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THE ASUKA PERIOD
550 To 700 A.D.
THE first Buddhist period in Japan begins with the formal introduction of Buddhism from Korea in 552 A.D. It is called the Asuka period because the capital was in that province, until its final removal to Nara in 710 A.D. And it signifies the influence upon Japanese development of that original stream of abstract idealism which, through the Asoka-Kanishka consolidation, brought the waters of the new faith to China.
It is, of course, possible that the missionaries of Asoka reached the Celestial Empire in the reign of the first Shin tyrant. But if so, they left little trace. The historical records which we can authenticate begin about the year 59 A.D., when an ambassador of the Gettaes, then probably under Kanishka, gave to the Chinese scholar Saian, certain translations of a Buddhist scripture. In 64 A.D. Meitei, a Hang Emperor, dreamt of a huge golden god, and on waking asked his courtiers for the meaning of his dream. It was this Saian, now a scholar of great repute, who proved able to explain about the Buddhism of the West, and he was sent next year, with eighteen followers, to the Gettaes, returning in 67 A.D., with Buddhist images and two monks, Matanga and Horan, claiming to be from Central India. It is told of them that they were lodged in the palace reserved for alien subjects in Loyang, the capital — for China, during the Hang period, claimed sovereignty over the whole world. This palace was subsequently turned into a monastery, called the "Temple of the White Horse," and its site is still to be seen, in the suburbs of that shrunken city of Loyang, which is so rich in ancient ruins. It is recorded that Matanga painted on the walls of the palace a stupa which was surrounded by one thousand chariots and horsemen, and suggests to us the decorated stupas and rails of Sanchi and Amaravati, which were, of course, the fashion of this age. of the images they brought, little is known.
The next monk, Ansei, comes from Arsaie, the land of the Parthians. He is followed by others from the neighbouring country of the Gettaes, and an embassy is recorded to have come from India by way of Cochin China, in 159 A.D. These teachers translated those Buddhist scriptures which belonged to the first phase of the Northern school (positive idealism), and towards the end of the third century the translation of the Amida-Sûtra was accomplished.
The word amitabha means immeasurable light, and represents the idea of the impersonal divine — that vision of the grand Eternal known as Brahman in the Indian Upanishads in contradistinction to the personal divine as manifested in Sakya Muni. The recognition of this fundamental difference distinguishes the Northern from the Southern school of Buddhists, by the latter of whom Nirvana, or freedom from the world of relativity, is sought as the final goal of attainment, while by the former it is regarded as the beginning of a new glory. We owe the first elucidation of the idea extant to Asvaghosha; it is our common heritage from that early Indian philosophy of which Buddhism is a development.
The tree of Buddhism was taking gradual root in China, when the over-running of the North by the Hunnish races of the border, who established what is called the Northern dynasty, gave a great and sudden impetus to its growth. For these tribes already, amongst their wild steppes, were adherents of the faith, though in a form coloured with the superstitions and prejudices natural to their barbaric state, and very different from that version which, by its philosophic soundness and affinity to the ideas of the Conversationalists, had appealed to the civilised world of the Chinese Southern, or native, dynasty.
Buttocho, a teacher who is said to have been an Indian monk, wielded a great influence amongst the fierce and turbulent Hun soldiery. He was said to be possessed of supernatural powers, and as such was held in awe by the people, who are said never to have spat in his direction. He was able, by his personal influence, to stop much cruelty and bloodshed under the Northern Cho dynasty. His pupil Doan went southward, and in collaboration with Yéon, assisted in the promulgation of the faith in Amida, or the quest of salvation by contemplation of, and prayer to, the ideal Buddha in the Western heavens. Kumarajiva, son of a Gettae father and an Indian mother, and supposed to have been a native of Korsar, was so renowned in his day, that a Northern emperor despatched an army to bring him as a teacher to China, where he arrived in 401 A.D. He devoted himself to the innumerable translations of Buddhist scriptures and laid the foundation of that Buddhistic scholarship which culminates in Chiki of the Tendai Mountains, at the end of the sixth century.
This history of the long succession of important teachers, implying the constant flow of a stream of wandering thinkers from India to China throughout the period, raises the interesting question of the means of intercourse. It appears that besides the sea-route from the Bengal coast by Ceylon to the mouth of the Yang-tse-Kiang, there were two great landways, which both began at Tonko in China, at the mouth of the Gobi Desert, divided before reaching the Oxus, into the northern and southern passes of Tensan, and so on to the Indus. Embassies probably went by sea.
We have here the clue to a great era, when North-Western India was a central point between two empires, and through a living world of communication, travellers, pilgrims, and traders carried the common culture back and forth. It is probable, too, that in the Mussulman conquest of India, forcing this immense trade into quiescence at both ends, we have the secret of the process that has so robbed the Orient of her prestige, leading the Mediterranean and Baltic peoples to regard the whole East as but so many victims of an "arrested development."
The artistic attempts of the period are numerous, and some are on a gigantic scale. But the chief idea of a nation that would admit Buddhist images to the Taoist pantheon seems to have been the clothing of Indian religion in the Chinese garb of the Hang period of art, and this was done much in the way that early Christian temples and images were constructed, in the style of Roman architecture and sculpture.
With regard to the building, as observed before, Chinese palaces were changed at once into Buddhist temples in an impulse of renunciation, only such alterations being made as would meet the new needs. The stupa, through its evolution of the tee, had, so early as the time of Kanishka, attained several storeys, and when translated into Chinese forms, under the conditions of wooden architecture, became the wooden pagoda, as known to this day in Japan. of these, two kinds exist, one the rectangular and the other the circular type, the latter still retaining the form of the original dome.
The first pagoda built in wood by Rioken, in 217 A.D., must have been modelled upon the many-storeyed towers that existed under the Hang dynasty, with the modification of the disked spires, originally a canopy or umbrella, the emblem of sovereignty, whose number denoted the grade of spiritual rank, three indicating a saint, and nine the supreme Buddha. Wooden pagodas, built in the beginning of the sixth century, of which fortunately some descriptions remain, seem more and more to have followed the Indian method of ornamentation, for regarding them we read of the great vase at the top, in striking reminder of the description by Gensho (Hiouen-Tsang) of the ornaments of the Buddha Gaya Stupa, built in the same century by Amara Singh, one of the so-called "Nine Gems of Learning" of the court of Vikramaditya.
Sculpture seems to have followed a parallel course. The Indian type looked at first outlandish to the Chinese mind, and sculptors like Taiando, in the fourth century, devoted themselves to evolving a new type, by constant changing of its proportions. Taiando was so eager to have frank criticism that he hung a curtain at the back of a statue of his, and lay behind it three years to hear the remarks of the public. That there was a distinct school of Chinese sculpture is manifest from the records of the pilgrim Hoken (Fahian), who describes the statues of a certain border country as quite Chinese in type, in contrast with the Indian type of other places, and ascribes the origin of the style to the influence of a Chinese general, Roko, who had occupied the territory, though we should consider this to be no more than an enforcing of the style of sculpture evolved by the Gettae in the Punjaub, whose traces are seen even in Mathura. Indeed, the existing specimens of this period follow in the main, as far as we knows the Hâng style, in features, drapery, and decoration.
The most typical examples that we can recall arc the rock-cut images of Riumonsan, near Loyang. They form part of the cave-temples which the Empress-Dowager Ko constructed in 516 A.D. This place is still very impressive in its ruin, as it is not only representative of the period, but is a perfect museum in itself, containing more than ten thousand Buddhist images, some of the Tâng and some as late as Sung, with authentic dates attached to them, which are thus of immense importance. Grottoes follow upon grottoes, all with pointed domes; the sculptures are in low and in high relief, and the main figures are cut out to be almost free of the rock.
A Chinese poet who visited the place has left upon a rock the inscription, "The very stones here are grown aged, and have thus attained to Buddhahood." The place in itself is beautiful, for below the precipice on which the Buddhas are cut runs the mad torrent of Isui, and on the opposite bank is a little temple called Kosanji. The site of the house of Hakurakuten, our beloved Tâng poet, is still to be seen here.
In the Asuka period, when Buddhism first reached Japan, the Soga family held the most prominent place in the state, as the Fujiwaras and Minamotos did in succeeding ages. The Sogas remained a powerful factor in the empire from the days of their founder, Takanouchi Sukune, who was the adviser and prime minister of the Empress Zhingo, in her famous conquest of Korea. He may be seen in later pictures painted as a venerable bearded man, holding the infant emperor In his arms. From this time onwards his family were hereditary ministers of foreign affairs, and the traditions of their blood naturally led them to love and reverence foreign culture and institutions, whereas other native princes tended to the strict conservation of national customs. For the responsibility of government usually remained with the powerful aristocracy who surrounded the throne, and carried out mandates with the sanction of the imperial name. This is the survival of that "Assembly of the Gods" who were held to have given counsel to the supreme Godhead in Takamagahara.
The civil commotion attending the establishment of Buddhism in Japan becomes thus a matter of family jealousies between the Sogas and the Mononobes, hereditary commanders-in-chief of the territorial army, supported on their side by the Nakotomis, the ancestors of the Fujiwaras, who, as head priests, or more properly, custodians, of the ancestral rites, clung naturally to the ancient notions, in defiance of the new religion. The Otomos, who were hereditary admirals in the Japanese navy, cruising along their stations on the Korean coast, leaned to the side of the Sogas, at least in the fact that they stood neutral in the dispute. These disastrous struggles for power, which ended with the supremacy of the Sogas, were attended by the never-to-be-forgotten crime of impericide, and several dethronements — a matter of grave chagrin to the Japanese of the present day — but were otherwise not unlike the state of affairs at the recent Meiji restoration, when progressives and conservatives fought out their differences of aims and opinions, though in a kindlier spirit.
The imperial power, curtailed by oligarchic preponderance in the Soga period, was unable to veto the claims on either side. Thus when the Korean king, Meirei, in the thirteenth year of the reign of Emperor Kimmei (552 A.D.), sent ambassadors bearing a bronze-gilt statue of Sakya-Muni, with hangings and canopies and sundry Buddhist scriptures — addressing a memorial, saying, "Your vassal Mei, King of Kudara, respectfully sends this vassal of your vassal Rurishitike, to bear the accompanying image into your empire, that the teaching may flow and spread towards all your boundaries, according to the Buddha's command, who commanded that His law should flow Eastward," — the Emperor was, of course, glad to receive the tribute, but was obliged to hesitate about accepting it. He therefore put the question to his ministers, amongst whom Iname of Soga proposed that it should be worshipped with due rites, whereas Okoshi of Mononobe, the father of Moria — name dreaded of Buddhists! — and Kamako of Nakatomi, proposed that they should reject it with its embassy of escort.
The Emperor decided the matter by entrusting the statue to Iname, in a spirit of tolerance, and it was placed in his villa at Mukobara for a time. But the pestilence and famine which raged in the ensuing year gave a pretext to the enemies of the Sogas, who promptly declared that such disasters came from worshipping alien gods. Thus they got permission to burn its accessories and throw the statue into the neighbouring lake.
It appears, however, that before their formal adoption by the court, Buddhist monks and images were already known in the country. Shibatatsu, of the Rio dynasty in Southern China, a devout believer, and grandfather of the celebrated sculptor, Tori, who is the most prominent figure in the arts of this period, had migrated to Japan thirty-one years before this event, and his daughter became the first nun who worshipped the Buddhist images. The Korean priests, Donyei and Doshin, arrived in 554 A.D. Chiso, a Southern Chinese, is also said to have brought over images and sculptures ten years later, and in spite of conservative persecution, the cult gained ground daily. The Korean Kings of Kudara and Shiragi vied with each other in Buddhist presents, and Wumako, the son of Iname, who succeeded his father as prime minister, erected Buddhist temples in 584. The year 573 is remarkable for the birth of Prince Wumayado, commonly known as Shotoku-Taishi, the Saint amongst Princes, who becomes the great personification of this first Buddhist illumination. He, as regent of his aunt, the Empress Suiko, wrote the seventeen articles of the Japanese constitution. This document proclaims the duty of devotion to the Emperor, inculcates Confucian ethics, and lays its stress on the greatness of that Indian ideal which is to pervade them all — thus epitomising the national life of Japan for thirteen centuries to follow. His commentaries on the Buddhist sûtras not only evince remarkable scholarship in Chinese, but by their clear setting out of the principles of Nagarjuna (second century A.D.) prove a masterly insight and inspiration. The book was a marvel to Koreans and Chinese. The death of Prince Wumayado in 621 A.D. was the signal for universal despair, people beating their breasts in the sorrow of a night robbed of its moon, He is still worshipped as the Patron of the Arts by all craftsmen and artisans, and especially at Tennoji in Osaka.
It was in 588 that the disputes between the rival families had come to a head, when each had sought to place on the throne the upholder of its own creed, ending in the defeat of Moria and Nakatomi, and the subsequent assassination of the succeeding Emperor, who chose to object to the dictation of Wumako. Wumako had then placed his own grandniece Suiko on the throne, she being also the granddaughter of the Emperor. Her long reign, from 593 to 628 A.D., with Prince Wumayado as regent, forms the culmination of the first Buddhist movement, which is sometimes called from her, the Suiko epoch. Her capital was in the province of Asuka about twelve miles to the south of Nara, where the emperors had resided ever since the days of Kimmel. Unfortunately, no specimens remain in Asuka itself, and since the transfer of the capital to Nara, the whole place has fallen into decay. A few temples here and there, and some marble foundations scattered amongst the mulberry trees, alone mark its past importance.
The one exception to this is the colossal bronze of Ankoin, on the site of the Asuka temple, which history reports to have been cast in the fifteenth year of Suiko's reign. Its proportions were too large to allow of its entering the door of that great temple, and this taxed the ingenuity of the sculptor Tori, who was rewarded for his toils with a high court rank and a grant of extensive estates in the provinces. The statue has suffered from fire and other casualties, having been once at least on the point of total destruction. The repairs, too, are of that unfortunate early Tokugawa period, which so Obliterates the main points of the original that Only by arms and sleeves, forehead and ears, can we determine the actual type of this celebrated statue.
Luckily for us, the Horinji temple near Nara was built close to the residence of Prince Wumayado, and remains rich in the architectural and other art specimens of this period. In the Kondo, or Golden Hall, is still to be seen the Sakya trinity, cast by Tori, under the command of the prince, bearing the date of 600, and another trinity of Yakshi, bearing the date of 625, the height of each, including the halo, being about seven feet. In these statues we find the same Hang type that we noticed in the rock-out temples of Riumonsan more than a century earlier.
A Kwannon (Avalokiteswara), ten feet in height, made of wood and lacquer paste, and purporting to have been presented by One of the Korean kings, stands in the same hall. It may have been made in that country, or by some of the numerous Korean artisans who flocked to Japan at that time. Another Kwannon, which has been unrevealed to public gaze for centuries, and is preserved in a remarkable condition, is the Kwannon of Yumedono in the same temple. From these two we can judge of that idealised purity of expression which characterises the Hâng type as it appears in Buddhist art. The proportions are not exactly fine — hands and feet are disproportionate in size, and the features have almost the rigid calm of Egyptian sculpture. Yet, with all these drawbacks, we find in these works a spirit of intense refinement and purity, such as only great religious feeling could have produced. For divinity, in this early phase of national realisations, seemed like an abstract ideal, unapproachable and mysterious, and even its distance from the naturalesque gives to art an awful charm.
But it seemed that the Japanese mind, with its innate love of beauty and concreteness, was not to be satisfied with abstract types presented to it by Chinese and Korean masters. Contemporary with these, therefore, we find a new movement in sculpture, which aims at softening rigid outlines and bettering the proportions. The typical example is found in the wooden Kwannon of Chiuguji, a nunnery, founded by the daughters of the prince, and attached to the same Horinji temple. This statue, which is believed to be of about the close of the Asuka era, is wonderful for its tenderness of expression and beautiful proportions, though it adheres strictly to the Hâng type of the period. Besides the Buddhas and Bodhi-Sattvas there is also the type of Devarajas — known as the "Guardians of Law," sustaining the four corners of the universe — which is preserved to us in the same temple under the name of the "Four Guardian Kings."
These last statues are signed by Yamaghuchi, Oguchi, Kusushi, and Toriko, of whom the first is mentioned elsewhere as a celebrated artist in the middle of the seventh century. One notable point about these kings is that the metal work which decorates the headpiece and parts of the armour still preserves the Old Haw patterns found in early dolmens.
The only example now extant of the paintings of this period consists of the lacquer decorations of a shrine belonging to the Empress Suiko herself. This is an excellent specimen of the Hâng style.
An embroidery, representing the Kingdom of Infinite Bliss, called Tenju-Koku, — into which paradise the spirit of the Prince Wumayado was felt to have passed, his surviving princesses, with their damsels, working this tapestry to his memory from a design by one of the Korean artists — still remains in Chiuguji, and corroborates that interpretation of the colouring and drawing of the period, which we gather from the Suiko shrine.
Of the architectural remains the shrine itself is a typical example, and the Golden Hall, Kondo, is, broadly speaking, true to the type, in spite of having been restored a century later. The pagodas of the neighbouring temples, Horinji and Hokiji, are also specimens of the same style.
The dates which divide Japanese history having been somewhat generalised for the purposes of the present sketch, it is thought well to supply the following brief summary in more accurate form for use in reference.
The Asuka Period. — Lasted from the introduction of Buddhism in 552 to the accession of the Emperor Tenji, 667 A.D. This era in Japan is much influenced by the great vigour of Buddhism in China, under the Tang dynasty.
The Fujiwara Period. — From the accession of the Emperor Seiwa in 898, to the fall of the Taira family in 1186 A.D. This age is characterised by a purely national development of Buddhist art and philosophy, under the Fujiwara aristocracy.
The Kamakura Period, 1186 to 1894 A.D. — From the rise of the Minamoto Shogunate in Kamakura, to that of the Ashikaga Shogunate.
The Ashikaga Period, 1894 to 1587 A.D. — So called from a place in the province Musashi, which had been the original residence of that branch of the Minamoto family who held the Shogunate during this time.
The Toyotomi and Early Tokugawa Periods. — From the supremacy of Hideyoshin in 1587 to the accession of the Shogun Yoshimune, 1711 A.D.
The Later Tokugawa Period. — From the accession of the Shogun Yoshimune, 1711, to the fall of the Shogunate, 1867 A.D. This era sees the rise of the middle classes, and, assisted by European influence, the advent of the realistic school in art.
The Meiji Period. — From the accession of the reigning Emperor in 1867 to the present day.
Kwannon. — This word is an abbreviation of Kwangion or Kwangizai, meaning Avalokiteswara — the Lord who witnesseth. The name denotes one of the great Bodhi-Sattvas, who refuse Nirvana until the salvation of the universe is accomplished. Kwannon was originally conceived as a youth, something like the Christian idea of the angels. Afterwards the form becomes pre-eminently that of woman and mother. This emanation is self-manifested in every cry of sorrow, in every sight of pity. Kwannon has thirty-three forms, representing all grades of existence. "Wherever a gnat cries, there am I," may be taken as the keynote of the Lotûs-Sutra. He (or She) represents that satisfaction which comes before renunciation. He is never, therefore, the giver of Nirvana, but only of the step before salvation. Not the Buddha, but the Bodhi-Sattva. He is known in Indian Buddhism as Padmapani, the Lotus-Holder, in contrast to Vajrapani, holder of the thunderbolt.