Mahayana Buddhism & Shingon Buddhism: A Cultural Examination of the Evolution of Buddhist Artistic Tradition


The Differing Philosophies of Mahayana Buddhism & Shingon Buddhism:

Mahayana Buddhism and Tantric Buddhism display two distinctly different paths in regard to how enlightenment, also known as Nirvana, is achieved. Buddhism traditionally believes the world of all sentient beings, humans, and non-human animals included, to be a repetitious cycle of pain and suffering, as every sentient being is thought to be re-incarnated endlessly, enduring the perceived torment of life until they may one day achieve a state of Nirvana, a state which is viewed as the pinnacle of existence in Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism, the state of Nirvana may take generations to achieve, enduring reincarnation, and subsequently, multiple lives worth of dedicated, patient practice, seeking the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom, delaying their ascendance to the Nirvana state and Buddhahood, acting as guides, in the form of Bodhisattvas, guiding other sentient beings to the state of Nirvana, to ail them of their suffering and plight in the living world. In this respect, Mahayana Buddhism can be considered a more egalitarian form of Buddhism, one built on the principle that personal liberation is secondary to aiding others on their path to salvation. Tantric Buddhism, an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism, and the sect of Buddhism upon which Shingon Buddhism was founded is believed to have been developed by former Mahayana Buddhist teachers sometime during the first century C.E. in Northern India and emphasizes putting into practice Buddhist ideas in the physical world on an individual level, rather than simply pondering and mulling over ideas as is common in Mahayana Buddhist tradition. It’s this physical enactment and practice of Buddhist ideas, including physical exercise, and the mantra, helpful in grounding oneself in reality, rather than in fictitious spiritual thought, meditation, visualizing one’s goals, and paying mind to one’s breathing, which practitioners believe makes the ascendance into the state of Nirvana possible in just one lifetime. Tantric Buddhism is often perceived as risky, and dangerous, due to the fact that it necessitates being both present in the physical, mortal world, while also focusing inwards, on one’s self-development, not allowing one to have material ties or relationships in the physical realm. Without a proper teacher, referred to as a Guru, a customary Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Tantric, or Vajrayana Buddhism is seen as extremely difficult, if not impossible to practice, especially if one desires to reach the end goal of achieving Nirvana. Shingon Buddhism, though it shares heavy influence with Tantric Buddhism, and maintains the same quintessential system of traditions and values, yet, it diverges from Tantric Buddhism in the fact that Shingon Buddhism disregards the concept of Inner tantras, a tantra, being a form of Tibetan philosophy connected to multiple sacred Tibetan Buddhist texts. These inner tantras are best represented by the three inner tantras taught in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, a school whose traditions are grounded on Mahayana Buddhism, and the teachings of Samantabhadra, the Buddha of practice and meditation. In Shingon, meaning, true word, Buddhism, founded by Kūkai, a venerated Buddhist Saint, the main goal of practitioners, in a surprising departure from the forefather sect of Mahayana Buddhism and Tantric Buddhism, from which it is derived, is to, instead of merely escaping the suffering of the mortal world, achieve the wisdom of the Buddha, wisdom unachievable through written words, hence the departure from the teachings found in the tantras. This goal of desiring to achieve infinite wisdom still involves the achievement of enlightenment, which, much like traditional Tantric Buddhism, Shingon practitioners believe is achievable in only one lifetime. Practitioners of Shingon Buddhism believe that deep yoga, to channel spirituality, physical hand gestures, or mudras, mysticism via symbols representative of deities, or sacred syllables, a seemingly illogical string of letters, typically written in Sanskrit, believed to be imbued with magical qualities, and visual symbology connected to ritual practice, i.e. mandalas are all key in achieving enlightenment and the subsequent wisdom of the Buddha. On top of this, practitioners of Shingon Buddhism also believe that Vairocana, the Great Illuminator, in Shingon tradition, Dainichi Nyorai, is not only the founder of the universe, but the embodiment of the universe itself, a belief that is strongly implied in many Shingon mandalas in which Dainichi Nyorai, is always the largest depicted figure, the Supreme Buddha, in both Womb Realm mandalas, which emphasize the compassion and truth of Dainichi Nyorai, and Diamond Realm mandalas, which emphasize the infinite wisdom Dainichi Nyorai provides. It’s with all this context in mind that parallels along with contrasting beliefs may be drawn across all three sects. Perhaps the most intriguing comparisons to be found between these three sects, however, are between Mahayana Buddhism and Shingon Buddhism, however, as Tantric Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism are, despite being different sects of Buddhism, still born of the same cultural and geographical context, with both emerging from India. With this in mind, taking Mahayana Buddhism, the largest Buddhist sect, and also, among the oldest of existing Buddhist sects, along with Shingon Buddhism, a sect of Tantric Buddhism which derives inspiration from both Tantric and Mahayana Buddhist tradition, this chapter will examine how these two different, yet connected, ideologies are culturally similar and dissimilar in their works of art, regarding the materials used, the varied styles incorporated, how they visually represent or display their individual belief systems, or draw inspiration from their geographical or cultural contexts, and how they reflect their individual mythologies and practices in different mediums of art.

Historical Context:

A Prelude to Mahayana Buddhism and Shingon Buddhism:

The Emergence of Buddhism:

To understand these two sects of Buddhism, we must start at the beginning, when back in 623 B.C.E., in the South of Nepal, in Lumbini Province, Siddhartha Gautama, was born, the founder of Buddhism and the first “Buddha”, from whom the iconic image of the Buddha was subsequently formed, with many portrayals of Buddhas being styled in his likeness. In principle, Siddhartha Gautama’s system of belief would parallel that of later sects of Buddhism in a myriad of ways. Gautama’s central beliefs always focused on detachment from the material world, freeing the soul from the confines of one’s own body. Contrary to this set of beliefs, Gautama came from a rather unlikely background, one unbefitting of the life he would lead in his later years as a fervent ascetic, and religious teacher, unattached to any form of significant material culture. He had grown up the son of royalty, and thus, grew up, sheltered and enclosed, spoiled with life’s finest luxuries and a plethora of fine goods. It was this materialistic environment that formed a disconnect between him and the outside world, a bubble of sorts, which would be burst violently, when upon he took four carriage rides as a young adolescent, he encountered the horrors that lie beyond his lavish life, starving, ill, and suffering people, one of whom was even deceased, with their corpse left out in the open, rotting. Accompanying these horrors was a man who would strike a chord with the young Gautama, an ascetic renouncer, an individual who renounces materiality and the pleasures of life in exchange for spirituality, an act, which requires incredible restraint and willpower. From bearing witness to these sights, Gautama would form his thesis, that being: materiality was a mere mask, a crude facade that blanketed human suffering, acting as an impermanent means of sparing one from pain, and that, to truly free oneself from the innate suffering of life, one must detach themselves from their possessions and indulgences, and meditate, looking inwards, channeling spirituality, in order to reach a state of enlightenment, nirvana. As legend claims, it was from the act of meditation that Gautama reached enlightenment, however, much like in Mahayana tradition, he remained in the physical world, acting out of compassion and kindness, desiring to help his fellow man in ailing his or her suffering. From this, the structure of Dharma was created, with Gautama preaching four core tenants, or what he would refer to as “Noble Truths”. The first of these truths emphasized the idea that life, at its core, is pain. The second is that desire or want, will only lead to further suffering. The third is that suffering may be alleviated, however, only, via the fourth noble truth, that being the Wheel of Dharma. The wheel of Dharma, in its classical representation, is an eight-spoked wheel, with each spoke representing one of the eight core tenants of Dharma. These eight tenants are as follows: the aforementioned noble truths, right intention, concentration, and purpose in performing an action, right speech, meditation, right endeavor, right occupation, and right action. After all these tenants are completed, Gautama states that you have reached enlightenment, nirvana. Following his passing, Gautama’s beliefs, specifically Dharma would, under the reign of King Ashoka of the Maurya Empire in India during the 3rd century B.C.E., become widespread, and openly embraced, with King Ashoka believing that Buddhism was the only path forward after perpetrating a bloody, violent, war with a neighboring country to the East of the Maurya Empire, called Kalinga, a conflict that would see a horrifying death toll of anywhere between 100,000 – 150,000 people and suffering so intense on the part of enemies that King Ashoka outright renounced the act of waging war. Following this period, and King Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism, along with his commitment to the tenants preached by the wheel of Dharma, he would build a number of stupas, and monasteries, along with pillars inscribed with religious teachings, and statements from King Ashoka. His legacy and his fervent commitment to Buddhism would only extend the religion’s reach across all of India, whereupon it was spread transnationally. Soon enough, Buddhist ideology, teachings, and philosophy, would penetrate and seep into the regional and national religions of countries and regions across Asia, forming new sects of Buddhism, sects that bore the hallmarks of regional or local religions, while maintaining the core principles of Buddhism. This spread of Buddhist ideology involved a period in which new ideas were brought forth, expanding or re-interpreting older ideas and concepts presented in Buddhism, adapting, shaping, and transforming Buddhism, inevitably leading to the rise of Mahayana Buddhism, in India under the Kushan Empire during the 1st century C.E.

Mahayana Buddhism – Gandharan Stupa:

Presented above is an example of a stupa, dated back to the 4th century C.E., which was discovered in Gandhara, Pakistan. It is currently located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Its material composition is that of bronze, which appears faded and weathered either due to its age or potentially the means by which it was stored/the location it was found in. The structure of this particular stupa appears noticeably different from other iterations reflected by later works, although, perhaps this is down simply to differences in culture more than a sign of evolving sculptural styles. Regardless of appearance, its purpose remains the same, that of a symbol of a Buddha’s Dharma, a memorial dedicated to a Buddha, or a votive offering, with the stupa representing a gift from a patron, constructed, and presented as an act of veneration of a Buddha, presented in honor. As for the visual appearance of this Stupa, it features largely the capital portion of a Corinthian Column, implying some level of Greco-Roman influence or inspiration in the construction of this work, tying into the history of Gandhara’s unique Greco-Buddhist works of art, a cultural and artistic synthesis caused by the conquering of the region in 330 B.C.E. by Alexander the Great. On the topic of melding distinct cultural and artistic traditions, oddly enough, the Corinthian capital seems to emerge from the center of an unfurled lotus flower. The second platform is based atop the capital portion of the Corinthian column, upon which four stupas stand prominently displayed on each of the four corners of the capital. These stupas seem to stand tall and proud, with a proportionally slim profile, evoking images of tall, mighty pillars rising from the top of the Corinthian Column. Even so, they appear small, compared to the sheer relative size of the large, central stupa, helping generate a sense of scale, as its size is contrasted by the smaller stupas. Resting above, the large central dome, six large discs extend upwards adorning the overall structure of the stupa. Extending from the main body of the dome are four more stupas, which bear the same structural and organizational arrangement as their larger counterparts mounted on top of the Corinthian column. These four stupas, unlike their larger counterparts, bear four distinctive gateways, topped with ornate arches that mirror that of Buddhist shrines, with each gateway or doorway bearing a symbol of a lotus flower, engraved into the metal, alluding to the idea that each gateway is a path to Nirvana, with the lotus flower being an evocative symbol of enlightenment and transcendence. This act of transcendence to Nirvana is tempting to ascend to, however, it is an act which is typically, initially abstained from, until the Bodhisattva, the form which is a prelude to one’s ascent to proper Buddhahood, has helped those in pain and suffering, setting them down the path of enlightenment through the wheel of Dharma, with the Dharma, in Buddhist tradition, inevitably serving as the means by which those who are suffering may one day reach enlightenment, ending their suffering. This sentiment is further reinforced in this work, due to the fact that the stupa, asides from being an object used to venerate, commemorate, or honor a Buddha, also is a symbol of ascendance to nirvana. Enshrined within the enclosure created by the four columns with mounted gateways is a square that appears in the form of a central crown, extending from the top of the stupa’s dome, with harsh, triangular edges, and a metal rod bisecting its center, extending upwards, providing the central support vessel for the six stacked discs. Providing further bracing for the large central column, connected at each of the four corners of the top of the Corinthian capital, are what appear to be four griffins, a mythological creature that is a hybrid between a lion and an eagle, an appearance that can be discerned from the animal’s winged appearance, curved, elongated beaks, and slender, yet taut and lean, feline-esque body with powerful hind legs. As for what the griffin represents in Buddhism, it represents wisdom and bravery. Regarding what type of stupa this work is, it appears to be of the votive variety, with its small portable figure likely being placed before a Buddha’s shrine as an offering. Its diminutive stature along with the extensive amounts of open space visible in the Stupa’s structure is also a likely indicator that this stupa isn’t a funerary vessel for a Buddha’s ashes either.

Mahayana Buddhism – Kashmir Two Sculptures of Buddhas, Each Buddha Seated Between Two Stupas:

These two works, two sculptures of Buddhas seated between two Stupas, emerge from the period of the 8th century in Kashmir, and bear the same materials, being forged from brass, a departure from the bronze used in the construction of the Stupa examined earlier. Both of these sculptures emerged from the same cultural/ideological contexts, with both sculptures bearing distinct hallmarks of the Karkota Kashmiri Dynasty, a dynasty which lasted from 625 C.E. to 855 C.E. The only notable difference regarding material usage between both works is the fact that the bottom work uses pigments to emphasize some of the details of the Buddha, including the eyes, lips, and a band of color beneath the topmost portions of his crown. As for the top sculpture, the material used in its construction notably appears to be of finer material quality and build quality,  and is also over four inches taller than the topmost work, at twelve inches in height, compared to the eight inches of the sculpture on the bottom, suggesting that the individual who commissioned or created the sculpture on the top may have been of better economic means or held a position of greater societal prominence or power. As for the actual materials used, the top sculpture is predominantly made from brass, yet is inlaid with copper, silver, and zinc, materials primarily used to highlight the Buddha’s traditional garments, along with his crown. The top sculpture isn’t provided with a specific date, yet is believed to have originated at an unspecified time during the 8th century C.E. As for the bottom sculpture, it is, with relative accuracy provided a date of either 679 or 680 C.E. Both of the works are closely linked to Mahayana Buddhism, with exceptional stylistic similarity regarding their iconography, and their depictions of the stupa structure, to other like works produced under the vein of Mahayana Buddhism. As for the depictions of each Buddha, the first noteworthy detail to highlight is the positioning of both Buddha’s hands. As can be seen, by the image presented on the top, the Buddha’s hands are formed in a specific symbolic manner, a symbolic hand gesture referred to as a mudra. In this specific case, the Buddha presents his hands in the form of Dharmachakra, a mudra that is indicative of the turning of the wheel of Dharma, Dharma, meaning, the union of method and wisdom, indicating this Buddha’s presence as a teacher of the Dharma, setting the wheel in motion, his eyes closed, fixed in an act of concentration, representing discipline and focus. As for the Buddha represented in the bottom image, regardless of looking at the Buddha’s mudra, one can already discern it based on his eyes. They are half-lidded, indicating harmony and balance, a meditative state. If one is to have eyes shut, one may fall asleep, whereas having one’s eyes fully open during meditation is to open one’s mind to outside forces, distractions that draw one away from inward, spiritual thought. His mudra is also indicative of this fact, with the dorsal surface of his right hand laid in his left palm, indicating contemplative thought. Both Buddhas are also adorned with the traditional mark of a Buddha’s wisdom, the urna, traditionally a hemispherical bump, or a circular or spiral pattern adorning a Buddha’s forehead, typically just above the middle of the brow. In this instance, the Buddha on top bears a pearl-colored, hemispherical urna, and the Buddha on the bottom bears a flat, circular urna, marked in the form of a dot made from a silver pigment. Asides from the figures of the Buddhas, with their thick, layered, elaborate garb, and their traditional crowns, perhaps what one is drawn to next are the stupas of each sculpture, along with the seats upon which each Buddha rests, two facets of these sculptures that are the most distinguishing features of both. The Buddha on top rests on a fully opened lotus flower, which in Buddhism, is indicative of the highest state of enlightenment one may achieve. In line with the opened lotus flower, the stem of the lotus flower descends and branches off to the left and right of the central lotus, forming into two smaller, fully opened lotus flowers, upon which each stupa is held up, even to one another, positioned slightly below the central lotus flower. The visual appearance is elegant, curved, and balanced, like that of ornate candelabra, visually, and that of a scale in the balance that is achieved. Below the central stem of the lotus flower, which descends into the gently rippling surface of the water, two serpentine deities emerge from the water, bolstering the central stem and its branching portions These deities are referred to as Nagas. Beneath the Nagas sits a relief work adorned with powerful thick depictions of columns, with a centralized depiction of a lotus flower, pictured from the top, or a depiction of the wheel of Dharma in line with his mudra. Flanking four of the six aforementioned columns are two figures whose mudras indicate protection and fearlessness, likely identifying the two figures as protectors, defenders, or guardians of the Buddha. To the respective right and left of each protector is a resting stag, with the deer being a physical representation or embodiment of the most essential teachings of the Buddha and the act of receiving those teachings, tying back into the primary themes of this sculpture, enlightenment, and teaching. Below the relief is one more notable detail, a plaque, written in Sanskrit, denoting the names of the patrons, who are also represented in physical form on the left and right of the relief, with their attendants seated below, praying. Compared to the sculpture on the top, the sculpture on the bottom is noticeably far less detailed, with two less intricate stupas, with these two stupas showcasing the steps, yet strangely enough, not showing the actual Buddha, who is typically represented at the top of a Stupa’s stairs. As for how the stupas are portrayed, they interestingly appear to be angled slightly inwards. Whether this detail is intentional or unintentional is unknown. This Buddha sits atop what appears to be a cushion mounted on a centralized column which is then bolstered by two figures who appear to be protectors, with the figure on the left of the Buddha, having a mudra that indicates protection and fearlessness. Centrally there also appears to be a beast, likely another protector of the Buddha below the central platform atop which the central column and flanking stupas sit lies a small relief work, whose figures are practically indiscernible due to the scale, placed between eight columns. The depicted figures seem to be all non-human animals, predominantly livestock, with four of the depicted animals being recognizable as rams or sheep. While these particular animals don’t bear any meaning in Mahayana Buddhism, they perhaps are indicative of a kindred spirit between this particular Buddha and animals, as in Buddhism, a non-human animal’s life is equivalent to that of a human’s. As for the other two animals depicted in the bottommost work in the frieze portion of the sculpture, on the left and right sides, they appear to be peafowls or peacocks, which in Buddhism are said to represent the arrival of the Bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas, Avalokitesvara. Below the relief sits another plaque engraved in Sanskrit with the donors’ names, although, notably, this time, the donors do not receive physical representation in the sculpture.

Mahayana Buddhism – Kamakura Period – Japan – Sculpture of Dainichi Nyorai:

As a prelude to the works of art that will be discussed later, works attributed to the sect of Tantric Buddhism known as Shingon Buddhism, which emerged during the Heian period of Japan (794-1185) C.E., above, we have a sculpture born from the Kamakura period of Japan, which has been approximately dated to anywhere between the late 12th century C.E. to the early 14th century C.E. This specific sculpture depicts that of Dainichi Nyorai, regarded as the Great Sun Buddha, in Japanese Mahayana Buddhist tradition, though, this particular Buddhist deity is perhaps better known by his traditional name, Vairocana, in Sanskrit, meaning, “Illuminator”. Vairocana, or Dainichi Nyorai, in both traditions of Mahayana Buddhism, is believed to be either the Supreme Buddha or, perhaps the source of the entire Universe, marking him as a deity of exceptional religious and spiritual importance. In this depiction of Dainichi Nyorai above, his appearance is rather modest and subdued, consistent with many other depictions of him from different cultures, that of a man dressed in a cascading robe laid diagonal across his form, exposing his bare chest, either with his shoulders covered or uncovered, sometimes bearing a crown, sometimes not. Regardless, what is clear to see, is the fact that the Buddha’s appearance was interestingly enough, modified to suit the cultural background in which he lay, depicted in this sculpture as a man of Asian descent, whereas in other depictions, where he is referred to as Vairocana, statues and other sculptural works featuring his likeness, almost always favor a depiction of a man of Indian descent, with both portrayals emphasizing the universality of Buddhist belief, indicating how Buddhism can be adapted to different cultures, while still maintaining the same core central beliefs. As for the finer details of this work, it is carved from wood that has been lacquered, and judging by the flecks of gold visible on Dainichi Nyorai’s crown, which appears to be carved in the style of a monk’s, along with his elegant, flowing robe, and even visible on the right side of his face, from the perspective of the viewer, just below the lower eyelid, they are all likely indicators that at one point, during its lifetime, the statue was gilded, an indicator that will become even more prominent in the following work, displaying the act of gilding, in this instance as a sign of the cultural context from which this sculpture emerged. A description of the work’s materials also indicates the presence of potential polychromy on this sculpture as well, which is the use of multiple pigments or colors on a work of architecture or sculpture, a detail which, unfortunately, cannot be verified via visual analysis, even from different perspectives. Perhaps the most notable detail surrounding this work, however, is Dainichi Nyorai’s mudra, along with the restful, peaceful, calm, yet pensive expression he wears, his eyes shuttered, assuming a facial expression of transfixion, qualities that encapsulate the statement his mudra presents. His mudra, referred to as a Bodhyagrimudra, represents the highest tier of spiritual awakening in Mahayana Buddhism, typically associated with the sect of Mahayana Buddhism which is most prevalent in Tibet. Some other notable details include his urna, which, much like the sculpture of the Crowned Buddha Shakyamuni, appears as a hemispherical, pearl-colored urna, along with his hanging earlobes which are indicative of the fact that he comes from former royalty, harkening back to the days when he used to wear fine earrings. The loss of these earrings is indicative of his rejection of his royal background, along with the lavish material goods a royal upbringing presents, in exchange for his commitment to Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism – Edo/Meiji Period – Sculpture of Monju Bosatsu – The Bodhisattva of Wisdom:

This sculptural work, emerging from either the Edo or Meiji Period, is made in similar stylistic quality and material to the previous sculpture of Dainichi Nyorai, with this work also being carved from wood which has subsequently been lacquered and gilded. This image portrays Monju Bosatsu, also referred to, in his Sanskrit name, as Manjusri, who, in Mahayana Buddhist tradition is known as the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, one of the four great Bodhisattvas, with the other three Bodhisattvas, being, Kannon Bosatsu, also known as, Avalokitesvara, who was mentioned earlier, regarding his connection with the peafowl or peacock, with Avalokitesvara embodying the compassion of all Buddhas, Miroku Bosatsu, known as Maitreya, often referred to as the Bodhisattva of the future, one who will be born to teach the Dharma after achieving his own enlightenment. Lastly, there is Fugen Bosatsu, who, in Sanskrit, is known as Samantabhadra, a Bodhisattva who represents practice and meditation. As for the physical qualities of this work, Monju Bosatsu sits atop the back of a great beast, who is stated to be a lion. In Buddhist tradition, lions are stated to be symbols of strength and protection, fervent defenders of the Dharma, and are also traditionally symbolic of the Bodhisattvas. The lion’s upper lip is curled, snarling, with attentive, wide gleaming eyes, and a flowing, curled, elegant mane and tail. Monju Bosatsu himself, sits in a state of waiting, his form, relaxed, with his left leg raised, and his right extended down, resting atop the massive left leg of the lion he will ride to defend the Dharma and spread wisdom, his sword, unsheathed, used to cut through ignorance with precision, in its stead, being replaced with knowledge.  The posture of his upper chest, however, suggests that he is ready, gripping his sword in his right hand, his left bearing the sheath from which his weapon of knowledge emerged, still held horizontally, suggesting the immediacy in which the blade was drawn. His face appears relaxed, his lips curved downwards, not in a frown, but rather, in line with the rest of his body, merely waiting, his upper and lower lip both held taught and firm, almost in an act of judgment. In the middle of his forehead, much like the depiction of Vairocana examined earlier, Monju Bosatsu too bears a hemispherical urna just above the middle of his brow, one which this time is represented via a gemstone, the type of which has not been disclosed in the description of the work. Atop his head rests his crown, forged in the shape of a disk, with a rendition of the wheel of Dharma displayed prominently in the center, slightly skewed to the viewer’s left. His eyes, upon first glance, may appear to be shut, however, in reality, they are slightly parted, once more indicating that though he appears resting, he is still watchful, a quiet observer, acting as a sentry, precise and sharp as his blade, methodical in the manner in which he acts. In this work, Monju Bosatsu, unlike other Bodhisattvas who have been examined thus far, does not bear a mudra, in this instance, forsaking his meditation and spirituality momentarily to enact physical action on the ignorant, correcting their ignorance with his blade, spreading the knowledge he bears. The lion itself lays gracefully, atop an ornately detailed, cushioned, and elevated platform, which possesses stylistic qualities that seem to mirror those found in the earlier Kashmiri stupas, including a relief work featuring some stylized depictions of lotus flowers, of which there are more than fifteen visible in the frieze itself, accompanied by two birds depicted flying in the foreground, amongst the curving vines and stems of the various specimens of flora. On the bottommost layer of the elevated platform is another relief work, featuring the serpentine figure and elongated face of a dragon, its curving body occupying the majority of the lower relief accompanied by some mild creeping vines and other assorted vegetation comprising the border of the lower relief work. Each corner surrounding the lower relief work also notably features the faces of multiple lions, with the left corner, relative to the viewer, displaying a lion with a wide, gaping maw, with a strongly furrowed brow, displaying aggression. On the other corner, another lion is portrayed, this one, also with its mouth agape, in an act of aggression or defensiveness, yet, this lion curiously doesn’t bear a furrowed brow, displaying a facial expression that does not match the ferocity the open jaws and exposed fangs imply.

Tantric Buddhism – Shingon Sect – Late Heian Period – Kongo-kai Mandala (Full) & Joshin-kai Portion (For Detail) (Diamond Realm):

Work: Kongo-kai Mandala (Detail of Central Joshin-kai Portion of the Mandala), Artist: Unknown, Date: Late Heian Period (1000 – 1185) C.E., Location: Nara, Japan, Material Type: Gold on Purple Silk (Not Colorized), Dimensions: Height – 156 inches (Overall Height), Type of Artwork: Tapestry, Current Location: Kojima-dera Temple, Nara, Japan, Source: (Lee 1994 Far Eastern Japan Beginning, Page 321, Figure 422)

Now that we’ve covered Mahayana Buddhism and its transition from Mainland Asia to Japan, with King Ashoka Spreading Buddhism across Asia, we may finally examine one of the more eclectic sects of Buddhism, a sub-sect of Tantric Buddhism, known as Shingon Buddhism. To examine this sect and complete our evolutionary history of Buddhist artwork, we must cover a geometric figure referred to as a mandala. Above, we have two images of a richly textured, intricately detailed Kongo-kai, or diamond circle/diamond realm, mandala, which harkens back to the period of Vajrayana Buddhism, a sect of Buddhism that worshipped Vajradhātu, a four-faced form of a Tibetan deity, referred to as Vairocana, one of the five deities of wisdom. For some context surrounding what exactly a diamond realm mandala is, a diamond realm mandala is an idealized geometric depiction of the universe, a universe that is said to be embodied in physical form by the Supreme Buddha. It’s with this in mind that two separate mandalas have been created to embody or channel his teachings. The diamond realm is meant to signify the Supreme Buddha’s absolute wisdom, a form of clarity above any other in existence, revealing all the truths the universe beholds, hence the realm’s name, referring to the clarity with which one sees and the truths one beholds in the diamond realm. As for the two images themselves, the top of these two images is colorized and displays the Kongo-kai mandala in its full, whereas the bottom of these two images, is the Joshin-kai portion of the mandala, often viewed as the most significant area of a mandala, especially in Shingon Buddhism, a surviving sub-sect of Vajrayana Buddhism. Central in each circle of this portion of the Kongo-kai mandala is the Supreme Buddha, Dainichi Nyorai, “the life force which illuminates the universe”, and the Supreme deity of Japan’s tantric sect of Buddhism. The centricity of Dainichi Nyorai in the nine visible circles of the Joshin-kai part of the mandala highlights his control over the other one thousand three-hundred fourteen Buddhist deities represented in the mandala, all of whom are said to act as Dainichi Nyorai’s direct will, all of them, emanating from Dainichi. This structure, representing lesser deities as enactors of Dainichi Nyorai’s will is said to directly mirror the hierarchical structure of Shingon Society, with Buddhas as the foremost, reigning power, Bodhisattvas, individuals who are on the path to Buddhahood second, Myōō, the wisdom kings, of which there are five, the fervent defenders of Buddhism, said to be wrathful versions of Buddhas, third, the Tenbu, Hindi demigods who, in Japanese tradition, adopted the practice of Buddhism, and are seen as the protectors of Buddhist law, placed fourth, Gongen, Japanese deities which embody both Buddhist qualities and traditions, and indigenous, Japanese qualities and traditions, representing a harmonious union of two cultures, placed fifth in the hierarchy, and lastly, the religious masters, referred to as Soshi, often teachers of Buddhism, High Priests, or founders of new sects of Buddhism, placed sixth, with the Shingon sect highlighting eight specific Soshi patriarchs in particular. Regarding the Mandala’s visual qualities, it focuses strictly on the figural forms of the Buddhist deities, rather than highlighting specific attributes or ritualistic implements associated with each deity, or Sanskrit seed syllables, seeds that carry no intrinsic meaning, but are said to be imbued with spiritual or mystical energy. As for the color of the actual Kongo-kai mandala, displayed in the expanded image, viewed on top, it features a deep, twilight purple as the primary color for the background, with the deities, borders, shapes, patterns, and symbols, being highlighted with a rich, light gold, emphasizing the aforementioned details, giving the work an almost mystical or otherworldly air, making the details almost appear as if they are glowing, radiating with, bright, spiritual energy. Like any mandala, the mandala itself represents a spiritual/psychic tie or connection a worshipper has with their deity or deities, with the circles and squares of the mandala being laid out on a grid, representing the interconnectedness of the deities, and by extension, the worshipper to their deities. Also significant in the image of the mandala are the arrangements of lotus flowers that accompany the interior frame of the mandala around the outermost circle. Lotus flowers are significant in particular as in Shingon Buddhism, they are representative of the spiritual lifeblood of nature, or the highest state of spiritual enlightenment one can achieve.

Tantric Buddhism – Shingon Sect – Heian Period – Garbhadhatu (Taizokai) Mandala (Womb Realm):

The mandala pictured above, emerged from the Heian period in the late 9th century, (875-899) C.E., under the sect of Shingon Buddhism, and is classified as a Womb Realm mandala, bearing similar visual qualities to its diamond realm counterpart, while also featuring some noticeable differences. For one, notice the range of colors used. This mandala incorporates more vibrant, less dark tones in its imagery and coloration. This detail is indicative of one of the most predominant, fundamental differences between these two different types of mandalas. Diamond Realm mandalas emphasize a sense of vastness, said to behold the secrets and absolute truths of the universe, with the Diamond Realm emphasizing spirituality, clarity, and infinite wisdom, possessed by the universe, embodied by Dainichi Nyorai himself. In this context, the swaths of immense deep purple used as the background for the Diamond Realm mandala examined earlier, embody the vast darkness of the universe, perhaps, referencing the cosmos on a starless night, a sight that appears as an infinite abyss with no guiding light. In the aforementioned Diamond Realm mandala however, this darkness is blatantly contrasted with the blinding, glowing, gold highlights present, with the gold portions of the mandala representing clarity and wisdom, embodied by the mystical elements of the mandala, emphasizing and highlighting the mystical elements, deities, symbols, shapes, and patterns. By comparison, the above mandala, a Womb Realm mandala, emphasizes a more grounded, intimate, and physical approach, with the Womb Realm signifying the immense compassion Dainichi Nyorai possesses. Dainichi Nyorai’s compassion, in particular, is represented well in this mandala, delivered via the warm tones and colors, which range from carmine red in the petals of the central lotus flower, amidst which Dainichi Nyorai is positioned in the center, along with a sea green surrounding the outside of the lotus flower’s petals in the inner square, a denim blue in the second most inner square of the mandala, followed by a rectangular border colored in a light mint green, then a subsequent rectangular border colored spruce green, and lastly, an outermost border colored rust red. All of these colors are relatively subdued, and calming, conjuring feelings of safety and security, with the exclusion of the carmine red petals of the lotus flower, which are intentionally colored brightly in order to draw the eye of the viewer, captivating their attention, and subsequently emphasizing the importance of the lotus flower as a symbol of great significance, while also highlighting the central figure of Dainichi Nyorai. As for the innate physicality present in Womb Realm mandalas, that physicality, asides from the more tangible colors used, colors which are more likely to resonate with the viewer as those selected are more frequently viewed in quotidian life, particularly in comfortable environments, that physicality translates even to the represented deities, with the central figure, once again being Dainichi Nyorai, yet, in this depiction, unlike others we have viewed before, Dainichi Nyorai, along with nearly every deity on display, excluding the wisdom kings, with their darker, more ominous appearances, feature a shade of brown to tan-colored skin, akin to that of a human’s, grounding the Buddhist deities represented in this mandala in the physical realm, away from the landscape of spirituality they typically reside within, translating the intangible into the tangible.


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Works Cited:

Author: Jaffir Wajahat

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