‘windows of infinity: the employment of mirrors in heian and kamakura buddhist art

Download ‘Windows of Infinity: The employment of mirrors in Heian and Kamakura Buddhist art

Post on 25-Jul-2015




0 download

Embed Size (px)


‘Windows  of  Infinity’:  With  reference  to  works  in  a  variety  of  mediums,  trace,  examine   and  discuss  the  employment  of  mirrors  in  Heian  and  Kamakura  Buddhist  art.                                                   Freddie  Matthews      1      2  This essay traces the employment of mirrors in Heian (794-1185 C.E.) and K


Windows of Infinity: With reference to works in a variety of mediums, trace, examine and discuss the employment of mirrors in Heian and Kamakura Buddhist art. Freddie Matthews


If one upholds the Lotus Sutra his body will be very pure And it will be like a pure bright mirror in which forms and shapes are all reflected. -The Lotus Sutra, Chapter 19.


This essay traces the employment of mirrors in Heian (794-1185 C.E.) and Kamakura (1185-1333 C.E.) Buddhist art, illustrating the significance of these objects within the ritualistic, devotional and decorative religious landscape of the period, as well as their didactic role in articulating emerging patterns of metaphysical thought and understanding. Examples are taken from a variety of different mediums, and often united into groups for the purpose of illustrating common themes and stylistic variations. Given that glass mirrors were not introduced to Japan until after the Meiji restoration (1868 C.E.), all reference to mirrors refers to those essentially made of bronze with tin or mercury added to their surface.

The image of the mirror (Jp: Kagami; Ch: Ching; Sk: Adarsa) has a long tradition of philosophical potency within Buddhist discourse, not just in Chinese and Central Asian sources, but in Indian ones as well.i Similarly, the Hky (Jp: ), literally, mirror treasure, or eye of wisdom () as it came to be known as in Japan, has been foundational to Japanese cultural identity since its earliest time of formation. It was not until the Heian (794-1185 C.E.) and Kamakura (1185-1333 C.E.) periods however, that this potent visual symbol was refined, articulated and propagated within the context of native Buddhist art.

The earliest bronze mirrors to enter Japan are believed to be those imported from Han China (206 B.C.E.220 C.E.), often being found in Yayoi tomb excavations where they are considered symbols of authority;1 their presence typically indicating the burial of influential individuals2 and important clan leaders.3ii During the Kofun period, there was a considerable increase in the number of buried mirrors4 found in Japan illustrating the start of domestic mirror production, which emerged alongside a sustained flow of Chinese importations.5iii Rather than simple vanity implements however, these mirrors carried profound spiritual significance within Japan, for when united with the sword (Jp: ) and magatama jewel (Jp: ); the mirror completed the Sanshu no jingi (Jp: ; Three Sacred Treasures/ Imperial Regalia) of classical Japanese mythology. iv

Harris, Victor; Smith, Lawrence; and Clark, Timothy. 1990. Japanese Art: Masterpieces in the British Museum. British Museum Publications, London., p. 138 2 Kakuda, Yoshiko. 1991. The Art of Japan: Masterworks in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco., p. 52. 3 Cunningham, Michael R. Eds. 1998. Buddhist Treasures from Nara. The Cleveland Museum of Art. Hudson Hills Press, New York., p. 176. 4 Kakuda. Op cit., p. 53. 5 Yoshikawa, Itsuji. 1976. Major Themes in Japanese Art. Nikovskis, Amins (Trans). Heibonsha, Tokyo., p. 16.1


Despite this, the spiritual efficacy of these mirrors was largely considered to reside in their continental sources, and it was not long until Buddhist concepts and ideas began to accompany them from abroad. By the Asuka (538-710 C.E.) and certainly Nara (710-794 C.E.) period, Buddhism had captured the Japanese spiritual imagination. Reliant though on their Western neighbours for initiation into this captivating doctrine, full scale borrowing from China6 took place in this period, leading to the official brand of Buddhism eventually established in Nara in the 8th century being, little more than a transplantation of Chinese forms to Japan.7 Central to this essay, these Buddhist 'foundations were that of the Huayan (Flower Garland) school (Ch: ; Jp: ; Kegon); a sect that was emphatic about the interpenetrability or mutual identification among all phenomena,8 with the image of the mirror residing at the very centre of its universalistic creed.v

The popularity of this school back in China stemmed from a peculiar fascination on behalf of the Chinese Imperial court, of all things mirror-related.9vi See FIG. 1a. Most notorious of these rulers was Empress Wu Zetian (624-705 C.E.); the self-appointed Chakravartin (Buddhist Universal Ruler) of the Tang dynasty (618-906 C.E.), whose unabated passion for mirrored spaces,10 was cultivated by her Buddhist preceptor Fazang (643-712 C.E.); himself the founder of Huayan orthodoxy11 who eminently taught his students the concepts of Interpenetration and Interdependence using a circular mirror installation, such as the one shown in FIG. 1b. Schlombs has celebrated this metaphorical device as; The concrete expression of the most important insights of this philosophy: [that is] nothing exists independently of other things, the part and the whole are standing in a relationship of mutual interdependence.12 Given the prolific construction of countless such mirror halls in Chinese temples after this point (such as at the Jianfu Monastery in the Tang capital of Changan13), future generations of Japanese monks travelling to China would no doubt have been saturated by this compelling metaphysical conception during their stay on the continent.

Kobayashi, Takeshi. 1975. Nara Buddhist Art: Todai-ji. Gage. Gage, Richard L (Trans). Weatherhill, New York., p. 11. 7 Dobbins, James C, in Seattle Art Museum Exhibition Catalogue. 1987. A Thousand Cranes: Treasures of Japanese Art. Chronicle Books, San Francisco., p. 31. 8 Wang, Eugene Yuejin. 2007. Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture in Medieval China. University of Washington Press., p. 257. 9 Ibid., p. 256. 10 Ibid., p. 259. 11 Hamar, Imre. 2007. Reflecting Mirrors: Perspectives on Huayan Buddhism. Harrassowitz Verlag. p. xvii. 12 Schlombs, Herausgegben von Adele. 1999. In Licht des Groben Buddha: Schatze des Todaiji Tempels, Nara. Museum fur Ostasiatische Kunst der Stadt Koln., p. 48. 13 Wang, Op cit., p. 257.6


FIG. 1a: Example of court and religious usage of mirror-halls. Woodblock print illustration of chapter 31 of The Romance of Emperor Yang of Sui. Chinese Ming Dynasty; 1631. Rale Book Collection, HarvardYenching Library. In Wang, (2007), p. 258 FIG. 1b: Modern reconstruction of Fazangs mirror installation by Boston artist, Victoria I. Based on the medieval Chinese description. In Wang, (2007), p. 259.

FIG. 2: The Mahvairocana statue of Tdaoiji seen through the doors of the Great Buddha Hall. Detail from the picture scroll entitled Shigisan Engi Legends of Shigisan Temple, Late Heian Period; 12th Century. In Mason, (2005). p.69.


The mirrors pivotal importance to the Huayan/Kegon brand of Buddhism imported to Nara is epitomized by the fact that, not only was the actual statue of Mahvairocana at Tdaoiji () substantially composed of several thousand melted down bronze mirrors, but also that in a picture scroll dated to the late Heian period entitled, Shigisan Engi (Legends of Shigisan Temple), we find the statue clearly flanked by two circular mirrors either side of a lantern at its base.vii See FIG. 2. The dating of this picture scroll is evidence enough that by the time of Heian period, the doctrinal centrality of the mirror had been faithfully sustained in Japan. Furthermore, unlike during the somewhat spiritually superficial Nara period, the Heian period gave rise to a wealth of discourses on key Buddhist themes and ideas, with the mirror image frequently at their centre. In his seminal treatise Benkenmitsu nikron (Distinguishing the Two Teachings of the Exoteric and Esoteric), the Shingon () monk Kkai (774-835 C.E.) noted that through the mirrors reflection, subject and object, self and other, become mutually interactive and mutually constructing.14 This statement alone demonstrates that in the poetic landscape of the Heian period, the mirrors metaphorical symbolism had been readily assimilated into contemporary Buddhist discourse.

With this in mind, it is tantalizing to consider the abundance of repetition/reflection motifs appearing throughout the entire trajectory of Heian Buddhist art. Indeed, as Eugene Wang has claimed, it is no coincidence that multiple limbed depictions of Avalokitevara (Jp: Kannon; ) originating in India, suddenly gained popularity at this time,15viii in light of the mirrors symbolic potency throughout East Asian Buddhist discourse. With explicit clarity, the very concept of infinite repetitions through a singular reflection was elicited through the 1000 identical reflections of a single Avalokitevara sculpture (totaling 1001 statues) constructed at the Sanjsangend Temple () in the Heian capital of modern day Kyot. See FIG. 3. At this point also, it is relevant to note that the mirror is one of the key attributes of Senju Kannon, who carries it, in her fifth right hand.16 See FIG. 4a-c. One 12th century painting of this Bodhisattva depicts this attribute with exquisite finesse, although leaving the reflection of its face empty, almost as if referencing Avalokitevaras pivotal words to riputra in the Heart Sutra; Form is emptiness, emptiness form. See FIG. 4b. Similarly, the mirror is the distinctive attribute of Ashuku Nyorai, (Akshobhya Buddha), embodying his unshakeable Mirror Knowledge (Jp: daienkychi). 17 However, like

Kkai, in Bogel, Cynthea J. 2009. With a Single Glanze: Buddhist Icon and Early Mikky Vision. University of Washington Press., p. 37. 15 Wang. Op cit., p. 257. 16 Saunders, E. Dale. 1985. Mudr: A Study of Symbolic Gestures in Japanese Buddhist Sculpture. Princeton University Press. P. 253. 17 Saunders. Op cit., p. 165.14