sect produced some of the most beautiful artworks in Japan. One of the greatest was the bronze Amida image of the Buddha at Kamakura built in 1252, which “owes its inspiration directly to Buddhism and is simply Chinese and Hindoo [sic] ideas put into the aesthetic vernacular of Japan”. (Jarves 1984: 83) One type of religious painting that became high in demand was a painting of Buddha appearing over the mountains, such as the beautiful ink Amida Descending over the Mountains scroll.
Amida Buddhists believed that if a dying person held the picture upon death they would immediately enter the Buddhist paradise. In the Kamakura period of the thirteenth century, there was a close relationship between art and Buddhism and much religious painting was produced. New Buddhists sects, such as Kegon and Nichiren became popular.
There were several types of painting produced from these sects such as the Suijako paintings which tried to reconcile the two main Japanese faiths as depicting Shinto deities as being early manifestations of Buddha. The suijaku paintings were evidently commissioned to promote religious harmony. ” (Ishizawa 1982: 29) Works became more popular with ordinary people, such as with the Kegon Engi Emaki, a book illustrated to help people understand complicated Chinese characters. One example of Buddhist painting from this period is the Eight aspects of Buddha’s life scrolls, done in colour on silk, showing a legend that Buddha was born from the side of Queen Maya as she reached up to a branch in her garden.
Another is the History of the Yuzu Nembutsu sect of Buddhism scroll from 1329, which shows a man kneeling before a village priest to pray. Some of the paintings produced were for ceremonies and others were for worshiping in rituals. Under the Zen sect of Buddhism, which became very popular in Japan in the 14th and 15th centuries, portraits of Zen priests were often produced. Zen was a sect of Buddhism which promoted simplicity and less involved in worship, so religious paintings were not needed for this reason. Instead, Zen priests often painted images of teachers and Zen masters.
Unlike in the earlier Heian period, where it had been considered “rude in Heian times to copy a person’s likeness” (Stanley-Baker 2000, 115), the Zen portraits were close-up portraits showing facial features and details. A portrait of Zen master Muso Kokushi painted by his student Muto Shui, shows a detailed portrait of the face, with the whole picture being only a head and shoulders portrait. This is unlike earlier Japanese painting which would depict people as much smaller figures. Zen priests also painted landscapes, such as the suiboku-ga, or water and black ink painting, which was inspired by Zen doctrine.
Buddhist influence on Japanese art grew weaker during the Muromachi period, as more non-religious painting became popular. With the feudal system of society in Japan, where priests were taking on a more militaristic role, less religious painting was produced. “A priesthood to whom a practical knowledge of war and warlike accomplishments was vital was not conducive to the production of important religious paintings. ” (Hartman 1971: 57) Sometimes painters would look on Buddhism cynically and depict deities in a disrespectful way.
As Japanese society became more feudal and militaristic with rule of the country divided amongst the local daimyo lords and their samurai armies, more artists produced non religious paintings such as landscapes and scenes of everyday life. “By the end of the Muromachi period… religious painting as Japan had known it… gave way to purely secular painting. ” (Munsterberg 1985: 116) Buddhism made a great influence on Japanese art in a variety of ways through many periods of Japanese history. Buddhist temples with their halls and five story towers were built all over Japan, and huge sculptures of Buddha were made for these temples.
Many artists depicted Buddhist images, and many artists were themselves Buddhist priests. Scroll paintings showing the lives of Buddha and the bodhisattva saints, portraits of priests and other scenes with religious themes were often depicted. The philosophies of different sects of the Buddhist religion affected Japanese art when they came across from China. Whether it was architecture, sculpture or painting, for a thousand years the Buddhist religion provided the main inspiration for the development of Japanese art.