Buddhism Reaches Japan (02:28)
Buddhism is not simply a religion of ideas, says D. Max Moerman of the Donald Keene Center for Japanese Culture; it is also a religion of images, practices, sculpture and devotion. Moerman traces Buddhism’s entry into Japan to a gift the king of Baekje (in what is now Korea) gave Japan’s Emperor Kinmei in 538 CE.
Benefits of Buddha Images (06:12)
Buddhist scripture promises tremendous rewards for the production and viewing of Buddha images. An early Chinese Buddhist text tells the story of King Udayana who dreaded the day he could no longer look upon Buddha.
Legend of First Buddha Image (03:24)
The story of the first Buddha image appears in the Chinese translation of the “Ekottara Agama” sutra, which was translated by monk Dharmanandi around 385 CE. In it, King Udayana sends artisans to heaven, where Buddha is visiting his mother, to have a statue made of his teacher. When Buddha returns to Udayana’s palace, the statue comes to life and greets him.
Presentations of Buddha (05:39)
Statues should be viewed as presentations, not representations, of the Buddha. They are living beings with power and agency. Moerman reads accounts of monks who claim to have visited Udayana’s first Buddha icon at the Jetavana monastery. Many tried to move it but could not and wound up worshipping replicas.
Udayana Image Reaches Japan (04:08)
A copy of the Udayama statue winds up in Japan around the year 987 CE. Moerman tells the story of Chonen, the monk who brought it from China. His copy is said to have magically switched places with the original. The paintings of Kano Motonobu’s depict another version of the story in which the Udayana image is saved by the father of renowned scholar.
Chonen Statue Contents (07:19)
It was enshrined far behind the main altar of the Seiryoji Temple and unveiled only on rare, ceremonial occasions. An enclosed cavity in its back was opened in 1954 revealing hundreds of relics crammed its 3-inch-deep cavity: sutras, coins, woodblock prints, jewels and even silk organs.
Chonen Statue Legacy (02:36)
Chonen’s own cunning artifice, Moerman says, was to make it possible to see Buddha’s form in a territory geographically and chronologically remote from the India of his time. Chonen’s image became a renewed object of attention under a resurgent cult of Shakyamuni lead by Japanese monks that made many replicas in the 13th century.
Conclusion: How the Buddha Came to Japan (01:57)
Buddhism travels through images and practices and perhaps even more so through stories, Moerman says. These images are at once alive and ultimately empty.
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