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Japanese Buddhist Art

August 15, 1990–August 15, 1991

The great Asian religion of Buddhism reached Japan in several successive waves from the continent. Japanese historical records describe the arrival of Buddhist texts and artifacts in Japan in 552, brought by an embassy from the Korean kingdom of Paekche. As with later influxes of Buddhist teaching from the mainland, it was the Buddhist art that had the greatest impact on Japanese culture. By the time the Korean embassy came to Japan, Buddhism was already one thousand years old. It had developed not only as a complex canon of thought, but also as a rich and sophisticated artistic heritage. The Japanese nobility and imperial family adopted Buddhism, and soon many temples were built in and near the early capital cities of Nara and Kyoto. Japanese monks even went to China to study with eminent Chinese Buddhist patriarchs. In later centuries new Buddhist sects arose that appealed to the larger populace. These sects preached that salvation was open to anyone who had faith in the Amida Buddha. Thus, the sculpture of this period emphasizes the benevolence of the Buddha and bodhisattvas, resulting in a particularly harmonious balance of the divine and humane aspects of the deities. Another manifestation of the popularization of Buddhism is the illustrated handscroll, depicting the founding of temples or the lives of famous priests. These scrolls were for the most part based on legend, as with the scroll of the life of Kükai in this museum's collection. At about the same time, in the twelfth century, the teachings of Zen Buddhism gained popularity. Zen teachers from China brought to Japan examples of the calligraphy and ink paintings which were to become central to Japanese Zen artists. The Zen Buddhist belief in meditation and concentration became regarded as a means to self-realization. Activities such as calligraphy, or the preparation of a cup of tea, which required equal discipline, were viewed as valid means to enlightenment. Zen sects remained the most influential in the subsequent art development of Japanese esthetics.

Main Building


Felice Fischer

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