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Hôzan Tankai
Esoteric Buddhist Bodhisattva
1708
Ink, color, and gold leaf on silk

Esoteric Buddhism (mikkyô) originated in northern India and Tibet. Immigrants from China transmitted an incomplete form of this teaching to Japan in the eighth century. Japanese monks traveling in China in the ninth century acquired complete knowledge of this highly complex form of Buddhism. They returned to Japan with large mandalas that chart the relationship between various deities in a highly systematic and hierarchical fashion. A small number of these deities eventually gained widespread popularity in Japan, and artists often depicted them as individual icons, as in this painting.

The complexity of the esoteric pantheon compelled painters to focus primarily on iconographic details such as the crown, the jewelry, and the implements this deity holds in its many hands. Careful replication of these accoutrements was necessary in order to identify the deity. The small Buddha in the crown of the deity suggests that it is a manifestation of Kannon Bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas were divine begins who postponed their enlightenment in order to help all sentient life fulfill its spiritual quest. Kannon were regarded as the most compassionate of the bodhisattvas. Precisely which manifestation of Kannon is depicted in this work is difficult to ascertain with certainty, however. Esoteric mandalas often include as many as twenty or more different forms of Kannon. Doctrinal sources include many more.

In general, icon paintings were heavily ornamented. It was one way of highlighting the efficacy of the image. The highly decorative qualities of the work, including the application of cut gold leaf, were an integral part of this enterprise. The artist's personal expression was muted but not entirely absent.

The inscription suggests how this painting might have been used.

Meditating on this great Bright King
One quickly attains the proper path
Completely masters the law
And extinguishes misdeeds
Seeking the vow within the heart
All repose in the mansion

Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, the Ernest B. and Helen Pratt Dane Fund for the Acquisition of Oriental Art

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Copyright (c) 2000, Mayumi Ishida, All Rights Reserved Last Updated: April 11, 2000