Hattie Branch, Blakemore Intern, trains our eyes on the Lotus Sutra.

From a modern perspective, it is difficult to decipher what exactly is going on in this illustration. A group of figures appear oddly perched atop a spire, while below them tiny figures wander about, oblivious to the precariously balanced deities overhead.  The image only begins to clarify when we begin to look as people would have done in 12th-century Japan.

The Lotus Sutra, depicted here, describes the historic Buddha, Shakyamuni, teaching a gathered multitude how to achieve Buddha-hood. He sits enthroned, backed by a flaming leaf-shaped halo, gesturing that he is teaching the law. Rising behind him is a decorative rendering of the tree under which he taught his first sermon. Surrounding the Buddha are two monks with shaved heads, and four richly clad bodhisattvas—enlightened beings who help others achieve enlightenment.

In the foreground, three sections of text are illustrated. The group on the left are followers come either to request or give thanks for predictions of the likelihood of their attaining Buddha-hood. The group on the far right, busily digging, represents a parable in which the Buddha describes one searching for enlightenment like a man digging on high ground (so long as the soil is dry, water is far away; but when it is damp, he knows that he is near his goal). The structure in the center is the upper portion of the Jeweled Pagoda, which wells up from the ground wherever the Lotus Sutra is truly preached.

The confused (from a Western point of view) perspective would not have troubled 12th-century viewers at all. The Buddha and his attendants who loom large are actually sitting amidst the hills of the middle ground. The figures are floating in order to make it easy for us to see them. The lower portion that appears to be below the Buddha is actually placed in front of him.

This image and accompanying text would have been deeply familiar to 12th-century readers. Unfolding the layers of image and meaning within, this Lotus Sutra frontispiece allows us to follow their lead in understanding what we see.

Lotus Sutra: Frontispiece Depicting Chapter Twelve, late 12th century, Japanese, Heian period (794–1185), handscroll; gold and silver on indigo dyed paper, wood with metal fittings, 9 3/16 x 7 3/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 48.171. Currently on view in LUMINOUS, special exhibition galleries, fourth floor, SAM downtown.

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