Dainichi Nyorai (大日如来) Statue: A Visual Analysis

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.



6 Replies to “Dainichi Nyorai (大日如来) Statue: A Visual Analysis

  1. Hello Zoe, thank you for this blog entry. You selected a very intriguing and difficult art work, but also very fascinating one. Great description, and also very good the you are providing more information about the iconography and religious studies background. Regarding this particular work, it might be interesting to consider which implications did selected materials have, and how for example a wooden Buddhist statue compare to a bronze one. Was it used differently, was this choice of material conscious, and what did it mean? Also, it would be fascinating to try to find ways how we could reconstruct the original form of the sculpture, maybe by looking at comparable intact examples, but also to reflect about the reception of an artwork which is clearly damaged and incomplete. There are very different approaches towards this issue in East Asian and Euro-American tradition.
    all the best,

    1. Hello Eugenia,
      It was very interesting to read and learn about esoteric buddhism. I realised after I started that I chose a difficult object but I was really fascinated by it and quite liked the challenge! I read that in this period there was a shift to using wooden statues because they appreciated the quality that the wood itself gave to the statue. From an outside perspective Buddhist statues that are wooden seem more religious and less of an ornate status piece – but that might be me projecting modern values onto the object. It certainly would be interesting to reconstruct the object. What are the differences between East Asian and Euro-American approaches? I know in Europe we predominantly try to conserve objects in the state that they were discovered, rather than attempting to return them to their original state.
      All the best,

  2. Hi Zoe,
    Nice post- do you think this statue would have been placed in a domestic setting, or a place of worship, or somewhere else (court maybe?)? Thanks for teaching me about Dainichi Nyorai.

    1. Hi Harry,
      That’s an interesting question! I am not sure of the answer. As the statue is wooden, a much cheaper material than say bronze, we might think that it would be in a less important setting. However, in this period, wooden statues were growing in popularity and the effect that the texture of the wood contributed highly valued, so it is difficult to say.

  3. Good review, Zoe. The history of Esoteric Biddhism seems quite interesting. What purpose do you believe this statue had? MAybe for praying to or simply ornamental?

    1. Hi Tom,
      I’ve been thinking about this but there is no evidence to suggest the purpose of this specific statue. If we look at modern statues, their purpose varies depending on the location but we don’t have the location of this particular statue.

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