Buddhism played an important role in the development of Japanese art between the 6th and the 16th centuries. Buddhist art and Buddhist religious thought came to Japan from China and Buddhist art was encouraged by Crown Prince Taishi in the Suiko period in the sixth century and by Emperor Shomu in the Nara period in the eighth century. In the early Heian period Buddhist art and architecture greatly influenced the traditional Shinto arts, and Buddhist painting became fashionable among wealthy Japanese. The Amida sect of Buddhism provided the basis for many artworks, such as the bronze Great Buddha at Kamakura in the thirteenth century. Many of the great artists during the Kamakura period were also Buddhist monks.

Buddhist art became popular among the masses via scroll paintings, paintings used in worship and paintings of saints, hells and other religious themes. Under the Zen sect of Buddhism, portraiture of priests became popular. However, Zen had less use for religious images and by the mid sixteenth century CE most painting in Japan was of landscapes and secular themes.

Origins of Buddhism

Buddhist art was introduced to Japan along with the Buddhist religion in 552. Almost all the art produced in this Suiko period in Japan was connected with the new religion. "The introduction of the Buddhist faith had from the very start gone hand in hand with the introduction of Buddhist images." (Munsterberg 1985: 19) These Buddhist images included Chinese scrolls depicting the life of Buddha, initially executed by Chinese priests in Japan and later painted by Japanese artists.

The introduction of Buddhism also led to the construction of temples for the practicing of the religion. These Buddhist temples consisted of a kondo - a hall whose purpose was to contain a sacred image of a Buddhist saint - as well as a pagoda or gojunoto, a five story tower. The development of Buddhist art was helped greatly by crown prince Shotoku Taishi (573-621) constructed Buddhist temples around Japan and appointed painters to decorate them. "Without [Shotoku's] inspiring patronage Buddhist art could hardly have flourished so successfully among his countrymen." (Anesaki 1975: 20) The main temple he built was the Horyu-ji temple near Nara, now the oldest wooden structure in the world. The temple houses large statues of Buddha and two Buddhist saints or bodhisattvas and carved wooden Guardian Kings of the Four Directions as well as the Tamamushi shrine. Similar temples appeared at this time through the Kinai provinces in western Japan.

Art under Emperor Shomu

Buddhist art continued to flourish under the reign of Emperor Shomu in the eighth century, who built the enormous sculpture of Buddha at Todai-ji. This 16 meter high sculpture exhausted Japan's copper resources and as a result there was no bronze production for several hundred years[citation needed]. The construction of this temple, and similar temples in Japan's provinces was "inspired by a fervent desire on the part of secular leaders of the time to create in Japan the ideal Land of the Buddha." (Ishizawa 1982: 15)

In his imperial ordinance issued in 743 the Emperor justified the use of the gold involved in the construction of the statue by stating that it was "a testimony of the marvelous teaching of Buddha." (Tsuda 1976: 38) However, it is likely the emperor also wanted the sculpture to show the Chinese what Japan was capable as an independent power[citation needed]. Similar structures were constructed all over Japan as a result of an imperial decree instructing each province to build a pagoda and a temple. Artists of this Nara period also created statues from whose core clay was removed and replaced with a wooden frame to enable it to be carried in religious festivals.

Heian period

During the eighth century in the Early Heian period, Buddhist art and architecture was mixed with traditional Japanese Shinto culture. Because Shinto and Buddhist faiths are not discrete religions in the Western sense, but instead are able to co-exist, Buddhism influenced the Shinto religion and Buddhist and Shinto leaders often co-operated, with Buddhist temples being erected within Shinto shrines. The pagoda and kondo at Murō-ji in Nara built in the ninth century had a thatched roof covered with hinoki, or cypress, which had previously only been used in Shinto shrines. This demonstrates "the influence which the native Japanese architectural tradition was beginning to exert on Buddhist temples, just as Buddhist architecture was having a profound effect upon Shinto shrines." (Munsterberg 1985: 59)

The Buddhist priesthood significantly helped the development of art in Japan, as many artists were Buddhist priests who studied art in China and brought ideas to Japan. Priests studied painting and sculpture as part of their training. During the Fujiwara period, priests were "treated with the utmost care and respect, because they were considered the only persons that could keep off all evil." (Tsuda 1976: 94) Because of this, many Buddhist images were made for the Fujiwara royal family and court. The pictures the priests painted encouraged members of the higher classes to paint similar pictures, so that painting became fashionable among wealthy members of society.
As Buddhist art gained in popularity with Japanese nobility in the later Heian period, religious art began to develop quite differently. It was marked by the cutting off of ties with China, the main source of influence for Buddhist art. However "Buddhist painting...not only continued to flourish but it also developed along quite different lines." (Munsterberg 1985: 79) Architecture became ornate and highly decorated, contrasting with the simplicity of earlier periods. The Death of Buddha or nehanzu produced in 1086 is one of the few paintings from this period with an exact date. It shows Buddha dying whilst human beings, mythical creatures like demons, and a lion mourn his death. Another trend in religious painting of this time was to depict hell, such as in the Buddhist Hells Scroll of the late 12th century by Tosa Mitsunaga, which shows sinners descending into hell, screaming in agony, half-engulfed by flames.

Amida and art

Many great artworks were produced under the auspices of the Amida Buddhist sect. Paintings representing the Amida Buddha welcoming the faithful were produced by the priest Eshin Sozu, who developed the pure land paradise[citation needed]. One of the greatest was the bronze image of the Buddha at Kamakura built in 1252, which "owes its inspiration directly to Buddhism and is simply Chinese and Hindoo [sic] ideas put into the aesthetic vernacular of Japan". (Jarves 1984: 83) One type of Amida painting that gained great popularity depicted Buddha appearing over the mountains. One of the most famous of this genre is the beautiful ink Amida Descending over the Mountains scroll[citation needed]. Amida Buddhists believed that if a dying person held the picture upon death they would immediately enter the Buddhist paradise.[citation needed]

Kamakura period

File:Buddhist guardian of the East, Kamakura period.jpg

In the Kamakura period of the thirteenth century, there was a close relationship between art and Buddhism and much religious painting was produced. New Buddhists sects, such as Kegon and Nichiren emerged and grew in popularity. These sects produced several distinct genres of painting, including the Suijako paintings, which tried to reconcile the two main Japanese faiths by depicting Shinto deities as early manifestations of Buddha. "The suijaku paintings were evidently commissioned to promote religious harmony." (Ishizawa 1982: 29) Works like the Kegon Engi Emaki, a book illustrated to help people understand complicated Chinese character, became more popular with ordinary people. One example of Buddhist painting from this period is the Eight aspects of Buddha's life scrolls, done in colour on silk and depicting the popular legend of Buddha's birth from the side of Queen Maya. Another is the History of the Yuzu Nembutsu sect of Buddhism scroll from 1329, which shows a man kneeling before a village priest to pray. Some of the paintings produced were for ceremonies and others were for worshiping in rituals.

Zen art

Under the Zen sect of Buddhism, which became very popular in Japan in the 14th and 15th centuries, portraits of Zen priests were often produced. Zen was a sect of Buddhism which promoted simplicity and less involved in worship, so religious paintings were not needed for this reason. Instead, Zen priests often painted images of teachers and Zen masters. Unlike in the earlier Heian period, where it had been considered "rude in Heian times to copy a person's likeness" (Stanley-Baker 2000, 115), the Zen portraits were close-up portraits showing facial features and details. A portrait of Zen master Muso Kokushi painted by his student Muto Shui, shows a detailed portrait of the face, with the whole picture being only a head and shoulders portrait. This is unlike earlier Japanese painting which would depict people as much smaller figures. Zen priests also painted landscapes, such as the suiboku-ga, or water and black ink painting, which was inspired by Zen doctrine.

Muromachi period

Buddhist influence on Japanese art grew weaker during the Muromachi period, as more non-religious painting became popular. With the feudal system of society in Japan, where priests were taking on a more militaristic role, less religious painting was produced. "A priesthood to whom a practical knowledge of war and warlike accomplishments was vital was not conducive to the production of important religious paintings." (Hartman 1971: 57) Sometimes painters would look on Buddhism cynically and depict deities in a disrespectful way. As Japanese society became more feudal and militaristic with rule of the country divided amongst the local daimyo lords and their samurai armies, more artists produced non religious paintings such as landscapes and scenes of everyday life. "By the end of the Muromachi period...religious painting as Japan had known it...gave way to purely secular painting." (Munsterberg 1985: 116)


Buddhism exerted tremendous influence on Japanese art in a variety of ways and through many periods of Japanese history. Buddhist temples with their halls and five story towers were built all over Japan, and huge sculptures of Buddha were made for these temples.

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