Asian Art and Architecture: Art & Design 382/582

Lecture 25

Heian Period Japan

Lee 314-28, 345-57; R&J 247-250

A The Japanese imperial family and court lose power to the Fujiwara clan, which takes up a position behind the throne.

B At the same time the court, and later the Fujiwara, invest in a cultural turn away from the Chinese model that has come to dominate the arts since the opening to Buddhism and the continent, toward indigenous esthetic ideals that contrast distinctly with the previous two centuries.

C On the religious front a striking new presence emerges with the arrival in Japan of the Vajrayana that has been percolating through East Asia in the wake of its development in India and Nepal.

Heian Period Japan 794 - 1185

Early Heian or Jogan 794 - 897

Late Heian or Fujiwara 897 - 1185

412 Kondo Muro-ji Early Heian early 9th

413 Goju no to Muro-ji Early Heian early 9th

414 Shakya (or Miroku) Todai-ji Early Heian 9th

415-6 Yakushi Buddha Jingo-ji Early Heian early 9th

419 Seated Shaka Muro-ji Early Heian 794 - 897

CP 29 Nyoirin Kannon Kanshin-ji Early Heian early 9th

422 Kongo-kai mandala Kojima-dera Heian 794 - 1185

Plato’s Cave Kongo-Kai Kanshin-ji Late Heian 897 - 1185

Plato’s Cave Taizo-Kai Kanshin-ji Late Heian 897 - 1185

CP 30 & 424 Red Fudo Myo-o Myo-o-in Heian 794 - 1185

CP 31 & 429 Parinirvana of B Kongobu-ji Heian 794 - 1185

430 Shaka Emerging from

the Golden Coffin Choho-ji, Heian Late 11th

432 Amida Raigo Koyasan Heian 11th

433 Amida Kochoho Heian 1146

434-5 Ho-o-do Uji Heian 11th

436-7 Amida of Ho-o-do Jocho Heian 1053

448 Rabbit Diving, Choju Giga Toba Sojo Heian late 12th

449 Monkeys Worshiping a Frog Toba Sojo Heian late 12th

454 Flying Storehouse Shigisan Engi Heian 794 - 1185

Heian Japan

After the Emperor and the government were moved from Nara to Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto) to escape the pressure of the great monastic complexes of the old capital there was a shift in style from one modeled upon the Tang court to one much more self-consciously Japanese. Lee calls this the "first original contribution of the Japanese to the art of the post-Bronze age." Little by little the court was losing power to the Fujiwara Clan, which eventually grew to dominate from behind the throne. The court, meanwhile was left free to develop its esthetic taste, which Lee calls "primarily delicate, fine, decorative, and highly and aesthetic."

This was the period in which, what Lee calls Esoteric [Secret] and the Japanese call Mikkyo Buddhism emerges in Japan: what we have been calling Vajrayana. In Japan there are two distinct Vajrayana schools: Tendai and Shingon, the true word sect. Both are brought to Japan at the very beginning of the 9th century by Japanese monks who have learned their secrets during their training in China. With each come complex, enlarged pantheons and sets of images kept hidden from all but a few adepts, and the developed use of ritual diagrams: mandala.

A major characterization of this imagery and its use is that it is "magical." That is, it involves rituals by which the practitioners compel reality. The use of secret images goes along with a general incorporation of incantations, ritually charged numbers, gestures, and other objects.


Early Heian Art



As the court moved from Nara to Kyoto to escape the politics of the city, the temple of Muro-ji was taken over by the Shingon school and in attempt to guard its ritual purity, moved from Nara to a mountainous location some 40 miles outside of the city. [Though, one should note, in the direction of Kyoto.] The site of Muro-ji itself has a significant esthetic impact. The monastery is spread across a series of verdant natural hills covered thickly in evergreens and cedar-like cryptomeria of great natural beauty. It is a mountain, not a city setting. If the ostensible purpose was to escape the worldliness of the city, the effect was to return closer to the natural world.

Here, there was no place to lay out the symmetrical formality of the Nara monastic plan. Structures were spread around irregularly, where the natural lay of the land permitted. This isolated location and asymmetry of plan was typical of temples constructed in this period. And indeed this use of asymmetry proved to be a strong characteristic of Japanese style architectural and otherwise, already visible in pre-Buddhist, Shinto art.



412 Kondo Muro-ji Heian 794 - 1185

The Kondo at Muro-ji shows some of the same characteristics. Despite continuing use of a stone wall to level the ground of the irregular site, in a sort of rustic sub basement, this is a structure returning largely to the indigenous tradition of being raised up on wooden pilings and roofed by shingles and thatch. [That is, wood and leaves.] The Chinese ideal was distinctly regular and symmetrical, on cleanly geometric stone basements under tile roofs. Though the carpentry of the interlocked wooden framework is still highly elegant, it is also quite stringently simplified. The cryptomeria shingles are thickly layered.

This is also a much more modest structure than the monumental scale developed at Nara. A balcony is constructed on the side opposite the images for the viewing from the outside.


413 Goju no to Muro-ji Heian Early 9th

The goju no to (5 story tower) has a magnificent setting, lost in the trees. Where, at barely 50 feet it is dwarfed by its natural surroundings. To see into its lower story, one actually has to bend down. The result is an intimacy of feeling. One passes through the monastic complex as one would hike through Yosemite or some other natural wilderness, with the temples structures settled into the glades.

[These may be the only two buildings of the Jogan period to have survived.]

At Toshodai-ji a porch was added to the Kondo to further separate the lay viewer from the ritual activity of the monks. A new structure called a raido was added to the Kondo, for laymen who wanted to hear the rituals, but were not to be allowed into the precincts with the monks.


414 Shaka (or Miroku) Todai-ji Heian 9th c

wood 15"

Lee points out that one of the characteristics of Jogan period art has been its relative difficulty for western eyes. [He says less relativistically, "for modern historians."] Their expressions are strikingly dour, even forbidding, to the Western European eye trained to expect a prettiness and delicacy more in line with their own taste. One might say the same of much Byzantine imagery, an art which is also, less accessible and inviting, if somewhat more familiar. However one wishes to characterize its mood, the sculpture of the Jogan period is strikingly powerful.

Another significant tendency of Heian sculpture and one that will last much longer than the Jogan period, is the move away from bronze icons to wood. Whatever the reason, wood, in large, solid masses at first and then more often pieced-together, becomes the favored medium of figurative sculpture.

Take the seated preaching Shaka (S. Shakyamuni ) from Todai-ji. The figure sits in the standard simhasana (lion) posture, gesturing to the witness of the earth (bumisparsa), elegantly with its left hand while it holds the right, quite as sensitively, in a slightly irregular abhaya with its right. The robe hangs in heavy folds around its shoulders and over its lower torso. In a manner that can be traced to the continent, but which is particularly characteristic of Japanese development, the robe hangs open at the front revealing the division between the pectoral below the three conventional lines in the neck. The fleshy body is cut from a single block of cypress.

Most striking is the face, which is even more inflated from within than the one we saw in Nara, expanding taughtly. The hands and the face are proportionately enlarged. The expression on the face is intense. It is one many Westerners have found verging on malevolent. [Which is certainly going too far in the direction of applying an inappropriate frame of reference, and so should be a caution to us not to jump too quickly toward assuming our first intuitions suit the intentions of another culture.] Whatever the nuances, the actual intentions are undeniably austere and less inviting than the more benevolently inviting Mahayana images we have been used to.

The fact that some have called this image a Miroku (S. Maitreya), should remind us that we don’t always know. The usual clue to a Maitreya is Bodhisattva vestments and a stupa in the headdress, like the Korean image (Lee 209). But Maitreya can be thought of as a Buddha as well as a Bodhisattva, and so it is here.

The fact of the single block construction is visible in the cracks running vertically through the body. There is slight bits of paint still visible in the eyes, alerts us to the fact that the work was not painted as a whole.


415-6 Yakushi Buddha Jingo-ji Heian Early 9th c

wood 5 1/2’l

Yakushi (S. Bhaisyajaguru) is the healing Buddha. It is characterized here by the vase of healing herbs in its left hand. Its hands and forearms are restorations, a point Lee uses to point out how much more subtly articulated is the rest of the image. What may look simple at first sight, or from a distance, turns out to be rather carefully developed. You may want to go back to the Miroku and observe the rippling rhythms of its robes folding around its arms and torso. In this case there is a combination of rather dull symmetry in the extensions of the legs on either side and much more articulated draping around the upper torso and the edges. Though over all this is a rather dull and uninteresting bit of drapery compared to the seated Miroku.

The single block method of carving is called ichiboku-zukuri, and that is essentially what we see here. Only extensions such as the arms and hair curls are added. In the Later Heian, or Fujiwara, period images are made from multiple blocks that are assembled by pegs and glue and fitted together before they are carved, so that there is less liability to cracking and also allows greater undercutting. That technique is called yosegi-zukuri.

The regularity of the folds here, is a Jogan and later characteristic called hompa shiki or the rolling wave pattern. It is composed of high, rounded ridges alternating with lower, angular ones. Lee traces it back across the continent to Central Asia, beginning from the "string" fold drapery of Bamiyan.

We can see the result of the ichiboku-zukuri in the cracks running through the face of the Yakushi Buddha. The close-up view (416) also reveals the encrustation of snail curls fitted on and the careful attention to detail in the extremely subtle linearity and idiosyncrasy of its forms. We can also see here some of the characteristically Jogan and Japanese interest in the wood of the Buddha’s body as wood: each fleck of the finishing knife left as a separate facet. Is this a characteristic we might tie to the Shinto interest in natural materials in and for themselves?

And we go back to those wonderful eyes with their distinctively carved facets, or those of those distinctively menacing rosebud lips.

How do I react to this forbidding, scowling or even disdainful expression? Once I got used to it, I became fascinated by it. And only once has it really threatened me. That was at Kaniman-ji. You will remember this face.


419 Seated Shaka Muro-ji Early Heian 794 - 897

wood 3 1/2’

The seated Shaka is from Muro-ji. It is a paragon of the hompa shiki, rounded waves alternating with shallower triangular ones. Originally it was finished in colors over a white gesso. The rhythms of the rolling drapery folds are the glory of the piece. The smooth sections of flesh contrasting with the rippling textures of the drapery folds.


CP 29 Nyoirin Kannon Kanshin-ji Early Heian Early 9th

ptd wood 3 1/2’

Here we have a rare example of a Early Heian wood image surviving with most of its parts and its paint intact. It is a six-armed Nyoirin Kannon. Its skin is finished in gold, its robe fully colored in reds, golds, and blues. It sits in royal ease on a fully developed lotus before a flaming full body halo. In four of its hands it holds: a chakra (wheel), a lotus, a wishing gem (nyoi) and a rosary. The other two touch its cheek and the lotus (purity in a world of corruption). Each hand can save worshippers from one of the Six Realms of Existence.



422 Kongo-kai mandala Kojima-dera Heian 794 - 1185

The central section of a Kongo-Kai mandala in 422 is a detail of the fuller mandala, the Kongo-kai is the Diamond world or Vajradhatu mandala, we have already considered with Vajrayana imagery at Aurangabad’s Cave 7 and Borobudur. It is the cosmic mandala of 1,461 [Lee says 1,341] deities centered upon Vairochana, 33 of whom can be seen in this central most of the nine great fields that compose the full diagram.



Plato’s Cave Kongo-Kai Kanshin-ji, Osaka Late Heian 897- 1185

Here is a full color version of the mandala of the Diamond realm.

As a mandala the painting is a ritual diagram that the meditating Siddha (adept) passes through, from one station to the next to reach an assigned outcome. If Aurangabad 7 and Borobudur offered the rare examples of mandalas large enough to move through physically, the Kongo-Kai is the more typical, miniature mandala through which the adept passed mentally. This was a pattern going back to the earliest recorded Indian traditions, as for instance when the Vedic sacrificial altar was composed through rhythms and sounds rather than bricks. Ultimately such imagery and the rituals associated with them are revelatory of the fact that the significance of rituals is in the understanding and participation in their symbolism, not the presence their physical manifestations.

Vairochana Buddha is the center of both this mandala and its complement the Taizo-Kai.


Plato’s Cave Taizo-Kai Kanshin-ji, Osaka Late Heian 897- 1185

The Taizo-Kai (S. Garbha-dhatu) is the Womb World. It is composed of 12 more or less concentric precincts and 414 [Lee says 407] deities. At its center is a central court of 8 figures, surrounding Vairochana: Buddhas at the cardinal directions, Bodhisattvas at intermediary points. Vajra-holding forms symbolizing the power of the intellect to destroy human passion on one side, lotus-holding beings illustrating the purity of all human beings on the other.

In this case we can see from photographs of the situation of the paired Kongo-Kai and the Taizo-Kai, the Vajradhatu and the Garbhadhatu–the Vajra world of Wisdom and the Womb world of material reality–and how the adepts place themselves between the two worlds and meditates a passage between that brings them together in their own person as they attempt to transcend this world through the instrument of the two mandalas.

The goal is to use through the meditation, that has characterized Buddhism from its earliest moments, with the mandala as an instrument, to unite the Siddha with Mahavairochana (J. Dainichi Nyorai).

CP 30 & 424 Red Fudo Myo-o Myo-o-in Heian 794 - 1185

color on silk 5’

The Red Fudo Myo-o, from Koyasan, is typical of one of the great Esoteric guardian deities. His name means "immovable." He is a terror to evildoers. He is normally seen, as here, with a pair of youthful acolytes and glaring out at the viewer. In the Jogan period he expands, pushing the borders of the picture: one fang up and one down, he holds a noose in one hand and a vajra & dragon-handled sword in the other. One of the youths is proper looking, the other is more like the Fudo, with fangs and a glare. In the modeling of the Fudo’s robe is the hompa-shiki pattern. What is more interesting is the transparency and delicacy of the robe. With the little flowers decorating the robe and the delicate metal jewelry hanging all across the figures body, banding his head and wrists there is a characteristically caricatural Japanese effect of delicacy overlaying powerful forms and increasing their power by contrast. We see some of the same inimitable caricature in the tightrope the image strides as a whole, between caricatural absurdity and terrifying power. A final interesting element worth mentioning is the combination of Chinese monochrome landscape for the ground and bright color for the figures.




Late Heian

The transition from the Early to Late Heian when the Fujiwara takes full control from the imperial court at Kyoto. Though this does not lead to its coming out from behind the royal court, which is maintained as a facade. There are then two courts in Kyoto. The art of the Fujiwara period or Late Heian is characterized by its extreme esthetic self-consciousness and sophistication.


CP 31 & 429 Parinirvana of the Buddha Kongobu-ji Heian 794 - 1185

color on silk 9’ hanging scroll Koyasan

The Paranirvana of the Buddha from Koyasan is the first of a type to survive. It shows the last moment of the great being as he lies, conventionally, on his right side, passing into Nirvana, surrounded by a full hierarchy of associated beings. Each one marks his place in the levels approaching enlightenment by his status and response to the event. The further along the Bodhisattva path the more equanimity shown.

The princely Bodhisattvas in gold, like the Buddha, are calm and reserved. The Elevated deciples are in white and they too calm and dispassionate. The common monks, by contrast are seen darker in color, and beside themselves with grief, as are the guardian kings in their fancy garments but pained expressions. At the bottom the Kongo Rikishi are in inconsolable, while the animals, such as (Manjusri’s ?) lions are in distraught disarray.

The whole makes for a very colorful assemblage of decorative caricatures, win a grove of jeweled trees, watched-over by the Buddha’s mother, looking down from her heaven. The Buddha itself is a picture of equanimity, placidly unmoved in its triumph. The four shal trees that mark the platform are straight from the texts. As we look down from above in what will become the standard fashion.

The work is a confetti of bright colors within wire outlines.


430 Shaka Emerging from the Golden Coffin Choho-ji, Heian Late 11th c

The subject is the Buddha preaching to its mother following the Paranirvana. It is possibly by the same studio that produced the Koyasan Paranirvana. Again there is a welter of figures surrounding the Master. The use of rich color and decorative forms in both of these pictures is typical of the ornamental style of Tang. Both are altarpiece icons, to be prayed with, if hot too.

What is most interesting here is the rarity of this subject, unknown in South Asia.


432 Amida Raigo Koyasan Heian 11th c

color on silk 12’ h

The Amida Raigo is a sort of Mahayana yantra, different from the Vajrayana mandala. It is not a map of the cosmos to be traversed by means of a secret passage, but a straight forward depiction of salvation, that could be operated by simple faith , as the device of that salvation. The form rose among the Amida (S. Amitabha) cults of the Late Heian period, within the Jodo (Pure Land) sect. Koyasan’s is one of the earliest and finest to come down to us. This is a sect that rose in China in the 7th century and later had its greatest development in Japan. The meaning of raigo is "welcoming approach" of Amida: Amida’s welcoming approach to his deciples.

The form of the Koyasan is three paneled painting proportioned to match the function of the Christian altar triptych. Its two side panels are precisely half the width of the central panel, so that they may be folded across in to close it off. This is a form that Buddhists had been using in precisely the same way for portable altars for centuries if not a millenium.

The central panel carried the essential scene, a golden Amida in a glowing mandorla surrounded by a host of attending deciples and gandharva musicians, flowing toward the observer on an effulgence, leaving a curving trail behind. To either side below, Amida is preceded by its two great emanation Bodhisattvas. On the viewer’s left–in this is image that is constructed particularly from the viewpoint of the worshipper–is Mahastamaprapta hands held in the anjali of greeting, not the god but one facing the god.

The raigo is a depiction of Amida descending from the western paradise to a dyeing worshiper to welcome the worshipper’s being to its promised place in the Paradise in which they will reach enlightenment and pass on to nirvana. The painting represents the dyeing person’s last rite; indeed it is an instrument of the dyeing person’s transition to the paradise. As Mahastamaprapta, on the left gestures anjali of greeting, the complementary Avalokitesvara, on the right, holds out a lotus pedestal upon which to take the "soul" back to the paradise. Here is yet another permutation of Padmapani, the lotus-handed one’s, role as the savior Bodhisattva: where the lotus is transmuted from symbol to the actual device of purification by which soul is to be transported.

The two side wings reveal a bit of monochrome landscape below, over which are seen more of the accompanying gandharva and apsaras, singers and musicians. The separation between the panels allows for the angling in of the wings to form an enclosure reaching out to embrace the worshipper, who is further connected with the imagery by a pair of threads reaching from the Buddha or the Bodhisattvas of the painting to be tied around the fingers of the worshipper.

The painting is a Mahayana instrument, intended to cement belief in the Buddha Amida’s promise of paradise, leading to enlightenment and eventual nirvana for those who have faith in its powers.


433 Amida Kochoho Heian 1146

The Amida Kochoho is a playful comment on the essential raigo message of a promised salvation for the believer. The average deciple of Jodo sect, it is suggested here, may have been no more anxious to enter heaven than the average Christian. Here we see the string from the welcoming Buddha pulled tight like a noose around the deciples neck, as Mahastamaprapta reaches out encouragingly, and the ever-compassionate Kannon uses the padma in yet another manner, as a shovel to urge the deciple toward his reluctant reward.

Amida Kochoho: the Amida Who Summons to a Higher Plane.


434-5 Ho-o-do Uji Heian 11th c

The Ho-o-do (Phoenix Hall) of the Byodo-in at Uji, between Nara and Kyoto, is a most interesting and probably the most elaborate and developed raigo image in existence. The it is a raigo in the body of an entire temple. The wooden structure that forms the temple is composed of elements taken from the palace of the nobleman who had it created. The temple, takes the form of a central hall, inhabited by a great Buddha image, flanked by a pair of wings and trailing a long tail. The whole thus forms the outline of the bird ( ) symbolizing the rebirth, promised by the raigo, which is also depicted in a more literal form flying off either end of the hall roof.

The Phoenix hall is situated within a handsome garden surrounded by a lake, thus simulating the Sukhavati Vyuha, the lake of Amida’s Western Paradise, which is promised to the Jodo deciple. Its image from the entrance gateway is of a beautiful palatial hall reflected in the waters of the pond.

The tile roof and stone basement return us to Chinese elements, according to Lee. But it should be noted, that even though the Japanese connoisseur would agree that these were conventionally considered Chinese elements, they were by this time Japanese elements for half a millenium. That is longer than the English language has been spoken in the Western Hemisphere. And so as we do recognize out American language as "English," we should realize that calling tile roofs Chinese is not a suggestion of Chinese influence over Japanese culture. The light airiness of the structure, raised up on pilings and sailing above the pond, is characteristic of the Fujiwara’s elegance.


436-7 Amida of Ho-o-do Jocho Heian 1053

gilded wood Buddha image 9’4" h

The interior of the hall is composed entirely of the central imagery of the raigo. A magnificent wooden image of Amida sits, enthroned in meditation, on a many petaled golden lotus at its center. Its effulgent halo, filled with musicians rises up to a crowning canopy of effulgence in an architecture of golden filigree. The surrounding walls are supported by the usual network of pillars, brackets and beams, among which fly more of the musicians of Amida’s entourage. The image of Amida, by the well noted sculptor, Jocho, is as light and image as one might imagine. It seems nearly to float from its seat.

The face is finished in gold but also detailed to show an elegant mustache and features more solemn than the forbidding ones, more typical of the earlier, heavier imagery of the Jogan. The ensemble is a strikingly elegant and complete one, with the Buddha looking out from its elegant perch on the dais through the grill at the front of the hall, past the doors that, when shut, reveal a painting of the raigo that it is a monumental part of. When the doors are open and the Buddha screened from view by only the wooden lattice, it is visible within the temple, even from across the pond....


448 Rabbit Diving, Choju Giga Toba Sojo Heian late 12th

ink on paper 12" h x 37’ l

The penultimate set of images we will consider from the Heian period is found in a set of four handscrolls belonging to the Kozan-ji in Kyoto. The Chogu Giga (Animal Scrolls) are a series of satirical monochrome paintings attributed to an abbot of the temple, Toba Sojo (1053-1140). The works are all in monochrome ink, on paper. And most scholars today see at least two hands involved. Two of the rolls are thought to be c 1200, and two c 13 25-50. So it might be as well to consider the works as of the Kamakura period, we will be considering next.

The subject is a set of satirical drawings of animals taking on the roles of Buddhist deities and deciples! The apparent intent, associated not unreasonably with a Zen monastery as Kozan-ji is, is to satirize hypocritical practices of some who claim to be Buddhists or who misuse the faith. So here we have rabbits and monkeys (actually apes) frolicking in a river, which is benign enough, if a few feet earlier in the scroll we hadn’t already learned that these rabbits and apes were dressed as monks.


449 Monkeys Worshiping a Frog Toba Sojo Heian late 12th

The scene of the Apes, in Buddhist priests robes worshiping a frog with a leaf mandorla before onlooking apes, owls, and foxes, is more pointedly clear in its satire. If one can worship a form and think its yogic meditative posture makes it an enlightened being, one must surely be misled. And indeed the expression on the ape on the right here may be more telling than the wisp of prayerful sound emitted from the ape kneeling before the altar here.

The intervening seals, which stand out in their cinnabar red even more in the original than they do in our black and white reproduction, are the marks of the temple intended to insure that when the work was disassembled as part of its restoration, all he original fragments were brought back together correctly and without losing any sections.

These are, for all their satire and apparent jocularity, religious works. Though that is not to say a holy ones.


454 Flying Storehouse Shigisan Engi Heian late 12th

color and ink on paper 12" h x 117’ l

The last piece we will consider is a section of the famous tale of the Flying Storehouse of Shigisan. This is one scene from over a hundred feet of story telling colorful painting. The style is called e-maki, or story telling hand scroll. The tales of the temple on Mount Shigi are the subject here. Legend had it that the Priest, Myoren did not have to go begging his meals door to door, because he had a miraculous golden bowl, that would make his rounds for him, thereby leaving him free to pursue other work. The section we see shows the occasion on which a parsimonious landlord refused to part with the requested rice ration, and was eventually shocked into recognition of the priest’s powers when the frustrated bowl, reacted by taking off with his entire grain storehouse.

We see the finely outlined drawing of the event, the storehouse flying away on the top of the bowl, over the ocean, as the farmer laves his compound in hot pursuit upon his old horse, surrounded by the various types of his family and neighbors. It is all in a firmly caricaturing ink hand, filled in with delicate color. Rich surface patterns fill the style, but what is most prominent is the artists will to push caricature to its extreme in the brilliant distortions in the faces and body gestures of all the participants.

Again the subject is Buddhist, but the actuality is a secular painting with a Buddhist subject, not a work of ritual use.