Drawing the Face of Bodhidharma: A Brief Survey of an Artistic Tradition

“I have painted several thousand Bodhidharmas, yet have never depicted his face. This is only natural, for the moment I spread the paper to draw him, the original form disappears. All of you, what is this Bodhidharma that cannot be drawn?” Zen Master Hakuin[1]

In the fall of 1817, a large crowd gathered in the northern courtyard of the Nagoya branch of Hongan-ji Temple 本願寺 to witness a spectacle. A low fence was erected to separate the crowd from a carefully constructed sheet of paper, covering an area of 120 tatami mats, or approximately 2200 square feet – a size that would have dwarfed the average Japanese house of the time. This was the canvas and performance space for Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), a 57-year-old print maker from the capital of Edo who was still over a decade away from true fame with his publication of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji 富嶽三十六景 in 1831. At this stage in his career Hokusai was still an avid self-promoter, creating artworks on a scale that would dazzle his contemporaries. In 1804, he had devised a similar painting spectacle at Gokoku-ji Temple 護国寺 in Edo. The subject was the same both in Edo and Nagoya – a colossal painting of Bodhidharma, the reputed founder of Zen Buddhism.[2]

In Nagoya, accounts tell us that Hokusai and his pupils, dressed in special attire, set up the paper and prepared the ink all morning, slowly gathering a crowd in the process. The paper was several times thicker than normal stock and was carefully placed atop a bed of straw. The ink was stored in vats and carried in metal buckets; the brushes, by necessity, were the size of brooms [Fig. 1]. When preparations finished in the afternoon, Hokusai wielded a huge brush flush with black ink and started to deftly maneuver it across the blank expanse of paper. He first drew Bodhidharma’s nose and then his right and left eyes. He then continued to his mouth, ear, and head. Switching to a different brush made of wiry palm fibers, Hokusai then filled in his bristly hair and beard, giving Bodhidharma some of his most iconic facial features. Hokusai then used his largest brush, a sack of rice soaked in ink, and dragged it with a rope to create the thick folds of Bodhidharma’s robe. Finally, Hokusai and his students painted the robe bright red, mopping up the excess ink with rags as they finished their work at dusk [Fig. 2]. For an added touch of flair, the 60-foot long portrait was lashed to a wooden beam which was connected to a pully system atop scaffolding. A team of men lifted the painting into the air, fully displaying the Zen patriarch to the astonished and admiring audience [Fig. 3].

Figure 1

Figure 1

From Kōriki Enkōan 高力猿猴庵 (1756-1831), Detailed Illustrations of Hokusai’s Large Scale Sketches 北斎大画即書細図 [1817]

Figure 2

Figure 2

From Kōriki Enkōan 高力猿猴庵 (1756-1831), Detailed Illustrations of Hokusai’s Large Scale Sketches 北斎大画即書細図 [1817]

Figure 3

Figure 3

From Kōriki Enkōan 高力猿猴庵 (1756-1831), Detailed Illustrations of Hokusai’s Large Scale Sketches 北斎大画即書細図 [1817]

This spectacle was not an improvised performance. In addition to getting the various materials prepared and gathered, including erecting the large scaffolding to hold up the colossal image of Bodhidharma, Hokusai promoted the event through handbills he circulated around the city, some of which still survive today [Fig. 4].[3] The promotional bills were illustrated with a simple portrait of Bodhidharma, but Hokusai highlighted the magnitude of the promised work, stating, for example, that Bodhidharma’s eye would be six feet wide and his nose nine feet long. He also noted, should it rain, interested spectators should return on a sunny day. This colossal painting of a rather eccentric Buddhist monk was not a performance one could bear to miss. But why paint a gigantic Bodhidharma?

Figure 4

Figure 4

Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), Handbill for Hokusai’s Colossal Image Sketch 北斎大画即書引札, Nagoya-shi hakubutsukan名古屋市博物館 [1817]

A person who may have seen Housai’s advertisement or viewed the finished image on display would have immediately recognized Bodhidharma, the “Great Master” 達摩大師, a Buddhist figure who rapidly evolved into a popular icon of the Edo period (1603-1868).[4] Buddhist texts since the Tang (618-907) had recounted the famed exploits of the Indian monk, slowly folding accretions into his legendary biography.[5] On one level, Bodhidharma was revered by Buddhists for bringing Zen (C. chan 禪) to China and ultimately to the rest of Easy Asia. The stories that developed around him depicted him as a paradigmatic Zen monk: resilient in meditative cultivation, cunningly wise, and curiously iconoclastic. In the growing urbanism of the Edo era, however, it became increasingly common to parody (or “re-envision“ 見立て) the pious formalism and celibacy of Buddhist monks, and Bodhidharma emerged as a common target for that ribaldry.[6] Even though Hokusai’s painting did not reflect the irreverence or sexual innuendos found in the work of his contemporaries, the sheer scale of the portrait, along with sight of Hokusai and his students trotting back and forth over Bodhidharma’s enormous face, would have given the event a carnivalesque atmosphere. As such, the Edo-era popular persona of Bodhidharma as a beloved holy fool would have complemented the tone of Hokusai’s performance.

Hokusai’s particular rendition of Bodhidharma in a three-quarter bust portrait was also true to contemporary convention. Bodhidharma bust portraits (C. banshen xiang, J. hanshin zō 半身像), the genre I will focus on here, had been common among painters in East Asia since at least the thirteenth century.[7] Importantly, however, the characteristic features portrayed in these portraits developed more than five hundred years after Bodhidharma reputedly lived (passing away in the sixth century, perhaps at the age of 150), thus they should not be taken to represent real physical attributes.[8] Moreover, the earliest extant attempts at drawing the first Zen patriarch, dating to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, do not depict Bodhidharma with his characteristic bulky frame, dour demeanor, and bushy beard. Instead, these images portray Bodhidharma as a regular monk with slender build and Chinese facial features. Moreover, he is commonly paired with his first disciple and eventual successor, Huike 慧可 [Fig. 5]. This artistic representation emphasizes the notion of a Zen lineage, placing the master-disciple relationship at the core of the mind-to-mind transmission (C. yixin chuanxin, J. ishin denshin 以心傳心) originating with the Buddha. Bodhidharma’s persona, and by extension his iconoclastic biography, is overshadowed by the dramatic portrayal of patriarchal succession, here depicted between a high-seated Bodhidharma and his devoted disciple seated on the ground.[9]

Figure 5

Figure 5

Anonymous, Portraits of the Six Patriarchs 六組像 [close up], Kōzan-ji 高山寺 [13th century, based on 1054 original]

By the thirteenth century, however, artistic conventions had shifted and Bodhidharma developed his most eccentric features. [10] His hirsute face and bushy eyebrows, protruding nose, bulging eyes, and large-gauge earrings became iconic of his visual appearance [Figs. 6-7].[11] These stereotypical attributes all reflected an important aspect of Bodhidharma’s identity – his non-Chinese heritage. They functioned as easily distinguishable visual cues to identify Bodhidharma as a foreigner, thus authenticating the Zen tradition’s claim as being transmitted from India, Bodhidharma’s native home.[12] In other words, the efforts to explicitly portray Bodhidharma as a foreigner in the late Song Dynasty also implicitly cast him as a faithful transmitter of a non-textual Zen lineage. Additionally, the focus on Bodhidharma’s eccentric appearance would more easily call to mind the iconoclastic episodes of his biography, a corpus of legends that was still growing throughout the Song when his new physical image was being formulated.[13]

Figure 6

Figure 6

Anonymous [inscription by Mieweng Wenli 滅翁文礼 (1167-1250)], untitled hanging scroll, Myōshin-ji 妙心寺 [c. 13th century]

Figure 7

Figure 7

Anonymous [inscription by Qingzhuo Zhengcheng 清拙正澄 (1274-1339)], untitled hanging scroll, Izumi-shi Kubosō Kinen Bijutsukan 和泉市久保惣記念美術館 [dated 1326]

Among the artists from China and Japan who painted Bodhidharma throughout history, none was perhaps more admiring than Japanese Zen priest Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686-1769[14]). A prodigious artist and calligrapher, Hakuin likely produced more than one hundred images of Bodhidharma now in collections throughout the world. These portraits exhibit a slow evolution of Hakuin’s remarkable personal style. An early depiction of Bodhidharma, produced at the age of 36 recently after Hakuin was installed as the head of Shōin-ji Temple 松蔭寺, reflects an aesthetic from the earlier Muromachi period (1336-1573) that can be ultimately traced back to Song era examples [Fig. 8].[15] Bodhidharma’s face and hair is delineated with fine brushwork, using deliberate lines to create a refined, yet stern portrait. This is reminiscent of the “plain outline” (C. baimiao 白描) style employed in the images depicting patriarchal succession, as well as the early Chinese bust portraits of Bodhidharma. These brush strokes are in stark contrast to the bold, calligraphic strokes of Bodhidharma’s robe, created with a brush soaked in ink and quickly maneuvered to depict the cloth gathered around the Zen master’s arms. This play between meticulous and casual brushwork and between fine and bold lines suggests the mastery of Hakuin’s buoyant artistry.

Figure 8

Figure 8

Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686-1769), Daruma 達磨, private collection [1719]

This traditionalist aesthetic would soon be modified in favor of a more powerful and personal portrayal that would become Hakuin’s hallmark. At the age of 67, Hakuin produced a much more expressive Bodhidharma, using carefree, bold brushstrokes to create a rounded head, bulbous eyes, and protruding nose [Fig. 9]. The robe has also become more abstract, transformed into a flowing “s”-shaped curve which conceals the patriarch’s hands.[16] This is a more playful and softer rendering of Bodhidharma with a special emphasis placed on his face and eyes. In many of Hakuin’s later works, the eyes in particular are rendered prominent through heavy brushwork and a round, unnatural size [Figs. 10-11]. The pupils are also often (though hardly always) placed in such a manner that Bodhidharma is looking above his head or over his shoulder, creating tension in the viewer and projecting a sense of suspicion onto the Zen patriarch.

Figure 9

Figure 9

Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686-1769), Daruma 達磨, Shōjū-ji 正宗寺 [1751]

Figure 10

Figure 10

Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686-1769), Daruma 達磨, Chikusei Collection

Figure 11

Figure 11

Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686-1769), Daruma 達磨, LACMA

This particular medium and method for depicting Bodhidharma portraits since the thirteenth century should not be overlooked. Monochromatic ink wash painting (C. shuimo hua 水墨畫, J. suiboku ga 水墨画) was first developed in China, but was brought to Japan by at least the fourteenth century. The use of bold ink strokes and washes allowed artists to minimize fine detail and find expression through powerful brush strokes that revealed the essence or “spirit” of the subject.[17] Thus, the conventions of Chinese painting, and ink wash painting in particular, eliminated the value of mimesis and contributed to the highly caricatured and evocative forms of Bodhidharma’s appearance. In painting an iconoclastic Zen master from a foreign country, artists such as Hakuin could continue to experiment with artistic whimsy.[18]

One may argue that a natural trajectory of this artistic tradition is towards complete abstraction. Indeed, a minimalist tradition did develop around the use of a single brush stroke (J. ippitsu 一筆), a technique dating to at least the fourteenth century.[19] Perhaps unsurprisingly, the creation of a single stroke Bodhidharma (J. ippitsu Daruma 一筆達磨) also gained in popularity. Some of the earliest versions depict a full-body Bodhidharma seated in meditation, with hood pulled over head. In an image possibly attributed to Shōkai Reiken 性海霊見 (1315-1396), the brush stroke beings at the chest of Bodhidharma and loops around his head before outlining his crossed legs. The line finishes by creating the silhouette around Bodhidharma’s shoulders and body and ends with a wavy flourish by his proper right knee. Facial features are lightly added to give the amorphous shape a more human-like appearance [Fig. 12]. By the Edo period the use of the single stroke technique emerged as a way enterprising artists could advertise their deft handling of a brush. In a collection of one stroke sketches, Hokusai himself created an image of the patriarch following a different brush path than Shōkai, yet complete with eyes peering out of a darkened hood [Fig. 13].

Figure 12

Figure 12

Attributed to Shōkai Reiken 性海霊見 (1315-1396), untitled hanging scroll, Umezawa Kinenkan 梅澤記念館 [dated 1394]

Figure 13

Figure 13

From Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), Album of Drawing with one Stroke of the Brush 傳神開手一筆畵譜 [close up][1823]

Another, more abstract method of producing a one stroke Bodhidharma also emerged. In these renderings, Bodhidharma is often depicted from the side or back, eliminating the need to draw the cloth around his legs or opening of the hood. Hakuin offers some of the most important examples of this highly minimalist expression. With a proverbial flick of his wrist, Hakuin could depict Bodhidharma sitting in meditation through a combination of straight and curved segments of a continuous line. Yet, Hakuin may have been more devious than simply rendering Bodhidharma into near oblivion. Hakuin is known to have engaged in the visual game of word-pictures (J. moji-e 文字絵), or creating visual images based on the structure or special arrangement of East Asian characters (J. kanji 漢字).[20] In the first example [Fig. 14], Bodhidharma is a highly abstracted rendering of the character nin 忍, “forbearance” (S. kṣanti). A central Buddhist virtue, the meaning of “forbearance” is also relevant to the image depicted, namely, Bodhidharma engaged in meditation for a duration of nine years. Because Hakuin was also a master as expressive “grass style” (J. sōsho 草書) calligraphy , he had a deep knowledge of the structure of characters and could manipulate the brush strokes – or in this case, a single stroke – to form a highly suggestive shape. Quite amazingly, Hakuin shows that a variety of characters could be used for this purpose of depicting a person in meditation. The second example [Fig. 15], while looking very similar to the first, is in fact a different word, gu 愚, “delusion” (S. moha)[notice the closed circles representing the head and body].[21] Often cited as one of the root mental afflictions that needs to be eliminated, the choice of “delusion” is not, at first, entirely obvious. Yet, it seems that Hakuin was not attempting to depict Bodhidharma in this instance, but the renowned Zen master, Gudō Tōshoku 愚堂東寔 (1577–1661), whose family names shares the word gu.[22] At this stage was see the humorous nature of Hakuin coming into full view, as he plays with our expectations. These vague renderings are so amorphous they are truly, as Neil McFarland has pointed out, “but a short step away from the traditional ensō, 円相 the circle signifying nothingness or emptiness.”[23]

Figure 14

Figure 14

Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686-1769), Wall-Gazing Daruma in [Shape of] the Character Nin 忍字面壁達磨図, Ginshu Collection

Figure 15

Figure 15

Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686-1769), Gu Illustration 愚字図, Jishō-ji 自性寺

Before we turn to the complete erasure of Bodhidharma’s image, let’s make an unexpected jump to postwar “superflat” pop art and see how this artistic tradition continued. In a move that was not expected based on the widespread popularity of his cartoonish smiling flowers, Japanese artist Murakami Takashi 村上隆 (b. 1962) embraced the timeworn attempt at painting the first Zen patriarch’s image.[24] Exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 2007, Murakami’s Bodhidharma took several forms, but they all reflected the canonical portrait genre first developed in the thirteenth century [Figs. 16-17]. Most notably, Murakami employed bright colors in his renderings, a sharp departure from traditional monochromatic ink wash painting, although black line-work still formed the backbone of the imagery. Most evocative are the dazzling rainbow-colored eyes of Bodhidharma, which stare hypnotically, almost mindlessly, into space. The bodily heft, protruding nose, and wild eyebrows and hair remain faithful to their visual ancestors, however, ensuring both Hakuin and Hokusai would recognize their artistic muse.

Figure 16

Figure 16

Murakami Takashi 村上隆 (b. 1962), I open wide my eyes but I see no scenery. I fix my gaze upon my heart., [2007] Photo: Peter Romaskiewicz, 2007.

Figure 17

Figure 17

Murakami Takashi 村上隆 (b. 1962), In the heart’s eye, a universe., [2007] Photo: Peter Romaskiewicz, 2007.

While some have posited that highly abstract painting to be a particular “Zen speciality,” there is also a long tradition in Chinese portraiture of trying to capture the “living spirit” (C. shen 神) of a subject beyond his manifest appearances.[25] Transcending flesh to get at the unique spirit of a person may have motivated many Bodhidharma portraitists, resulting in a variety of forms that attempted to seize upon his iconoclastic biography. Moreover, from a strict Buddhist perspective, the attempt to truly “capture” any phenomenon, in language or through visual representation, is foolhardy. The flux of an impermanent reality cannot be adequately captured in static forms. This deconstructive aspect of Buddhist emptiness rhetoric is echoed in Huakuin’s quote from the epigraph. The “original form” of Bodhidharma is precisely no form, that is why it disappears once manifested on paper. Trying to draw the Bodhidharma that cannot be drawn is an impossible quest, which is precisely why so many continue to attempt it.

Notes:

*This was written for my students in my Woodenfish 2019 students. It is used in conjuction with a classroom activity where we draw Bodhidharma. I will likely be editing this several times…

student Bodhidharma 05 [PC-Peter Romaskiewicz]

Woodenfish 2019 Bodhidharma drawings

[1] Taken with minor alterations from Seo, Addiss & Fukushima 2010: 97.

[2] The story of Hokusai’s feat was told by Kōriki Enkōan 高力猿猴庵 (1756-1831), a Nagoya artist who published an illustrated account in 1817, entitled Detailed Illustrations of Hokusai’s Large Scale Sketches 北斎大画即書細図. Another illustrated account can be found in the 1893 Biography of Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北齋傅 by Iijima Hanjūrō 飯島半十郎 (1841-1901) (See Anonymous 1898). Lastly, Odagiri Shunkō 小田切春江 (1810-1888) included the illustration Hokusai’s Image of a Colossal Bodhidharma 北斎席画の大達磨 as an appendix to his 1853 publication, The Illustrated Guide to Famous Places in Owari 尾張名所図会. Odagiri’s illustration is of Hokusai’s 1804 masterpiece, while the images in Kōriki and Iijima are derived from the 1817 event. Thankfully, the relevant text from these works is extracted and published online here: http://www.ne.jp/asahi/kato/yoshio/kobetuesi/nagoya-hokusai-daruma.html.

In 2017, on the bicentennial anniversary of Hokusai’s performance, several city institutions in Nagoya (and elsewhere in Japan) recreated the event, see e.g. https://www.asahi.com/articles/ASKCR6360KCROQIP017.html.

[3] Hokusai’s original large-scale painting was also saved, but was regrettably destroyed when Nagoya was firebombed in 1945.

[4] This name, Damo dashi 達摩大師, which is used on Hokusai’s promotional handbill, is common in Japan. It became common in China to shorten Bodhidharma’s translated name Putidamo 菩提達磨 to simply Damo 達磨, or in Japanese pronunciation, Daruma. In Japan, an honorific was sometimes added, giving us Daruma Sama 達磨様 (Mr. Daruma) or the name used by Hokusai above. Faure notes that Bodhidharma is considered among the “deities in vogue” (J. hayarigami 流行神) from the Edo period, see Faure 2011: 46, 62.

[5] It moves beyond the purposes of this essay to talk about the changing biography of Bodhidharma, of which the secondary literature is as expansive and varied as the primary sources. This notwithstanding, McRea 2014 is a good place to start.

[6] See McFarland 1986 and Faure 2011 for more innovative and risqué expressions of Bodhidharma in the Edo period.

[7] Brinker et al. 1996: 210, Seo, Addiss & Fukushima 2010: 95. Due to the standard placement of patriarch portraits in Ch’an public monasteries, odd-numbered patriarchs (with Bodhidharma counted as number one) would typically face towards the left, see Sharf & Foulk 1993: 175-6, 187 and Brinker et al. 1996: 155. We will see, however, there is a difference between the formal chinzō 頂相 portraits of eminent Zen masters and the often monochromatic images of Bodhidharma. See Sharf and Foulk 1993 for the compositional characteristics of the chinzō genre.

In addition to “bust portraits,” it also became common to depict episodes in the life of Bodhidharma, such as “Wall Gazing Bodhidharma” (C. mianbi Damo; J. menpeki Daruma面壁達磨), “Reed Bodhidharma” (C. luye Damo, J. royō Daruma 蘆葉達磨), and “Single Shoe Bodhidharma” (C. zhilü Damo, J. sekiri Daruma隻履達磨)[NB: While this imagery appears to have originally developed in China, art historians tend to solely use the Japanese to denotes these particular artistic renderings]. Except for the highly stylized Wall-Gazing Bodhidharma, I will not be addressing these latter artistic forms here. The history of Bodhidharma in Korea is being studied by Beatrix Mecsi in several publications.

[8] Sharf and Foulk (1993) speculate that a portrait of Bodhidhamra may have been installed in the Hall of Seven Patriarchs 七祖堂 constructed by Puji 普寂 (651-739) at Shaolin Temple 少林寺in the attempt to position his master, Shenxiu 神秀 (606?-706), as the principal Dharma heir of Hongren 弘忍 (600-674)(see esp. p. 172). Additionally, it is known that Shenhui 神慧 (684-758) constructed his own Portrait Hall 真堂 around 752, commemorating the unbroken line of succession back to Bodhidharma, see Sharf & Foulk 1993: 174-5. It remains unknown what these portraits may have looked like. The Dunhuang version of the Platform Sutra (c. 830), however, notes that placed in a three section corridor 三間房廊 of Hongren’s temple were “paintings of the five great patriarchs transmitting the robe and Dharma” 畫五祖大師傳授衣法 (T.2007.337b18-9). While there is no reason to take this as a true reflection of Hongren’s temple, it may recall the images installed previously by Puji and Shenhui. In any case, the transmission of the robe from master to disciple is the iconic event captured in the purported illustrations, not merely a portrait of a Zen master. For a brief discussion on these early transmission depictions see Lachman 1994: 245-253.

[9] We also see Huike’s severed left arm on the ground, reflecting the widespread story of his attempt to garner Bodhidharma favor. An analysis of these older images of Bodhidharma can be found in Chapin 1945 and Lachman 1994.

[10] Paul (2009) argues that Chan (Zen) “eccentric monks” 異僧, such as Hanshan 寒山, Shide 拾得, and Budai 布袋, developed their iconic features during the Southern Song and Yuan, comprising a unique category of visual representation (see esp. pp. 65-6). While Paul separates Chan eccentrics from orthodox patriarchs such as Bodhidharma, the late Song and early Yuan seems to be a fertile period for exploring these new eccentric visual paradigms for Buddhist figures. Faure (1991) also seems to bracket the “trickster” figures of Hanshan, Shide, and Budai from the “thaumaturge” Bodhidharma (see esp. pp. 115-8), but it would seem that Bodhidharma represents a more complex meld of idealized types, especially in terms of his visual portrayal. Additionally, the development of the image of Bodhidharma seems to have occurred with the emergence of “Śākyamuni Emerging from the Mountains” (C. chushan Shijia, J. shussan Shaka 出山釋迦) motif, especially in relation to the “Reed Bodhidharma” motif, see Brinker 1973b and Brinker et al. 1996: 150-1.

[11] The hanging scroll from Myōshin-ji 妙心寺 is sometimes listed as part of a triptych 三幅 by Li Que 李確 [v.l.](active mid-13th century), consisting of the additional scrolls depicting Fengang 豊干 and Budai 布袋. Brinker et al. 1996 lists it as anonymous (pp. 210-11, cf. 220-1).

[12] Traditionally, Bodhidharma is considered to have originated from Southern India 南天竺, although older Chinese sources claim he is from Bosi 波斯 (a region in the Hindu Kush), mistakenly taken to be Persia by later scholars, see McRea 2014: 130 (and footnote therein).

[13] The older images of Bodhidharma engaging in the drama of patriarchal succession likely developed among debates over claims to the authentic one-to-one lineage transmission (see note above). These newer images of Bodhidharma, placing an emphasis on his appearance, no longer function with the same visual rhetoric. While they still carry an import vis-à-vis lineage transmission, they also firmly announce the iconoclastic persona of Bodhidharma that evolved in Chan literature. One might speculate that Bodhidharma’s presence no longer spoke to an internal Tang-era Chan debate over authentic lineage, but to external Song-era critiques of a supposed “wordless” Chan transmission stemming back to the Buddha himself.

[14] Alternative dates of 1685-1768 are sometimes used since Hakuin was born and died at the end of twelfth month of the lunar calendar.

[15] According to Hakuin, he burned his entire collection of artwork and calligraphy in his twenties. This portrait of Bodhidharma remains his oldest extant work, see Aviman 2014: 36. For more on Hakuin’s changing Bodhidharma styles, see Aviman 2014 and Seo, Addiss & Fukushima 2010: 95-104. A third portrait which is conveniently dated to Hakuin’s age 83 provides a nice trajectory for the evolution of his work, see e.g. Aviman 2014: 43.

[16] The symbolic importance of this shape, kokoro 心, is examined in Yoshizawa & Waddell 2009: 207-12.

[17] McFarland 1986: 168 also notes this important factor in the artistic tradition of depicting Bodhidharma.

[18] When tinted, Bodhidharma is most often presented wearing a bright red robe, a pictographic tradition stemming back to the thirteenth century. In the Edo period, Bodhidharma’s association with the color red helped recast him as a smallpox deity, see Faure 2011.

[19] McFarland 1986: 184.

[20] I am unsure if moji-e, which typically uses a fast cursive script that is often made with a single line, would formally qualify as ippitsu. It seems Hakuin’s work is sometimes categorized under both.

[21] Hakuin is known to have used even a third character in these abstract representations of Bodhidharma, in (or kakushi) 隱, “concealed” (Seo, Adiss & Fukushima 2010 use in, while Onishi 2014 uses kakushi). Taken from Hakuin’s own name, he would omit the kozato 阝 radial to produce a the shape of a person in meditation. This person is believed to be Hakuin himself, see Onishi 2014:63. Notice all characters, nin, gu, and in have a “heart” (kokoro 心) radical at their base, allowing Hakuin to use it to represent the flowing hem of the robe.

[22] See Seo, Adiss & Fukushima 2010: 201 and Onishi 2014: 63.

[23] McFarland 1986: 184.

[24] Murakami’s depictions of Bodhidharma, as their relation to “Zen art,” have been touched upon briefly by Levine 2017. Murakami also painted another traditional episode in the life of Bodhidharma, “Huike Amputating His Arm” (C. Huike duanbi, J. Eka danpi 慧可断臂). To produce this image Murakami reproduced a closely cropped image or Huike’s arm from the famous painting by Sesshū 雪舟 (1420-1506) at Sainen-ji斎年寺.

[25] The category of “Zen art,” often thought as an spontaneous expression of No Mind 無心, has recently been examined by the works of Gregory Levine, see e.g. Levine 2017. I quote the infelicitous wording of McFarland (1986: 186) as but one example of the widespread belief that Zen and art share a special relationship. Sharf & Foulk (1993, esp. pp.158-63, 202-6) outline the basic concerns in Chinese and Chan/Zen art regarding the tensions between representation and reality.

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  • Brinker, Helmut, Hiroshi Kanazawa, and Andreas Leisinger. 1996. Zen Masters of Meditation in Images and Writings. Zurigo: Artibus Asiae Publishers.
  • Bush, Susan H., and Mair, Victor 1977/78. “Some Buddhist Portraits and Images of the Lu and Ch’an Sects in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century China.” Archives of Asian Art, Vol. 31, pp. 32-51.
  • Chapin, Helen. 1946 “Three Early Portraits of Bodhidharma.” Archives of the Chinese Art Society of America, Vol. 1, No. 66-67, pp. 75-78.
  • Faure, Bernard. 1986. Le Taité de Bodhidharma: Première anthologie du bouddhisme Chan. Paris: Seuil.
  • Faure, Bernard. 2011. “From Bodhidharma to Daruma: the Hidden Life of a Zen Patriarch,” Japan Review, Vol. 32, pp. 45-71.
  • Fontein, Jan and Hickman, Money L. 1970. Zen Painting & Calligraphy: An Exhibition of Works of Art Lent by Temples, Private Collectors, and Public and Private Museums in Japan, Organized in Collaboration with the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Japanese Government. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts. [not consulted]
  • Foulk, T. Griffith and Sharf, Robert H. 1993. “On the Ritual Use of Ch’an Portraiture in Medieval China.” Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, Vol. 7, pp. 149-219.
  • Kido Chūtarō 木戶忠太郎. 1932. Daruma to sono shosō 達磨と其諸相 [Bodhidharma and His Appearances]. Tokyo: Heigo Shuppan-sha. [Classic work on the evolution of Daruma in popular culture, not consulted; this work is outlined in Chapin 1945]
  • Lachman, Charles. 1993. “Why Did the Patriarch Cross the River? The Rushleaf Bodhidharma Reconsidered.” Asia Major, Vol. 6, pp. 237-68.
  • Levine, Gregory. 2017. Long Strange Journey: On Modern Zen, Zen Art, and Other Predicaments. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
  • Levine, Gregory, Yukio Lippit, Naomi Noble Richard, and Melanie B. D. Klein. 2007. Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan. New York: Japan Society. [not consulted]
  • McRae, John R. 2014. “The Hagiography of Bodhidharma: Reconstructing the Point of Origin of Chinese Chan Buddhism,” in Indian in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought, John Kieschnick and Meir Shahar, eds.), pp. 125-138. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • McFarland, H. Neil 1986. “Feminine Motifs in Bodhidharma Symbology in Japan.” Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 14, pp. 167–91.
  • McFarland, H. Neill (1987). Daruma: The Founder of Zen in Japanese Art and Popular Culture. Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International Ltd. [not consulted]
  • Onishi Masanari 尾西正成. 2014. “Hakuin Ekaku ‘menpeki daruma’ to moji-e no shūhen 白隠慧鶴「面壁達磨」と文字絵の周辺 [“Wall-Gazing Bodhidharma” by Hakuin Ekaku and the Edges of Pictorial Calligraphy].” Shogaku shodō-shi kenkyū書学書道史研究 [Calligraphic Studies], Vol. 24, pp. 59-73,117-116.
  • Paul, Paramita. 2009. “Wandering Saints: Chan Eccentrics in the Art and Culture of Song and Yuan China.” PhD dissertation, Leiden University.
  • Seo, Audrey Yoshiko, Addiss, Stephen and Fukushima Keido. 2010. The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin. Boston, Mass: Shambhala. [Also see https://www.lacma.org/art/exhibition/sound-one-hand-paintings-and-calligraphy-zen-master-hakuin]
  • Yoshizawa, Katsuhiro, and Waddell, Norman. 2009. The Religious Art of Zen Master Hakuin. Berkeley, Calif: Counterpoint.

A Primer on Chinese Pagodas: The Vajra Throne Pagoda 金剛寶座塔

[Click here for the first post on pagodas]

Architecturally, East Asian pagodas are far more diverse than one might assume. Because of this diversity, Chinese art historians have developed several typologies to sort the varied pagoda structures. One categorization, based on architectural style, includes the following six types [depicted left to right below]:

  • Overturned Bowl Style Pagoda 覆缽式塔
  • Multistory Pavilion Style Pagoda 樓閣式塔
  • Tiered Eave Style Pagoda 簷式塔
  • Single Story Style Pagoda 單層式塔 [=亭閣式塔?]
  • Tibetan Style Pagoda 藏式塔
  • Vajra Throne Style Pagoda 金剛寶座式塔[1]
p5-04.jpg

Illustrations of the Six-fold typology of Chinese pagodas (from FGS Encyclopedia of Buddhist Arts)

Of these, the first is the classical Indian stūpa, whose round body appears as if a begging bowl has been overturned. The next two have the iconic pagoda profile of a multistory tower accentuated by jutting eaves. The distinction is that the latter is not a true multistory structure because it cannot be ascended via an internal stairway. The fourth type consists of just a single story, while the fifth type is a later evolution of the Indic style, with a elevated and smaller circumference of the dome element. The last type, the Vajra Throne Style Pagoda, is a stylized version of the Mahābodhi Temple constructed on the site of Buddha’s enlightenment (i.e the Vajra seat or throne) in Bodh Gāya, India. This post will focus on this last type of pagoda which is arguably the most distinctive of the six types noted above, being comprised of five spires atop a square foundation.

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Vajra Throne Pagoda 金剛寶座塔 at Zhenjue Temple 真覺寺 in Beijing

The Mahābodhi Temple in India was likely constructed in the late sixth or early seventh century. This dating is suggested based on the reports of two Chinese pilgrims who visited the site. Faxian 法顯 (337-c. 422), who visited Bodh Gāya in the early fifth century, made no mention of the large structure, while Xuanzang 玄奘 (602-664), who travelled in the middle of the seventh century, comments on the precise measurements of the temple he found which coincides with the temple that remains there today.[2] An early Chinese representation of the Mahābodhi Temple is found in the murals of the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang 敦煌 in western China.[3] Eventually, several Mahābodhi Temple-inspired buildings were constructed in China, mostly during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).[4] The most important, completed in 1473, was built at Zhenjue Temple 真覺寺 in Beijing.

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Vajra Throne Pagoda 金剛寶座塔 at Zhenjue Temple 真覺寺 in Beijing

This last site is also called the Temple of the Five Pagodas 五塔寺 due to the appearance of the Mahābodhi Temple-inspired building which incorporates five pagodas into its architecture. The Chinese pagoda is named the Vajra Throne Pagoda 金剛寶座塔 after the traditional site where the Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gāya, called the vajrāsana (Vajra Throne). Construction of the pagoda at Zhenjue Temple began during the reign of the Ming Emperor Yongle (r.1402-24) when a Buddhist monk named *Paṇḍita [?] 班迪達 from the “Western Regions” donated five Buddhist statues which the emperor instructed were to be housed in a special structure. He ordered that a pagoda be built that matched the architectural plans of the building found at the site of the vajrāsana. A horizontal plaque above the main entrance still reads “Imperially Constructed Vajra Throne Pagoda” 敕建金剛寶座塔. The pagoda was renovated during the Qing Dynasty, but is believed to retain some of the original structural elements. The square base of the Vajra Throne Pagoda is approximately 19 meters by 16 meters, and is about 8 meters high. This functions as a pedestal for five pagoda structures, each for one of the donated statues, of which the tallest central pagoda adds another 10 meters to the total height. These individual pagodas are each of the square, multi-eaved type. In addition a round terrace is placed in the center front, covering the top of a stairway that grants access to the top of the structure.

The sides of the main structure are ornately decorated with Buddhist images and symbols. Most of the space is covered by five horizontal registers which depict various  buddhas.

 

 

* This post was written as an addendum to the lecture I gave on Sacred Buddhist Architecture at the 2018 Woodenfish.

Notes

[1] This is based on the Encyclopedia of Buddhist Arts published by Foguang Shan, found here. Other typologies may include the Road Spanning Style Pagoda 過街式塔, Sutra Pillar Style Pagoda 經幢式塔, and Flower Pagoda 華塔, among others. Some consider the Tibetan Style Pagoda a subtype of the Overturned Bowl Style Pagoda. Moreover, it seems the Pavillion Style Pagoda 亭閣式塔 is another name for the Single Story Style Pagoda, though I need to revisit this.

[2] Faxian arrived in Bodh Gāya in 409 and noted that a stūpa was found there, presumably an early structure built on the site. Xuanzang arrived in 637 and his descriptions and measurements match the building that remains today. See the comments in Cunningham 1892: 17-8.

[3] Found on the western wall of Cave 428.

[4] These include the pagodas of Biyun Temple 碧雲寺 in Beijing (completed in 1747), Xihuang Temple 西黃寺 in Beijing, Miaozhan Temple 妙湛寺 in Yunnan (built in 1458), Cideng Temple 慈燈寺 in Inner Mongolia (completed in 1732), and Zhenjue Temple discussed here. To this list can be added the Miaogao Pagoda 妙高塔 on Mt. Yuquan 玉泉山 in Beijing. It is worth noting that the famed Chinese architect Liang Sicheng, considered the Flower Pagoda to be a architectural precusor to the Vajra Throne Pagoda.

References
  • 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,” [https://chinesearchitecture.wordpress.com/2017/05/29/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” [https://chinesearchitecture.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/a-grain-of-sand-miniatures-as-sacred-repositories-part-ii-the-huayansi-sutra-cabinets/]
  • Di Luo. 2017. “A Grain of Sand: Miniatures, Models, Simulacra” [https://chinesearchitecture.wordpress.com/2017/06/04/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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Every so often we stumble across a piece of art that lingers in our 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 above, the sight of sound. The thirteenth century image of Kūya 空也 (903-972), an itinerant Japanese Buddhist priest, resolves this issue elegantly by portraying a string of six miniature buddhas emerging from his mouth. Kūya is shown in the act of devotional chanting, or more specifically, singing the praise of Amitābha Buddha [Fig. 1]. This buddha, different from our historical Buddha, resides in another world, in a paradise known throughout East Asia as the Pure Land (jingtu 淨土 in Chinese), where Amitābha 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.

www.metmuseum.org:art:collection:search:40448.jpg

Fig. 1. 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 South Asian Theravāda, (Japanese) Zen, and Tibetan forms being the most common. To these we may also add the recent surge in Thai and Burmese derived “mindfulness” meditation practices. Moreover, we may also point to the apparent overlap of Pure Land ideas with Christian ideas of Heaven as another reason Westerners seeking “alternative spiritual paths” have shown less interest in Pure Land practices (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 directly out of the earliest Buddhist traditions. Even a cursory understanding of this history will better situate anyone who visits a contemporary Buddhist monastery in East Asia or aspires to better understand Buddhist practice around the world.

If we take the current scholarly estimate of when the historical Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, 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 [Fig. 2], and will continue to do indefinitely into the future, as one of his many attributes is that he has an infinite lifespan, thus forever granting  admittance into his paradise.

Western Paradise of the Buddha Amitabha Sculpture

Fig. 2. 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 often fickle.

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 East Asian 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 throughout 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 (my favorite has always been that birds do not chirp, but directly sing the Buddha’s teachings). 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.

DP211534.jpg

Fig. 3. 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 [Fig. 3]. 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 East Asian 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 阿彌陀佛, 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 [Fig. 4].

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.

 

IMG_6190

Fig. 4. “The Pure Land is Supreme Bliss” – Monastic ‘graffiti’ at Zhaoming Temple, Fuding, China, 2018 (during the Woodenfish Program).

*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

[Click here for the second post on pagodas]

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!

Notes

[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.

References
  • 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,” [https://chinesearchitecture.wordpress.com/2017/05/29/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” [https://chinesearchitecture.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/a-grain-of-sand-miniatures-as-sacred-repositories-part-ii-the-huayansi-sutra-cabinets/]
  • Di Luo. 2017. “A Grain of Sand: Miniatures, Models, Simulacra” [https://chinesearchitecture.wordpress.com/2017/06/04/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.

 

Writing Process

Last week, Prof. James Benn came to UCSB to discuss his new work on the relationship between Chinese Buddhism and tea. While here, he also offered a “masterclass” on writing and research practices for graduate students, which turned out to be exceptional.

While graduate students often take research and methodology courses (there are also several of archives of classes like this online), this class was particularly insightful because we discussed an all-too-often overlooked aspect of writing: paying close attention to workflow and the tools we use in the writing/research process.

My typical writing workflow proceeds as follows: Pile open books on desk, floor, or any other open space, open pertinent pdf files on my laptop and start typing on MS Word. I use a laptop computer with external monitor, and typically place my pdfs and online resources on the external monitor while I type on my laptop screen. (At this point I cannot imagine working with only one screen…)

I use MS Word, but Prof. Benn highly recommended using Scrivener, a tool developed to foster more open-ended process-friendly writing. As I see it, this helps a writer move away from linear thinking which can cripple the generative writing process. Combined with Evernote, specialized note taking software, I am starting to rethink how I approach my process of writing. Currently, I save everything in numerous MS Word files, but these programs seem to streamline the entire process. At the very least I may not need to have dozens of Word file windows open at the same time; all of the information can be sorted by tabs in Scrivener or Evernote. I hope to experiment with these programs and see if it motivates me to write more frequently…