In the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (SCVA) collection, there is a carved statue of Dainichi Nyorai which immediately draws the eye, due to the contrast between its imposing aura and gentle countenance. Dainichi Nyorai, or literally the Great Sun Buddha, is central to Esoteric Buddhism (Mikkyō). Esoteric Buddhism originates from India and is characterised by its secrecy, with teachings being passed on orally from master to disciple. Esoteric Buddhism spread along the Silk Road to China and later to Japan via the Japanese monk Kūkai. Kūkai learnt about Esoteric Buddhism in 804 when he travelled to Chang’an in China, he returned home later, in 806, to establish Esoteric Buddhism in Japan.
This particular Dainichi Nyorai statue is dated to around AD 1000 during the Heian period (AD 794-1185). It is 55.6cm high, 30.0cm wide and 16.0cm in diameter. The Buddha is seated, possibly in the meditation position, although it is difficult to be sure as both legs, the whole of one arm and the majority of the other are missing. The damage allows the viewer to ascertain that the sculpture is not hollow and may have been carved from a single piece of wood. The grain and texture of the wood is clearly visible – adding to the solidity of the statue. The effect and beauty of the material itself contributed to the increase in popularity of carved, wooden sculptures in the 9th C. The reddish-brown of the wood is revealed where the black colour, that covers the majority of the figure, has worn away. The black colouring is lacquer, a material which has been used for decoration in Japan since the Early Jōmon period.
The Buddha’s head seems slightly too large for its shoulders, an effect which is amplified by the tall head piece it is wearing. The face is comprised of large, prominent facial features that combine to form a serene facial expression. Directly in-between the closed eyes and above the thin, arched eyebrows sits a small circular dot that shines slightly. This dot is the urna, or third eye, which symbolises wisdom. Although all the facial features are large, the figure’s ears stand out as abnormally long and drooping. A reference to how the Buddha was once the Prince Siddhartha Gautama who would have worn heavy, ornamental earrings. The head sits on an exposed, broad torso, which is only slightly covered by a sash that appears to run from the left-hand shoulder down to the right-hand side of the waist. This asymmetric arrangement of the clothing is common to the period.
Visual analysis is a useful starting point for historical research. In this instance pointing the way towards the need for further study of the impact of the Silk Road on Japanese religion and art.
Tsuji, N. 2018. History of Art in Japan.