Breathtaking Buddhist masterpieces: Ancient temple treasures gathered for Tokyo exhibit

Photo by Yuji Ono

The Seated Thousand-armed Kannon Bosatsu at Fujiidera temple in Osaka Prefecture, a national treasure (eighth century)

By Taku Iwaki / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterIt’s a stunning Buddhist statue. In addition to the pair of arms placed in the middle with only the middle fingers slightly touching, a seemingly endless number of other limbs spread around the figure like a fan. This is the Seated Thousand-armed Kannon Bosatsu, who uses his “1,000 arms,” which represent infinity, for the salvation of human beings.

The national treasure from Fujiidera temple in Osaka Prefecture, however, actually has more than 1,000 arms. Visitors to a current exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum will have an opportunity to appreciate the spectacular work when it goes on display from Wednesday.

This masterpiece is one of about 170 items that have been brought together for “Treasures from Ninnaji Temple and Omuro: Masterpieces of Tenpyo Art and Shingon Esoteric Buddhism.”

Built in 888 by Emperor Uda, Ninnaji in Kyoto is the head of the Omuro branch of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, with nearly 800 temples nationwide that belong to the branch, including Fujiidera. Some of the works on display will be replaced next week.

Among the treasures Ninnaji has contributed to the exhibition, the Seated Amida Nyorai is believed to have been placed as the main statue in the main hall at the time of the temple’s founding. At the exhibition, the national treasure is on display with its two standing attendants at its sides.

Ninnaji’s Amida Nyorai has notable features in terms of the nation’s history of Buddhist statues. It looks graceful with its ample body and gentle child-like expression, and the way the statue places its hands before the belly indicates that it is the oldest survivor among the Japanese Amida statues for which the year of completion has been roughly identified.

Ninnaji’s statue retains ancient elements, such as long and narrow eyes, while also having features related to esoteric Buddhism, indicating an initial step toward establishing Japan’s own style of Buddhist statues, which reached its height in the 11th century.

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  • Photo by Yuji Ono

    The Seated Amida Nyorai at Ninnaji temple in Kyoto, a national treasure (888)

  • The Seated Yakushi Nyorai at Ninnaji, a national treasure created by Ensei and Choen (1103)

  • The Standing Eleven-headed Kannon Bosatsu at Domyoji temple in Osaka Prefecture, a national treasure (eighth to ninth century)

  • The Seated Horse-headed Kannon Bosatsu at Nakayamadera temple in Fukui Prefecture (13th century)

The temple’s Seated Yakushi Nyorai is a hidden treasure not usually shown to the public. Featuring elaborate carving in sandalwood, the statue stands just about 12 centimeters high, the smallest Buddhist statue among the national treasures.

The Thirty Volumes of Esoteric Scripture includes writing by Kukai, the founder of the Shingon sect and also known as a master of calligraphy. The elaborately bound national treasure consists of copies of scriptures and other documents by the monk and others while he was studying in the Tang dynasty.

Kukai headed for China in 804 and brought the copies back with him when he returned to Japan. We can admire his three different styles of calligraphy, with the volumes being rotated for view during the exhibition period.

As one of its highlights, the show re-creates the inside of the temple’s Kannondo hall, which is normally off-limits to visitors. The 33 statues that are usually placed at Kannondo have come to the Tokyo museum, where they are surrounded by high-definition images of the pictures that decorate the hall’s walls, thus giving the venue a solemn atmosphere.

Fujiidera’s Seated Thousand-armed Kannon Bosatsu is also not always open to the public, but can be viewed only on limited occasions such as the 18th day of every month. The exhibition will offer visitors a rare opportunity to appreciate the national treasure as this will be the first time the statue travels all the way to Tokyo since it was put on view in Edo, now Tokyo, during the Edo period (1603-1867).

Worship of the thousand-armed Kannon Bosatsu was brought into Japan in the early eighth century. Only a few of the surviving statues of the deity actually have about 1,000 limbs, such as the one at Toshodaiji temple in Nara, which has 953 arms.

A past survey found that Fujiidera’s statue has 40 bigger arms — including the pair at the center — and 1,001 smaller ones, meaning it has more arms than other similar works. The statue is also the oldest of its kind.

“I was surprised the statue actually has more than 1,000 arms, because I’d thought the number wouldn’t reach 1,000,” head priest Kairyu Mori said with a laugh.

Fujiidera’s thousand-armed statue also had eyes drawn on each palm of its side arms, which can still be observed today. The exhibition gives visitors an opportunity to admire the masterpiece from the back to find out how these side arms are set together.

Works from elsewhere

Among the treasures from other parts of the nation, the Standing Eleven-headed Kannon Bosatsu (eighth to ninth century) from Domyoji temple in Osaka Prefecture was made in a Chinese style, with the entire statue carved from one trunk.

The Seated Horse-headed Kannon Bosatsu (13th century) at Nakayamadera temple in Fukui Prefecture has vivid red coloring and shows fierce expressions on its faces. The Standing Gozanze Myoo (11th century) from Myotsuji temple in the same prefecture stands about 2.5 meters tall, overwhelming viewers with its hair standing on end, eyes wide open and teeth bared.

Another Seated Thousand-armed Kannon Bosatsu (12th century) comes from Unpenji temple in Tokushima Prefecture, located among deep mountains in one of the hardest sections of the 88-temple pilgrimage route in the Shikoku region. Notes apparently written by the sculptor inside the statue indicate he created it with a prayer to cure eye problems.

“Treasures from Ninnaji Temple and Omuro: Masterpieces of Tenpyo Art and Shingon Esoteric Buddhism” will run through March 11 at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park, Tokyo. The show is closed on Mondays (except Feb. 12) and Feb. 13. Visit for more information.Speech

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