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Buddhas of the Henro: Shaka Nyorai

Traveling to stand

in Shakyamuni's presence

on the Holy Peak,

even ten-thousand misdeeds

will be washed away, they say.

Hymn of Ryōzen-ji, Temple 1

The first deity we encounter on the pilgrimage is the one who started it all. Referred to in Japanese as “Shaka Nyorai,” in English he is often referenced simply as “the Buddha.” Shaka is the Japanese pronunciation of “Shakya,” the clan into which he was born in northern India in the 6th Century B.C. Nyorai (“thus come”) is the Sino-Japanese rendering of “tathagata,” a term used for beings who have attained the highest level of Awakening. His most common epithet, “the Buddha,” simply means “the Enlightened One.”

He was born as Siddhartha Gautama, the eldest son of a princely family. At his birth a sage prophesied that he would either be a world-conquering king or a world-changing spiritual teacher. Desperate to keep his son from becoming an ascetic (in his mind, a lousy dropout), his father kept Siddhartha within the walls of his palace and poured every luxury on him. 

In spite of this life of comfort, Siddhartha felt an unshakeable sense of dissatisfaction, and ventured beyond the palace walls. There he encountered the reality of the world, seeing people suffering from sickness, old age, and death. Realizing he couldn’t escape this fate any more than the rest of us, he left his family and became a homeless ascetic, nearly killing himself with punishing austerities. After years of this sort of practice, he realized that this, too, was a dead end. He eventually sat himself under a tree and resolved not to arise until he found the answers he was looking for. 

Eventually, Siddhartha had a breakthrough, an experience of Awakening which transformed him from a normal man into the Buddha. He arose from his seat under the tree and began a decades-long teaching career, earning him the moniker “Shakyamuni,” “the Sage of the Shakya Clan.” His death at the age of 80 is considered to signify his attainment of Nirvana, the final stage of Enlightenment. 

All Sutras, Buddhist scriptures, are held to be accounts of the Buddha’s preaching. The hundreds of texts which comprise the Buddhist corpus range from the utterly simple to the downright psychedelic. According to the view traditionally held in Japan, this enormous variety arises from the Buddha providing different levels of teaching according to the capacity and needs of his audience, a concept known as “skillful means.” He is considered both to be a human being who lived, taught, and died, as well as a figure of cosmic importance, a living expression of the enlightenment inherent in all of reality.

The names assigned to each of the four prefectures along the Shikoku Henro refer to the stages of Siddhartha’s life: Aspiration to Enlightenment, Ascetic Training, Bodhi (Enlightenment), and Nirvana. 

What’s he look like?

Shakyamuni’s earliest followers refrained from depicting him, instead building stupas which enshrined relics, such as bits of his bone, teeth, or clothing. These stupas developed into the pagodas commonly seen in Japanese temples. Some of these, like the one at Chikurin-ji in Kōchi prefecture, still serve as repositories for relics of the Buddha brought from temples in South Asia.

If people depicted him in this early period, it was via signs of his absence, such as an empty seat under a tree, an uninhabited canopy, or a pair of footprints. These footprints are still a common symbol of Buddhism throughout Southeast Asia, and have become popular in Japanese temples as well. 

As Hellenic artistic traditions spread across India starting in the 3rd Century BC, sculptural depictions of the Buddha himself, as well as a huge variety of other enlightened beings and deities, became popular. Images from this period include that of the “Fasting Bodhisattva,” a depiction of an emaciated Siddhartha from his period of asceticism. An impressive modern example of this sculpture can be seen at the Inner Sanctuary of Ishite-ji in Matsuyama.

These Greco-Indian sculptural traditions spread to China, and then Japan, via the Silk Road. Local artisans applied their own techniques and styles to the source material they encountered. Japan’s renowned tradition of wood sculpture is the culmination of a globe-spanning cultural odyssey, and includes elements from every culture Buddhism encountered on its journey eastward. Shaka Nyorai’s curly hair, for example, is a development from the wavy hair often depicted in Greco-Buddhist sculptures. 

Images of Shaka Nyorai in the Japanese style most often show him seated and wearing the robes of a monk. His left hand rests in his lap, and his right hand is held up with the palm facing forward in a gesture of dispelling fear. Between his eyes, a small circle, often made of crystal, represents a tuft of hair from which he emits ignorance-dispelling light. The oval lump on the crown of his head signifies his enlightenment. Sculptures and, more often, paintings, also sometimes depict Shaka Nyorai in his Nirvana Posture, reclining on his right side with his head propped up on his hand. 

1 commentaire

23 mai

Excellent summary.

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