Amituofo: A Practical Guide to Pure Land Buddhism for Travelers, Students, and Dharma Bums

Every so often one stumbles across a piece of art that lingers in the mind because it so gracefully solves an issue of visual representation; whether that be capturing an elusive emotion, an understated feeling, or in the case here, the sight of sound. The thirteenth century image of Kūya 空也 (903-972), an itinerant Japanese Buddhist priest, resolves this issue economically and elegantly, portraying a string of miniature buddhas emerging from his mouth. Kūya is shown in the act of devotional chanting, or more specifically, singing the praise of Amitābha Buddha. This buddha, different from our historical Buddha, resides in another world, a paradise known in East Asian scriptures as the Pure Land (jingtu 淨土 in Chinese), where he awaits his devoted faithful to arrive through rebirth. One of the main spiritual mechanisms to ensure one’s rebirth in the paradise is the recitation of Amitābha’s name, precisely the act the Buddhist priest Kūya is performing.

Amitābha Buddha, China, 13th century [Metropolitan Museum of Art]

The trust in Amitābha and his paradise, as well as the various regimens of practice surrounding rebirth there, constitute a style of Buddhism simply referred to as Pure Land Buddhism. For those unfamiliar with the actual practice of Buddhism in East Asia, one might be surprised to hear that Pure Land practices are among the most widespread and popular; far more Buddhists show devotion to Amitābha, for example, then sit in regular meditation (“Zen”) practice. The reasons for the general lack of understanding of East Asian Buddhist practices has its roots in the types of Buddhism with which the West has preferred to engage, namely with Indian , Japanese Zen, and Tibetan forms being the most important, to which can be added the recent surge in Thai and Burmese derived meditation practices. Some may also note the apparent congruity with Christian ideas of Heaven as another reason those seeking “alternative spiritual paths” have shown less interest in Pure Land, or even dismissing it as not “real” Buddhism. The beliefs and practices of Pure Land Buddhism have a long and rather interesting history that developed out of early Buddhist traditions, and this history will better situate anyone who visits a contemporary Buddhist monastery in East Asia or aspires to understand Buddhist practice around the world.

If we take the current scholarly estimate of when the historical Buddha passed away at around the year 400 BCE, the belief in Amitābha developed a full four to five hundred years after his death. With the beginning of a new movement in Indian Buddhism, termed the Mahāyāna (“Greater Vehicle”), around the first century CE (the precise dating remains elusive to scholars), the pantheon of buddhas expanded to include figures that resided in different worlds. Amitābha was regarded as the buddha who resided in the West, presiding over an ideal world with other beings, called bodhisattvas, who would assist anyone who achieved rebirth there. Of course, if we were to take an insider perspective, the historicity of Amitābha is irrelevant, as he has long been presiding over his Pure Land, named Sukhāvatī, and will continue to do indefinitely into the future, as one of his many attributes is that he has an infinite lifespan, thus forever allowing people admittance into his paradise.

Western Paradise of the Buddha Amitabha Sculpture

The earliest surviving depiction of Amitābha in Sukhāvati, China, late 6th century [Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery]

If we return to a historical lens, the popularity of such a salvific figure should not be taken as a fore-gone conclusion. While Amitābha undoubtedly developed within an Indic cultural sphere, there is little evidence that he was widely celebrated there. For example, scholars have only identified two Indian inscriptions prior to the seventh century bearing Amitābha’s name, and moreover, in the records of Chinese pilgrims who made their way to India in the same period, none make mention of worship to this figure. This is a radical departure from contemporary Chinese forms of Buddhism, where Pure Land practice had developed into a mainstream Buddhist activity by the seventh century. As history repeatedly tells us, fame is a fickle thing.

Devotion to Amitābha first entered into Chinese consciousness through translations of Indic Buddhist texts starting in the second century. Arguably, however, the most important touchstone of early Chinese Pure Land activity took place in 402. That year, the Chinese monk Huiyuan 慧遠 (334-416), along with over one hundred devoted followers, made a solemn vow to be reborn in Sukhāvati. Amid a ritual that employed burning incense and scattering flowers in front of a statue of Amitābha, this cohort made a covenant to help one another attain rebirth in the Pure Land, no matter how many lifetimes it would take for all to achieve such a goal. This lead to the foundation of the White Lotus Society 白蓮社, a group of monastics and laypeople all bound and aligned for this cause. For this reason, later Buddhists – at least ones interested in such historical affairs – would point to Huiyuan as the founder of the so-called Pure Land School. In reality, there would be no firm filiation between Huiyuan and later advocates of practices leading to rebirth in Sukhāvati, other than the widespread recognition, not apparently realized in India, that devotion to Amitābha Buddha was an available path to the release from worldly suffering.

But what religious practices did this devotion to Amitābha consist? The main component as developed by Chinese Buddhists in the medieval period was quite simple. It involved focusing one’s mind on Amitābha, borrowing a similar mindfulness practice of continuously calling to mind the Buddha, called buddhānusmṛti (or in Chinese, nianfo 念佛). In practice, however, the Pure Land adaptation also involved verbally invoking the name of Amitābha in a six-character formula, Namo Amituofo 南無阿彌陀佛, meaning “Homage to Amitābha Buddha.” Looking back at the monk Kūya, we see six buddhas emerging from his mouth, one for each syllable of this devotional phrase. While later Buddhists would debate over the number of times this phrase needed to be recited, or the sincerity and faith with which it should be said, the principle was the same; by engaging in this practice one could be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land. Many scholars argue the simplicity of this practice was one of the main factors belief in Amitābha spread so quickly throughout China and eventually into Korea, Japan, and Vietnam (and recent scholarship has included its prescence in Tibet as well).

Just because the practice may be seen as simple does not mean it was not taken seriously nor without utmost sincerity. The value of being reborn into Sukhāvati is countenanced in several of the scriptures extolling the virtues of Amitābha. More significantly, besides being a veritable paradise (for example, the temperature of bathing pools spontaneously changes according to each person’s desire), the Pure Land allows for the rapid attainment of enlightenment due to the direct teaching of Amitābha as well as numerous other mechanisms that expedite the process. Importantly, while rebirth in the Pure Land is the proximate goal for most practitioners, it is ultimately subsidiary to the final goal of enlightenment, of which Sukhāvati provides the most optimal environment.


Amitābha appearing to the faithful, Japan, 17th century [Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Discussions evolved, which are still at the heart of Pure Land today, questioning the precise location of this paradise. Using a simplified typology of “there/then” and “here/now” we can examine the basic scope of this issue. For some, the Pure Land is a place that can only be attained in rebirth after bodily death, constituting the there/then model. This is perhaps the most evident in the belief that Amitābha will appear to the faithful on their deathbeds, of which serves as a particularly rich motif in Japanese Pure Land art. For others, by mindfully intoning Amitābha’s name one can “attune” to his enlightened state of mind, thus creating a Pure Land here and now from the perspective of the practitioner. This stance is also bolstered by a guided meditation practice where the Pure Land is slowly built up through a series of visualizations. Furthermore, based on ideas deriving from these views, the modern Chinese movement of Humanistic Buddhism 人間佛教 seeks to establish a Pure Land on earth through social engagement focused on helping the living, such as through disaster relief,  hospice care, or general charity work. The potential tension between these two models of there/then and here/now has rarely been a true point of contention, and many Pure Land practitioners will rather point to the complexity and depth of the tradition and its practices.

In time, important distinctions developed in the theoretical underpinnings of Pure Land practices in Japan and China, of which the Japanese monk Shinran 親鸞 (1173-1263) was highly influential, but the basic contours remained the same. Notably, however, the strict sectarianism of Japanese Buddhism that created a distinct Pure Land School never reflected the state of affairs in China where Pure Land practices remained a common vernacular for all strains of Buddhism, including the Chan (or Zen) lineages.

Ultimately, the telltale signs of Pure Land practice manifest themselves frequently in modern Buddhist temples. It is quite common, for example, in Chinese Buddhist temples for monastics and laypeople to greet, praise, or express gratitude to one another by saying Amituofo, a shortened version of the devotional formula simply meaning “Amitābha Buddha.” This is likely a logical extension of a practice extending back over a thousand years when the Pure Land teacher, Yongming Yanshou 永明延壽 (904-975), advocated for reciting Amitābha’s name as often as possible. A more modern expression of this is found through the use of “chant boxes” which play Amitābha’s name on a continuous loop, reminding the faithful of the promise of the salvation found through the Pure Land. Moreover, depictions of Amitābha and his paradise are also very common, not only as statues on shrine altars, but also on devotional posters and other signage posted throughout the temple by devotees, setting the stage for the Pure Land to be realized in the present moment.

These multisensory modes of interaction with the Pure Land are exemplified in the image of Kūya. Not only do we see images of Amitābha Buddha, but we are also reminded that by saying and hearing his name one engages in activities that have long been seen as a venerable and wildly popular form of Buddhism in East Asia. And as we can see in the detail of Kūya’s face, heart-felt devotion lingers as well.



“The Pure Land is Supreme Bliss” – Monastic graffiti at Zhaoming Temple, Fuding, China, 2018

*This is a draft of a post designed to provide travelers and students a practical history of Pure Land Buddhism, primarily it is intended for participants of the Woodenfish Program, but I hope it is useful to anyone who stumbles across it! Amituofo!

A Primer on Chinese Pagodas: The Four Pagodas of Zhengding 正定四塔

The city of Zhengding 正定, in modern Hebei Province 河北省, was once the medieval home to several large Buddhist monastic compounds. Besides Longxing Temple 隆興寺, one of the longest surviving monasteries along the north-south axis in China[1], scarcely much of the ancient architecture remains of the other temples. Four multi-story pagodas at four different sites still survive, however, all within a few square miles of one another. Modern tourism posters for Zhengding show these iconic towers all aligned piercing the sky in digitally reworked photographs. While the “Four Pagodas of Zhengding” 正定四塔 are a boon for tourism, these four Buddhist structures also provide a good spectrum of pagoda styles, sizes, and construction materials. Using these pagodas as exemplars, I will briefly explore the evolution of the pagoda structure in China, arguably the best-known and most iconic architectural form in East Asia.

The pagoda (C. ta 塔) was a Chinese adaptation of an Indic architectural form known as the stūpa. Importantly, before the introduction of Buddhism into China in the first century, native Chinese architecture did not emphasize verticality. There were a few multistory structures, such as pavilions (ge 閣) and watchtowers (lou 樓), but the widespread use of timber frame structures built upon a post-and-lintel system made “horizontal sprawl” the dominant spatial feature.[2] It appears that the motivation to build higher was inspired by tall Gandhara-style stūpas, and although it is unknown how Chinese builders initially conceived of the foreign structure, they likely conferred with sketches and possibly small votive stūpa models in addition to verbal accounts from travelers.[3]

Given the technical and material challenges that laid before them, Chinese architects designed pagodas as hybrids, drawing from their knowledge of building multistory timber towers and using these structures to house relics, the main purpose of the Indian Buddhist stūpa. One of the most characteristic features of the East Asian pagoda is its profile, with its protruding series of  tiered eaves called miyan 密簷. In addition, its finial spire (S. yaṣṭi), often also functioning as a central pillar, decorated with umbrella shaped discs (S. chattra) is a noteworthy holdover from Indian models. It is worth noting that early Chinese pagodas were made of wood and consequently no early structures survive due to deterioration, fire, and temple destruction over the centuries.[4] Of the approximately 2000 surviving pagodas in China, the oldest is the masonry structure found at Songyue Temple 嵩岳寺, constructed in 523 during the Northern Wei 北魏. [5]

Sumeru Pagoda 須彌塔

The oldest surviving pagoda in Zhengding is found at Kaiyuan Temple 開元寺, which was razed almost entirely to the ground during the cultural revolution. The original monastery was constructed in 540, but only the pagoda and Bell Tower 鐘樓 remain. The pagoda is known as the Sumeru Pagoda 須彌塔, named after the cosmic mountain at the center of the Buddhist cosmos. The pagoda is a nine-story brick structure rising to a height of about 40 meters.[6] Built in 636, the structure has a square shape, mirroring the construction of Han watchtowers and older timber pagodas.[7] Even though it was renovated in 898, the Sumeru Pagoda still maintains distinctive Tang era (618-907) characteristics, with stepped registers, triangular eaves, and unadorned brick walls, creating an elegant, yet imposing architectural form. This Tang style of brick pagoda is also found in the ancient capital city of Chang’an 長安 (modern Xi’an 西安), where we find both the Great Wild Goose Pagoda 大雁塔 and Small Wild Goose Pagoda 小雁塔.

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Sumeru Pagoda, typical Tang pagoda

Also known as the Brick Pagoda 磚塔, this structure is hallow, with no central pillar or staircase to ascend. On the outside there are two pot-bellied guardians (noted as lishi 力士 on site) at the base of each wall, designed to look as if they are bearing the weight of the building on their shoulders. Above the doorway is a horizontal inscribed tablet 匾額saying “Sumeru stands tall” 須彌峭立, highlighting the verticality of the structure and linking it with the height of Mt. Sumeru. In 2007 a secret above-ground “heavenly chamber” 天宮 was found during renovation, containing 4000 items dating from the Warring States (475-221 BCE) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).



Chengling Pagoda 澄靈塔

A second pagoda is found at Linji Temple 臨濟寺, home to the renowned Chan master Linji 臨濟 (d. 866). Unlike the other compounds in Zhengding, this temple has been fully restored, in no doubt due to the fame of Linji in Japan as founder of one of the two major Zen schools. Of the other notable buildings (all constructed after 1986), there is a Dharma Milk Hall 法乳堂, housing images of Linji, Bodhidharma, and Huineng (there was a photograph of Xuyun 虛雲 also placed on the altar), as well as a Meditation Hall 禪堂, the mythic location where Linji inspired his students to enlightenment through his innovative shock techniques.[8]



According to tradition, a pagoda was first built in 867 to house the robes and bowl of Linji, along with half of his relics that remained after cremation (the other half was interred in a now destroyed pagoda erected in Daming 大名). The emperor named it Chengling (“pure spirit”) Pagoda 澄靈塔, along with conferring the posthumous name of Huizhao 惠照 to Linji. The current pagoda, however, was constructed in 1185, and bears the distinctive hallmarks of a later style of construction. It is a nine-story brick structure of around 30 meters in height. Most notably, however, it is octagonal, following a design that became popular in the tenth century under the influence of the Liao 遼 (907-1125). A semi-nomadic people from the north with no native architectural expertise, the Liao rulers employed Chinese craftsmen to build the eight-sided pagodas all over northern China, with the style eventually spilling over into the south.[9]

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Chengling Pagoda, housing Linji’s bowl and robe

The Chengling Pagoda is also known as the Dark Colored Pagoda 青塔 due to the dark grey bricks used for construction. As was common at the time, the masonry mimicked timber pagodas, complete with facsimile lintels and posts, complex bracketing systems (dougong 斗拱), tiled eaves, and latticework windows. The first story is also made to appear as if springing forth from a lotus flower, with petals circling its circumference, and comprises a part of what architectural historians call a Sumeru Throne 須彌座. All of these details give the pagoda a delicate and ornate feeling as it spires into the air. A very similar architectural plan was used to construct the memorial pagoda for Zhaozhou 趙州 (778-897, J. Jōshu), another famed Chan practitioner, in 1330.

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Bricks mimicking the look of timber structures

Lingxiao Pagoda 凌霄塔

The third pagoda is found in the remains of Tianning Temple 天寧寺. The original pagoda was built in the late eighth century, but it was replaced in 1045 during the Song (960-1279). It is a nine-story structure rising to around 42 meters high. Interestingly, its construction is composite, being made of bricks up to the fourth story and wood for the remaining five stories, making it one out of two surviving pagodas built in this fashion, with the other being the Wanshou Timber Pagoda 萬壽木塔 in Gansu Province 甘肅省. Starting from the fourth story, a central pillar (xinzhu 心柱) is used to support the upper structure. The use of a central pillar was once an important feature of older pagodas, but its use started to subside throughout the Song. Originally called the Huiguang Pagoda 慧光塔 (“Wisdom Light Pagoda”), it is now referred to as the Lingxiao Pagoda 凌霄塔 (“Reaching the Firmament Pagoda”), although locally it is called the Timber Pagoda 木塔, due to the ample use of wood for construction.


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Lingxiao Pagoda, a hybrid of bricks and timber

As the building ascends, the height and circumference of each story decreases, adding to the sense of verticality as the top story appears to vanish into the heavens. The pagoda was frequently renovated over the centuries and significant damage occurred during a 1966 earthquake. In 1982 an underground chamber 地宮 was discovered, revealing some inscriptions firmly dating the original pagoda to the Tang (618-907).

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Ascending into the heavens

Hua Pagoda 華塔

The final pagoda is located on the grounds of the old Guanghui Temple 廣惠寺, originally constructed during the Tang. There are stories of the famed emperor Qianlong (r. 1735-96) visiting the temple to compose poetry, but noting now remains outside of the odd-looking pagoda, called the Hua Pagoda 華塔 (“Flower Pagoda”). The unconventional pagoda is four stories with a height of about 35 meters.[10] The first floor has a series of four small pavilions at each corner of the building each topped with an egg-shaped finial, giving the pagoda an overall octagonal shape (This is more easily detected by closely examining the second story). The top of the pagoda displays a richly decorated conical spire, approximating the shape of a lotus bud, thus providing the name for this structure. Flower pagodas are actually a class of pagoda that started appearing in the Northern Song (960-1127), and of the 15 remaining specimens, the one in Zhengding is considered among the most ornate and grandiose.[11] Its base is made of brick in a style that attempts to copy timber structures, as we saw with the Chengling Pagoda, which is possibly part of later renovation attempts.

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Flower Pagoda, an uncommon pagoda style

Replacing the tiered eaves, the conical spire, constituting approximately one-third of its total height, is what makes this pagoda so curious. It is adorned with an array of pot-bellied guardians, heavenly kings, elephants, lions, bodhisattvas, and buddhas. Moreover, the interior of the pagoda houses Buddhist statues that date from the Tang. Because of this, the Flower Pagoda was classified in the first round of Major Historical and Cultural Sites Protected at the National Level 全国重点文物保护单位 in 1961.

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Detail of the masonry work

Overall, the Four Pagodas of Zhengding offer interesting insight into the development of the pagoda architectural form during the late medieval period. Even though brick soon became the construction material of choice, timber was used to top-off the Lingxiao Pagoda or it was mimicked through careful craftsmanship, as with the Chengling Pagoda and Hua Pagoda. Furthermore, while native four-sided timber structures influenced the shape of earlier pagodas, as with the Sumeru Pagoda, the use of octagonal forms became more widespread with the use of brick structures in the Song and Liao.

* This post was written as a personal addendum to the lecture I gave on Sacred Buddhist Architecture at the 2018 Woodenfish, and as a means to make sense of all that I saw on my unexpected trip to Zhengding. Thanks for the adventure, Guttorm!


[1] Fu et. al. 2002: p. 166-7. While Longxing Temple does not have a pagoda, the central focus of the monastery is its large Dabei Pavilion 大悲閣  placed on the main axis behind the main shrine hall at the rear of the compound. Constructed in 971, it houses a bronze Thousand Arm Guanyin statue, about 24 meters in height. Ibid. There is evidence suggesting that one of the 112 wooden pagodas built by Emperor Wen of the Sui 隋文帝 (r. 581-604) commemorating the miraculous discovery of Buddhist relics was constructed at Longxing Temple. Furthermore, the depiction of Zhenzhou 鎮州 (modern Zhengding) on the Map of Mt. Wutai 五台山圖 and its environs found in Cave 61  of Dunhuang 敦煌 (constructed c. 950CE) shows a three-story pagoda, which some understand to be the one ordered built by imperial edict, see here. For clear depictions of the relevant portions of the map of Mt. Wutai, see here.

[2] Lin 2016: 101, 104.

[3] Drawing stūpas appears to have been a common devotional practice for Buddhists travelling to China, as is evidence by numerous examples of stūpa graffiti on rock walls. See Neelis 2001: esp. 281 & 283 for images.

[4] The oldest dated timber and brick pagoda in China is the octagonal Śākya Pagoda built in 1056, Le 2010: 185. Older wooden pagodas exist in Japan, including the famous Gojū-no-tō 五重塔 at Hōryū-ji 法隆寺.

[5] Le 2010: 187-8.

[6] The signage at the site lists its height at 42.5 meters, but I’ve seen heights between 39.5 and 47 meters listed elsewhere.

[7] Historians can examine wooden pagoda structures in the murals at Dunhuang, such as Cave 61 noted above, and in relief carvings at Yungang Grottoes 雲岡石窟, such as in Cave 39.

[8] It is well known the legend of Linji was developed well after he died, most notably contained in the Record of Linji 臨濟錄, compiled in 1120. See, inter alia., here.

[9] For more on Liao architecture, see Steinhardt 1994 and Kim 2017.

[10] The plaque on site lists its height at 33.35 meters, but other sources claim its height to be over 40 meters.

[11] For more about Flower Pagodas, see here.

  • Abe, Stanley K. 2002. Ordinary Images. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Pres. [see esp. pp. 103-06, 123-66]
  • Di Luo. 2017. “A Grain of Sand: Miniatures as Sacred Repositories, Part I: The Longxingsi Sutra Case,” []
  • Di Luo. 2017. “A Grain of Sand: Miniatures as Sacred Repositories, Part II: The Huayansi Sutra Cabinets” []
  • Di Luo. 2017. “A Grain of Sand: Miniatures, Models, Simulacra” []
  • Fu, Xinian; Guo, Daiheng; Liu Xujie; Pan, Guxi; Qiao, Yun, Sun, Dazhang & Steinhardt, Nancy S. 2002. Chinese Architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Kim, Youn-mi. 2017. “Virtual Pilgrimage and Virtual Geography: Power of Liao Miniature Pagodas (907–1125),” Religions, Vol. 8., pp. 1-29.
  • Le, Huu Phuoc. 2010. Buddhist Architecture. Lakeville, MN: Grafikol.
  • Ledderose, Lothar. 1980. “Chinese Prototypes of the Pagoda,” in The Stupa, Its Religious, Historical, and Architectural Significance, ed. Anna Libera Dallapiccola and Stephanie Zingel-ave Lallement. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, pp. 238-45
  • Liang Ssu-ch’eng [Sicheng]. 1984. Chinese Architecture: A Pictorial History, ed. Wilma Fairbank. Cambridge: MIT Press. [see esp. p. 124]
  • Lin, Wei-cheng. 2016. “Performing Center in a Vertical Rise: Multilevel Pagodas in China’s Medieval Period,” ARS Orientalis, Vol. 46, pp. 100-34.
  • Neelis, Jason. 2011. Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks: Mobility and Exchange within and beyond the Northwestern Borderlands of South Asia. Leiden: Brill.
  • Seckel, Dietrich. 1980. “Stupa Elements Surviving in Eastern Asian Pagodas,” in The Stupa, Its Religious, Historical, and Architectural Significance, ed. Anna Libera Dallapiccola and Stephanie Zingel-ave Lallement. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag.
  • Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman. 1994. “Liao: An Architectural Tradition in the Making,” Artibus Asiae, Vol. 54, No. 1/2, pp. 5-39.
  • Steinhardt, Nancy S. 1997. Liao Architecture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Pres.
  • Steinhardt, Nancy S. 2011. “The Sixth Century in East Asian Architecture,” Ars Orientalis, Vol. 41, pp.  27-71.
  • Steinhardt, Nancy S. 2014. Chinese Architecture in an Age of Turmoil, 200-600. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.


Enami’s Dazzling Bronze Buddha (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

The most widely published Meiji era (1868-1912) photographer was undoubtedly Enami Nobukuni 江南信國 (1859—1929), who worked under the professional alias T. Enami.[1] His shop in Yokohama was a few doors down from his legendary competitor and colleague, Tamamura Kōzaburō 玉村康三郎 (b. 1856), who hired Enami to help complete his order of one-million hand colored albumen prints for the multi-volume work Japan: Described and Illustrated by the Japanese, edited by Captain Francis Brinkley. Enami was expertly skilled in working with all of the popular photography formats, including larger-format prints, souvenir albums, portraiture, and glass lantern slides, but his most significant contributions were in the field of stereophotography. In addition to his considerable expertise, Enami fortuitously also worked during the “Golden Age” of Japanese themed stereoviews, roughly corresponding to the first decade of the twentieth century.

While Enami sold stereoviews under his own imprint in Japan, it was American and European publishers who bought the rights to sell his views that popularized Enami’s work abroad. As was standard practice at the time, publishers often omitted the names of photographers on stereocards, and thus even though American audiences may not have been acquainted with Enami’s name, his eloquent aesthetic vision was integral in shaping Western perceptions of Japan. The first major consigner of Enami’s stereoviews was Griffith & Griffith, a firm who first started issuing Enami’s views of Japan as odd-lots in 1900. Five years later, in response to the wildly popular box sets offered by  competitors, H.C. White, C.H. Graves, and the Underwoods, Griffith & Griffith debuted their inaugural 100-view set of Japan, comprised entirely of Enami stock. The set was revised in 1907, adding variant Enami images. In the intervening years since 1900, Enami’s reputation had grown considerably among the largest publishers of stereocards, and his images were being incorporated into sets issued by C.H Graves, Underwood & Underwood, and T.W. Ingersoll. This continued until the market was consolidated under the massive portfolio acquisition by the Keystone View Company, which then continued to publish Enami’s work several decades into the twentieth century.


  • Title/Caption: The Large Bronze Buddha, Kamakura, Japan
  • Year: 1907
  • Photographer: Enami Nobukuni 江南信國 (1859-1929)
  • Publisher: Griffith & Griffith
  • Medium: sliver gelatin print; mounted on curved slate-colored card
  • Dimensions: 7 in X 3.5 in

Of the views acquired by Griffith & Griffith, Enami’s treatment of the Daibutsu is among the most stunning. While many collectors consider the images of Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935) to be the pinnacle of Japanese stereophotography (Enami is often considered a close second), it is clear that Ponting took his cues in photographing the Daibutsu from Enami’s masterclass in layering and composition. It appears that all of the Griffith’s Enami stock was originally photographed between 1895 and 1900, thus making this image, with the possible exception of Strohmeyer’s 1896 work, the oldest of the major publishers’ views of the Daibutsu. Yet it also remains the most unique and sophisticated.

Setting his camera on the first landing, the furthest from the statue, Enami is able to visually narrate a story unlike his Western contemporaries. The viewer enters the image through the Japanese man at the lower right, who is photographed mid-stride ascending a small flight of steps. Due to the positioning of his head, the viewer presumes his gaze is directed at the woman and two small children down the pathway in front of him. The two children gaze back at him, creating a strong sense that we are observing a family about to reunite. Alone, this visual narrative is strikingly different from the images produced by Western photographers, who tend to highlight the pious religiosity of the Japanese people or the aesthetic qualities of the Daibutsu. Here the Kamakura statue is simply the location where the family gathers, presumably to pray and ask for blessings. There is no overt signaling of awe-struck piousness or odd bodily positioning rendering the scene unnatural. Furthermore, by placing the dwarf palm in the foreground with the man, partly obscuring the view of the Daibutsu, we are afforded a sense of entering a liminal space, within which we find family, safety, and serenity. There is a technical reason for incorporating these foreground elements as well, they would provide a greater illusion of depth when observed through a stereographic viewer.

In addition, there are also signs that Enami was trying to appeal to a Western clientele, most visibly through the elaborate dress. While operating out of his shop in Yokohama, Enami’s premier customer base were Western globetrotting tourists looking to capture a piece of the exotic orient, most typically through the conspicuous ownership of photography. By dressing his subjects in formal and decorative garments, Enami was still able to signal a sense of the Other so prized in souvenir memoribillia, while not fully embracing a hypersexualized or hyper-religious Oriental discourse.[2]

1921 July "The Geography of Japan" - Weston [National Geographic] p64.jpg

The other valued and incomparable skill of Enami was his ability to beautifully hand-tint his photographs. Japanese assisstants had long been assigned hand-coloring tasks in the Western photography studios of Yokohama, and Enami and his workshop produced some of the most meticulous work. A wonderfully colored variant of the Griffith & Griffith view (likely of the “seconds or minutes” variety, meaning both shots were taken in close time proximity of one another) appeared in the pages of National Geographic in July 1921 (pg. 64/pl. IV), showcased along some of the finest journalistic photography of the twentieth century. It is possible the National Geographic variant was originally a stereograph, as Enami regularly used one half of the stereographic negative for his two-dimensional images.


  • Title/Caption: Götzenbild, Japan [“Idolatry, Japan”]
  • Year: (modern reprint of 1912 original)
  • Photographer: Enami Nobukuni 江南信國 (1859-1929)
  • Publisher: Universal Stereoscop Company
  • Medium: (modern reprint on photographic paper)
  • Dimensions: 7 in X 3.5 in

The Central European agency responsible for distributing Griffith & Griffith views was the German firm Nueu Photographische Gesellschaft (NPG), who published a series of 50 Enami views. In 1912, the German publisher Universal Stereoscop Company reissued the NPG stock, adding 50 additional views to make a full 100-view set. Unlike the original production run in the US, Enami’s German images were sold tinted, thus further enhancing the astonishing brilliance of Enami’s work.


*This is part of a series of posts devoted to exploring the development of a visual literacy for Buddhist imagery in American mass media. All items are part of my personal collection of American Buddhist ephemera.

[1] For more detailed information on the surprisingly elusive life of Enami, see Bennett 2006, and especially the sleuthing of Oechsle 2006. Rob Oechsle also runs the excellent site dedicated to Enami’s oeuvre,

[2] The ability of Asian agents to navigate and sometimes subvert Orientalist discourses have been encapsulated by several theories of resistance, of which John Kuo Wei Tchen’s notion of “commercial Orientalism” is appropriate here, see Tchen 1999.


  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Old Japanese Photographs Collector’s Data Guide. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd.
  • Oechsle, Rob. 2006. “Searching for T. Enami,” in Old Japanese Photographs Collector’s Data Guide, by Terry Bennett. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd, pp. 70-8.
  • Tchen, John Kuo Wei. 1999. New York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Keystone’s Tour of the World (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

The Keystone View Company dominated the stereoview market after acquired the negative stocks of H.C. White in 1915 and Underwood & Underwood in 1921, effectively making them the last major publisher of this once immensely popular form of home entertainment and education.[1] Even though the development of “nickelodeons” and larger cinematic theaters would become the preferred form of “virtual travel” for most Americans through the early twentieth century, Keystone remained in operation through the 1970’s, long after the business’ highest commercial sucess.[2] Keystone had long emphasized the educational virtues of their products, regularly imprinting detailed descriptions on the reverse of their mounts or offering booklets with narrative accounts as accompaniments to their larger sets. In the 1920’s Keystone started offering massive 400 and 600 “World Tour” sets, both of which contained older images of late Meiji-era Japan, photographed between approximately 1896 and 1906. In 1935/6, Keystone unveiled its most audacious product to date, a monumental 1200-view “Tour of the World” set, weighing around 70 pounds with all of its cards and accoutrements. This Keystone set was the first to incorporate newly photographed images of Japan in two decades, all taken by an unknown photographer.


  • Title/Caption: The Colossal Daibutsu in Cherry-Blossom Time – the Great Buddha of Kamakura, Japan
  • Year: 1935-6
  • Photographer: unknown
  • Publisher: Keystone View Company (#925 out of 1200 card “Tour of the World” set)
  • Medium: sliver gelatin print; mounted on curved card
  • Dimensions: 7 in X 3.5 in

This final Keystone view of the Daibutsu would emerge as its most famous. Leering in from the right side of the photograph is a white hand-painted sign plainly stating, “No Photographing Allowed Here.”[3] By photographing this sign, our unknown photographer lays bare the long-standing tensions between tourists and the temple. For many travelers, the only reason to visit the Kamakura colossus was precisely to have their image taken, sometimes perched in his lap, as a sign of their conquest of the Orient. The infrequent, interpid Yokohama globetrotter of the 1860’s had ballooned into the large-scale tourist excursion parties of the early 1900’s, promoted by a thriving tourism industry. By the 1930’s, the temple had decades-old regulations limiting amateur photography, and several Western travelogues describe the difficulty in procuring a good image of the Daibutsu, sometimes needing to distract the temple priet in order to surreptisiously take a quick photograph.

With the rules not permitting closer access with camera equipment, this late-issue Keystone image frames the Great Buddha at a greater distance than most stereoviews. Visual attention is directed to the foreground where three Western tourists stand with their backs towards the Daibutsu. With two women posed formally and a man holding his hat looking to the side, a crowd of Westerners is also seen touring the grounds behind them. A single Buddhist priest can be found strolling among the onlookers. The Daibutsu functions as a backdrop to the visual narrative centering on the three tourists. The statue efficiently signals the Otherness that envelopes the tourists throughout their foreign adventures. While many facets of their trip are the same as home, some things are wildly out of step with their norm and those are precisely the things that need to be seen. This photographic souvenir proves their success in capturing the exotic Other. Unlike the numerous stereoviews published previously, little visual focus is placed on the activities of the native Japanese; the sole priest walks casually, unaffected by the religious icon. The caption, too, supports a focus on tourist activities, noting this visit took place during “Cherry-Blossom Time,” a period optimal for camaraderie, sightseeing, and picture taking.


The description on the mount’s reverse cribs from the older Underwood & Underwood card, updating the preferred mode of transportation from rail to “motor car” and mentioning the Greant Kantō earthquake of 1923. Harkening back to the magnificent past of Kamakura and noting the immense dimensions of the Daibutsu, the reader is afforded the necessary contextualizing elements that make the “virtual tour” even more realistic. The last sentence dramatically underscores the appeal of the location, almost as if a pitch delivered in a travel magazine or tourist brochure: “This great Buddha is one of the most dramatic sights in Japan and is said to be the largest bronze statue in the world.” This fact would be all the more apparent for the numerous tourists who made the trip, both virtually and in real life.


*This is part of a series of posts devoted to exploring the development of a visual literacy for Buddhist imagery in American mass media. All items are part of my personal collection of American Buddhist ephemera.

[1] For more detailed information on the Keystone Company, see Bennett 2006.

[2] Although many images were looted in the intervening years, the remaining Keystone stock was donated to the California Museum of Photography, at the University of California, Riverside, and catalogued as the Keystone-Mast Collection. The contact print of the above stereoview is identified as 1996.0009.33903.SS.

[3] Based on the original negative from the Keystone-Mast Collection, the entirety of the sign reads, “No Photographing Allowed Here. Amateurs may Photograph from positions reserved for them. The Prior.”


  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Old Japanese Photographs Collector’s Data Guide. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd.

Keystone’s “Colossal Bronze Statue of Buddha” (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

Throughout the 1890’s the Keystone View Company, founded in Pennsylvania by Benneville Lloyd Singley (1864-1938), produced a steady stream of stereoviews, but nothing in comparison to its prodigious output in the coming decades.[1] Around 1901, Keystone issued its first images of Japan, a run of 23 odd-lot stereoviews taken by an unknown photographer. Even though Singley’s name is imprinted on the mounts as copyright holder, he is not believed to be the photographer of the small series of Japan views. The publishing and distributing arm of Keyston in London, operating under the name of Fine Art Photographer’s Publishing Company, also issued the same Japan series on a buff-tan colored mounts through 1905. In response to the popularity of the boxed sets dedicated to Japan offered by competitors C.H. Graves, H.C. White, and the Underwoods, Keystone debuted its own “Tour of Japan” sets in 1906, comprised of the original 23 views supplemented by new images taken during the Russo-Japan War of 1904-5. Even though Keystone was relatively late to the Japan-view market, by 1921 it had acquired the negative stocks of all its main competitors, and it emerged as the sole prolific publisher of Japan-view box sets, mostly drawing upon its massive portfolio of images taken more than a decade earlier, between 1896 and 1906.


  • Title/Caption: “Daibutsu” – The Colossal Bronze Statue of Buddha, Kamakura Japan
  • Year: c. 1906
  • Photographer: unknown
  • Publisher: Keystone View Company, Benneville Lloyd Singley (1864-1938)(#61 out of 72/100?)
  • Medium: sliver gelatin print; mounted on curved slate-colored card
  • Dimensions: 7 in X 3.5 in

In the first Keystone release of the bronze colossus, the Daibutsu dominates the image. The top of its head is clipped by the frame, giving the impression that the statue it too large to behold.[2] Similar to the Strohmeyer image, our anonymous photographer places two well-groomed Japanese women in the foreground, cropped at the feet and waist, providing a sense of scale for the towering statue. Wearing lushly patterned garments and coiffured hair, the women appear more cosmopolitan than their rustic setting might suggest and their conspicuous presence hints at the hypersexual motifs flowing through Orientalist discourse. The formality of the composition is offset by two elements; the presence of a dog looking back at the viewer, and the positioning of a child on the far left, gazing towards the dog. These mundane elements clash with the distinctive, orchestrated dress of the women and overall diminish the sense that viewer is looking at a scene of pious activity. By virtue of its sheer size occupying most of the frame, the Daibutsu is given the most visual weight, and consequently the onlookers are relegated to secondary importance. Noting its “colossal” size, the caption gives literary form to the numerous visual cues asking the viewer to appreciate the aesthetics of the statue over its religious meaning to the worshippers.


Moreover, the description on the reverse immediately situates the Daibutsu among the greatest works of world art, claiming it is “the masterpiece of Japanese statuary,” and “one of the great art creations of all time.” This is immediately followed by a poetic verse taken from an Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, In Memoriam: “A statue solid-set, and moulded in colossal calm.” Strikingly in line with many contemporary descriptions of the Daibutsu (the original context for the lines, however, is overcoming loss and regret), this quote provides a lyrical force to the aesthetics of the statue. This then dovetails into a gloss description of Buddhism, where another quoted passage describes the beauty and majesty of the Daibutsu as a symbol for the profundity and power of the Buddhist religion as a whole (as was typical, the Daibutsu was mistaken for the historical founder of the tradition). Interestingly, the Tennyson quote and the astute characterization was not pulled from a scholarly reference, but Murray’s “red book” travel guide, authored by no less eminent authority than Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850-1935).[3]


*This is part of a series of posts devoted to exploring the development of a visual literacy for Buddhist imagery in American mass media. All items are part of my personal collection of American Buddhist ephemera.

[1] For more detailed information on the Keystone Company, see Bennett 2006.

[2] Ponting also regularly clipped the head of the Daibutsu in framing his shot, though for the different effect of including Japanese worshippers in the foreground.

[3] Chamberlain had significantly enlarged the original edition by Ernest Satow, but only added the Tennyson quote in the 5th edition, published in 1898, see A Handbook for Travellers in Japan, 5th ed., pp. 96-7.


  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Old Japanese Photographs Collector’s Data Guide. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd.

Ponting and White’s “Sacred Daibitsu” (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

By 1902, the 72-view “Strohmeyer Set” issued by Underwood & Underwood dominated the market of Japanese themed stereoview cards. Hawley C. White (b. 1847?), motivated to transform the stereograph from novelty item to educational tool, work for three years developing his “White Travel Tours” and issued the first challenge to the Underwood monopoly. White’s “Perfec” Stereograph company would publish its first set of 72-views of Japan in 1902, replacing them with a brand-new series of 100-views in 1905. To procure images for this new 100-view series, White called upon the now-experienced stereo-photographer Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935), who was commissioned by the studios run by H.C. Graves and the Underwoods in the preceding years to produce their catalogues of Japanese stereoviews.[1] This would mark the third trip to Japan for Ponting, who would arrive around the fall of 1904 and photograph through to the summer of 1905. Ponting would return to Japan two more times working for White and would eventually collect his reminiscences of his travels in his 1910 work, In Lotus-Land Japan, profusely illustrated by his own photography.


  • Title: The Sacred Daibutsu, Colossal Bronze Image of Buddha, Kamakura, Japan
  • Year: 1905
  • Photography:  Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935)
  • Publisher: The “Perfec” Stereograph; Hawley C. White (B. 1847?) (#23 out of 100)
  • Medium: sliver gelatin print; mounted on olive-colored card
  • Dimensions: 7 in X 3.5 in

This commissioned image on olive-colored mount shows the maturation of Ponting’s work over the years. He positions his camera in almost the exact same spot as for his Underwood & Underwood image a year prior, off-center to the left, almost at three-quarters view. The late day sun hangs low in the sky, illuminating the near side of the Daibutsu’s faces. These compositional conventions are also present in the work of Enami Nobukuni 江南信國 (1859-1929), a famed Yokohama photographer and stereographer with whose work Ponting was familiar.[2] Moreover, Ponting seems to have been influenced by Enami’s positioning of people, thinning out the crowd of people present in his Underwood funded excursion to Kamakura. Now, three Japanese men are placed at different depths, each appearing to be in mid-stride as they walk towards the Daibutsu. This creates an effect of motion as the viewer’s eyes are drawn into the mighty bronze statue. By placing these onlookers at different depths, the stereographic effect would also have greater impact, creating a better sense of three-dimensionality and dynamism. While the gaze of the visitors is towards the Daibutsu, the object of reverence, their attitude is more casual. This is in contrast to Ponting’s earliest attempts at creating the mise-en-scène where onlookers were directed to kneel, a transparent attempt to signal piety to the viewer. Even though the men here are not Western tourists, one cannot help think that they may be partaking in an afternoon stroll to see the local attractions. The caption presents a similar ambiguity. Although it qualifies the Daibutus as “sacred,” it does not refer to the nature of the visitors; are they worshippers or local sight-seers? Furthermore, by describing the Daibitsu as a “colossal bronze image,” it underscores its aesthetic dimensions and fine craftsmanship admired by Western sightseers.


The reverse of the card in imprinted with the caption in six different languages (omitting the word “sacred” in all of them, however) and a brief description of the locale. It is written in the style of a guidebook or travelogue, providing distances, historical dates, and some descriptive vocabulary. There is only the briefest passing mention on Buddhist belief, really just noting the “brooding calm” of the Buddha “musing upon Nirvana,” before continuing to describe the dimensions and material composition of the statue. It closes by advising the reader to consult with two books for more information about Japan, namely Edith Singleton’s Japan as Seen and Described by Famous Writers, published in 1905, and Anne C. Hartshorne’s Japan and Her People, published in 1902. Both are dominated by travel writing, and as such only add to the sense that viewing stereocards was presented as a form of virtual travel.


*This is part of a series of posts devoted to exploring the development of a visual literacy for Buddhist imagery in American mass media. All items are part of my personal collection of American Buddhist ephemera.

[1] For more detailed information on Ponting and White, see Bennett 2006.

[2] Ponting’s stereoviews were supplemented by Enami’s own work in both the sets commissioned by C.H. Graves and Underwood & Underwood.


  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Old Japanese Photographs Collector’s Data Guide. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd.

Graves’ “Stereoscopic Gem” (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

Carlton Harlow Graves (d. 1943?) was a provocateur. His early published stereoviews contained several pirated images, including several taken of Japan. When he hired Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935) in 1901 to create his own private stock of Japanese negatives, he then issued a set of 200 Japan views, unprecedented in size and more than doubling the number published in a single set by his closest competitors.[1] Furthermore, Graves also sought to cater to the lower-priced markets (standard cards were sold at six for a dollar), and he began operating under several different company names, rebranding constantly before he left the stereoview business in 1907. One of these ventures issued images on cheap slate-colored mounts with the “Stereoscopic Gems of American and Foreign Scenery” imprint. Released between 1902 and 1905, Graves is believed to have re-used Ponting’s negatives first commissioned for the premier set of 200 views.


  • Title/Caption: Colossal Statue of Buddha Kamakura Japan [on negative]
  • Year: c. 1902-5
  • Photographer: Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935)
  • Publisher: Stereoscopic Gems of American and Foreign Scenery, Carlton Harlow Graves (d. 1943?)
  • Medium: sliver gelatin print; mounted on curved slate-colored card
  • Dimensions: 7 in X 3.5 in

This stereoview is unlike many of its elite contemporaries, printed on smaller and untrimmed photographic paper and mounted on cheaper card stock. Moreover, the caption is not imprinted on the mount, but superimposed onto the negative in a style quite reminiscent of Yokohama photography studios. Although this image is different from the 200-view set, it is almost certainly the work of Ponting. The camera is set at almost the exact same location as the view issued under the Universal Photo Art Company imprint, panned out slightly to incorporate the young woman and child in the foreground. Both photographs were also taken at the same time of day, high-noon, when the overhead sun cast the darkest shadow on the Daibutsu’s face and neck, suggesting the same photographer who preferred such stylized shots. The kneeling men, however, are the clearest hallmark of Ponting’s directions, an element wholly unseen in other stereographic images of this bronze statue, and otherwise highly uncommon in previous studio photography.[2] The common gaze of the onlookers towards the Daibutsu, combined with the reverent posturing of the kneeling men, creates an atmosphere of religious piety. It is important to note, however, that the caption on the negative does bolster such a perspective of religious Otherness, but instead highlights the aesthetic qualities of the statue, noting its size as “colossal.” This conforms to the genre conventions used in Yokohama port photography generally, whereas titles imprinted on stereocards more typically brought attention to the worshippers or the religious activities in the scene. If this image was indeed taken by Ponting during his tour of Japan in 1901-2, it is clear to see why his other image was selected for the flagship series and this one was relegated to the cheaper run-offs. The irregular spacing of the kneeling men and the cropped body of the woman creates an unbalanced composition; a mediocre view for the mediocre stock it was mounted on.


*This is part of a series of posts devoted to exploring the development of a visual literacy for Buddhist imagery in American mass media. All items are part of my personal collection of American Buddhist ephemera.

[1] For more detailed information on Ponting and Graves, see Bennett 2006.

[2] The most notable exception being Adolpho Farsari’s large-format albumen print of the early 1880’s.


  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Old Japanese Photographs Collector’s Data Guide. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd.