Heian Period (794-1185)

Under the influence of Tang-dynasty art in the preceding Nara period, Buddhist images had been produced in abundance using various types of materials. In the Heian period, however, wood was deemed as the most appropriate for the Japanese environment and sensibility.

In the history of Japanese sculpture, the Heian period represents a consistent period of wood sculpture but shows a development from the "single-woodblock construction" (ichiboku-zukuri) technique of its early years to Jocho's perfection of the "joined wood construction" (yosegi-zukuri) technique commonly used after the mid-11th century. Examples of the characteristically weighty one-piece construction technique are the Yakushi Nyorai at Jingoji Temple near Kyoto, the Yakushi Nyorai at Shin Yakushiji Temple in Nara, the 11-headed Kannon at Hokkeji Temple in Nara, and the 11-headed Kannon at Kogenji Temple in Shiga Prefecture. During this period esoteric Buddhism became very popular and Esoteric Buddhist images were produced in great numbers, most frequently for temples in Kyoto.

The 21 sculptures in the Lecture Hall (Kodo) of the esoteric Shingon sect's Toji Temple in Kyoto were produced in accordance with the bold notion of expressing a mandala in three-dimensional form, and most of the sculptures may be said to have a very dynamic appearance. Sensuous expressions like that of the Nyoirin Kannon at Kanshinji Temple in Osaka are another characteristic of Esoteric Buddhist images.

In the later Heian period, the Amida faith spread among the aristocracy, and with growing demand for new temples and new Buddhist images, a division of labor took place in the production of Buddhist sculptures. For example, as mentioned above, the sculptor Jocho perfected a revolutionary new technique known as yosegi-zukuri which enabled sculptures to be made of several almost imperceptibly interlocking pieces. This was not only a technical innovation but also incorporated, in the treatment of Buddhist images' faces and bodies, the trends and tastes of the times. Jocho's only remaining work, however, is the image of Amida Nyorai in the Phoenix Hall of Byodoin near Kyoto. The style of Buddhist sculpture for which Jocho was responsible is called the "Jocho style," and it inspired many Buddhist sculptures produced in Japan in later years.

(1) Images in the Lecture Hall of Toji Temple
Heian period, 9th century
(Toji Temple, Kyoto Prefecture)

The groups of Buddhist images in the Toji Lecture Hall (Kodo) are, in the central area, 5 nyorai with Dainichi Nyorai in the center; in the eastern area, 5 bodhisattvas with Kongo Haramitsu Bosatsu in the center; and, in the western area, 5 myoo (kings of light or wisdom) with Fudo Myoo in the center. At the west and east ends are images of Bonten and Taishakuten. Counting the images of the Four Deva Kings (Shitenno) in the four corners, there are a total of 21 images. The layout of these images comprises a unique sort of three-dimensional "mandala world" conceived by the famous monk Kobo Daishi. He invested much effort in the completion of the Lecture Hall, including both his own ideas and principles of esoteric Buddhism he brought back from a visit to Tang China. A part of the building and the images were damaged by fire and later restored.

Photo 1: Fudo Myoo.

(2) Interior of the Phoenix Hall at Byodoin
Heian period, 11th century
Height of Amida Nyorai 283.9 cm
(Byodoin, Kyoto Prefecture)

The head and body of the central image of Amida Nyorai, made by Jocho, in 1053 is aesthetically well-proportioned. The face seems to overflow with a gentle expression of compassion. The folds of light clothing are simply expressed and harmonize with the gentle contours of the body. The Jocho style for Buddhist images, which seems to have exactly suited Japanese sensibilities, had a long-lasting influence over succeeding centuries. The more than 50 small sculptures attached to the wall in the area surrounding the Amida Nyorai image represent bodhisattvas accompanying Amida to welcome departing souls to the Pure Land Paradise. They are seen performing music with instruments they hold in their hands.

(3) Nine Seated Figures of Amida Nyorai
Heian period, 11th century
Height of the center image 224.2 cm
(Joruriji Temple, Kyoto Prefecture)

These images are arranged in a row in a long, narrow Amida Hall facing a garden pond at a remote forested setting between Nara and Kyoto. The center image of Amida Nyorai, which exhibits a raigo mudra (hand position) to welcome departing souls to the Pure Land Paradise, is flanked on each side by four smaller Amida images. All of them show joyful faces, and although the sculpturing is in low relief, the faces and bodies suggest a strong-willed spirit, contributing to the general feeling of munificence. These 11th century (or early 12th century) sculptures were made by a sculptor of Buddhist images who was influenced by the Jocho style. His name (or their names), however, is/are unknown. In the same building are images of the Four Deva Kings (Shitenno). The Amida Hall, the Buddhist images, and the garden form a graceful and spiritually refreshing complex that is one of the best examples we have of Buddhist art from the Fujiwara era (as the latter part of the Heian period is often designated).

(4) Furuzono Stone Buddhist Images
Heian period, 11th-12th century
(Usuki City, Oita Prefecture)

These Buddhist images are cut into natural cliff-like stone formations of lava and tufa originating from eruptions of the nearby volcano Mt. Aso. This type of stone is soft and easily eroded by water but is easy to carve. This Furuzono group of Buddhist depictions, which belongs to the Usuki sekibutsu (Usuki Buddhist stone images), is relatively well-preserved. Among the 4 groups which comprise the Usuki Sekibutsu, the Furuzono group has the largest number of images, including representations of Dainichi Nyorai, Amida triads, Fudo Myoo, etc. Details about the origins of these carvings are unknown, but they are considered to have especially high artistic value among Japan's various Buddhist stone images (sekibutsu) and to reflect a highly developed regional culture. They were originally colored.