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Seated Buddha
Korea
2nd half of 6th century



Buddha Triad plaque
Korea
late 7th century



Seated Vairocana
Korea
late 9th century



Sakyamuni Buddha with attendant bodhisattva
Japan
628



Standing "jewel-holding" bodhisattva
Japan
7th century



Seated bodhisattva in pensive posture
Korea
1st half of 7th century
Buddhism Quest
by Fred Stern


"Transmitting the Forms of Divinity: Early Buddhist Art from Korea and Japan," Apr. 9-June 22, 2003, at Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, New York, N.Y. 10017.

The conventional wisdom that Buddhism traveled in the 6th century A.D. from India to China and from there to Japan was ably disputed by the recent exhibition at Japan Society, "Transmitting the Forms of Divinity: Early Buddhist Art from Korea and Japan." It turns out that Buddhism came from Korea to Japan, probably by 538 A.D., or by some accounts by 552 A.D.

The intermediary appears to have been the ruling dynasty of the kingdom of Paeksche, the largest entity on the Korean Peninsula at that time. Paeksche rulers sent many delegations to the Japanese court, laden with gifts, and in their missionary zeal, representations of the Buddha and other manifestations of Buddhism in sculpture, ritual texts and images.

The Japanese rulers of the period had long hoped for a religion that would unify the nobles and governors of the kingdom under their lordship. However, winning the submission and subsequent conversion of the nobles to a new religion was not an easy undertaking. Their existing beliefs were based on entirely different principles and philosophy, primarily involving ancestor worship and naturalistic religion. Numerous wars had to be fought before the nobles fell into line.

How do we know that the statues presented in the current show are actually Korean, or in some cases Japanese but Korean inspired?

The materials and design used are characteristic of Korean workmanship. Whereas stone was then the predominant material in Chinese Buddhist sculptures, Korean sculpture was usually made of wood and gilt bronze. Only during times of material shortages would the Koreans substitute stone.

Other Korean characteristics are evidenced in the garments worn by the Buddha statues and subsidiary gods and priests, or in the arrangements of garment folds.

More than 25 statues of Buddhas in all their manifestations: Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha; Maitreya, the Buddha of the future; Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light; and Baishajyaguru, the Buddha of healing, were the main components of the exhibition. Many are designated national treasures of Korea or Japan. The Buddhas were carefully encased in lit individual glass containers.

A seated 6th-century smiling Buddha carved in soapstone conveys the simplicity of a child. A standing infant Buddha (Three Kingdoms period, early 7th century) making the "heaven and earth gesture" (one hand pointing up, the other down) indicates the Buddha's dominion over heaven and earth.

A Buddha triad plaque (8th century, unified Silla kingdom) shows the influence of T'ang sculpture. Clothed in Gandharan (South Indian) garb, this gilt-bronze statue of Buddha with two attendants is on a lotus base and measures about 14 inches tall. One of the highlights of the show is the Sakyamuni (historical Buddha) at Birth, considered a Japanese national treasure. It is on loan from the Nara Museum. The statue conveys tranquility, with its absolution basin carved with animal images and set in mountains amid flora and clouds.

Another group of figures represents the Buddha in the "Vairocana" or diamond fist gesture. Here the fingers of the left hand clasp the index finger of the right hand in a gesture symbolizing the harmony of wisdom and knowledge. This 9th century, 47 inch high iron figure from the Seoul National Museum portrays a smiling Buddha seated on a lotus base. It is easily one of the masterpieces of the period.

The show also has a wide array of "Bodhisattvas." These are men who forgo Nirvana in order to help mortals find their way to salvation. In contrast to statues of Buddha, these figures are richly clothed and have a highly stylized appearance. A 7th-century gilt bronze Bodhisattva from the then-Japanese capital of Nara holds a jewel at chest level, his short torso contrasting with his long face, resulting in a majestic appearance. A gilt-bronze seated Bodhisattva in a "pensive" posture is a masterpiece of sculpture in this position, in contrast to most Chinese figures of the "pensive Bodhisattva," which have a tentative quality and fail in terms of anatomical correctness.

One of the most attractive features of the Japan Society show was the interesting arrangement of the section devoted to roof tiles, mostly gathered from temples. While lotus motifs predominate, some tiles are ornamented in geometric patterns and in various animal designs. For temple eaves, craftsmen developed a variety of decorations. On display are birds in flight and a series of patterns of meditating Buddhas.

This exhibition was the first-ever cooperative venture of the Japanese, Korean and American governments. Let's hope there will be other occasions that will lend themselves to such worthwhile exhibitions.


FRED STERN writes on Asian art for Artnet Magazine.