Medieval Japan and Amitabha Buddha

「山越えあの阿弥陀」, or “Amida crossing over the mountain”. Courtesy of Eikando Temple in Kyoto, Japan, and the Museum of Nara. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On the same Japanese documentary as here, I saw a great segment on the famous Eikandō Temple, more formally known as Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji (永観堂禅林寺). Homepage here in Japanese and English. The temple is iconic for several reasons, including its very picturesque fall scenery, and also its vast collection of Buddhist artwork listed here. The most famous is the central figure of Amida Buddha looking back (more on that in a future post).

The picture above, called yamagoé amida-zu (山越阿弥陀図, “Amida Buddha Crossing Over the Mountain”) is a pretty famous work of art that I’ve seen even on English books related to Pure Land Buddhism and especially Jodo-Shu Buddhism.1

It also exemplifies how Amida Buddha was venerated in medieval Japanese culture.

The picture depicts Amida Buddha, a very popular figure in Mahayana Buddhism who vowed to lead all beings to his Pure Land after death so that they may escape the endless cycle of birth and death, and accelerate along the Buddhist path much more readily.2 Amida Buddha is frequently depicted in artwork flanked by two bodhisattvas: Kannon (観音, Avalokitesvara) and Seishi (勢至, Mahasthamaprapta).

As the figure was imported into early Japanese history, he gradually increased in popularity, and many medieval practices were used to help ensure that devout followers would be reborn in his Pure Land. As the situation in medieval Japan gradually worsened, this became even more prominent. If you look carefully, Amida Buddha’s fingertips in each hand touch together in a mudra, a form of Buddhist iconography. What you don’t see is that traditionally, where the fingertips touch, there are usually five strings of different colors hanging down, and there was a common deathbed practice where the dying individual would hold on the other end of those strings as much as they could. This was believed to help ensure that the dying person would not fall through Amida Buddha’s grasp in being reborn to the Pure Land.

Another noteworthy thing about this painting is the Siddham (Sanskrit) syllable written on the upper-left: 𑖀 (“ah”). It is not the “seed syllable” for Amitabha, which is hrīḥ (𑖮𑖿𑖨𑖱𑖾), but is frequently used in esoteric Buddhism (e.g. Vajrayana). This shows that at this time, Amitabha Buddha was still closely associated with earlier esoteric practices found in both Tendai and Shingon-sect Buddhism. For some reason, English-language books on Japanese Pure Land Buddhism frequently seem to crop out the syllable when including this painting.

One rival practice to reciting the nembutsu at this time was reciting an esoteric mantra called the Mantra of Light, promulgated by Pure Land critic Myōe.3 You can see from this picture that pairing devotion to Amitabha Buddha with a popular esoteric mantra wasn’t such a leap either.

Many of these practices gradually faded as Buddhism in Japan evolved and replaced with other practices, but it’s interesting how this one painting can encapsulate so many things in the 11th-12th century Buddhist-Japanese culture.

P.S. I might have messed up the “hrih” siddham syllable. Unicode, Sanskrit and HTML are not easy. 😉

1 Eikando converted from a Shingon-sect temple to a Jodo Shu-sect temple in the late 12th century when it was administered by a disciple of Honen’s named Johen (1166-1224), and then more fully under Shoku. Interestingly, the “Amida Looking Back” statue was crafted a century earlier, in 1082, by Eikan (also known as Yōkan, 永観, 1033-1111) who saw Amida in a dream, and also later founded a hospital on the temple grounds.

2 The assumption that the Pure Land is the Buddhist version of “heaven” (i.e. in a western sense) will require a separate post to explain. TL;DR they have little in common.

3 I actually recite both in my home practice: the nembutsu and the mantra of light. First one, then the other. I first learned about it not from esoteric sources, but actually from Rinzai-Zen Buddhist liturgy, where it is often recited. It’s interesting how certain practices kind of persist in unexpected places.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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