September 26, 1978
The Asuka Historical Museum
Sakyamuni, the most excellent of all the bodhisattvas waiting in Tusita Heaven atop Mt. Sumeru, changed into a six-tusked elephant at the appropriate time and entered the womb of Queen Maya, wife of King Suddhodana. When birth was near, Maya stepped out into the garden of Lumbin and reached up to break a branch from an Asoka tree; at that moment Sakyamuni was born from under her right arm. The birth occurred on the eighth day of April. The newly-born Sakyamuni took seven steps unaided, raised his right arm and majestically intoned, “I alone am honored in heaven and on earth. This triple world is full of sufferings; I will be the savior from these sufferings.” Seven lotus blossoms then appeared in the seven footprints he had made. Catvaro maharajikah (Shitenno; the Four Heavenly Kings),Sakro devanam indrah (Taishakuten) and Brahma-deva (Bonten) then appeared on either side of him, celebrating his birth, and the Two Dragon Kings showered pure water of two kinds, warm and cool, down from the sky over his body. The eight kings of beings played music, burned incense, scattered flowers, and let fall heavenly garments and jewelled necklaces.
The above is the description of Buddha’s birth recorded in the Kako-genzai-ingakyo (Sutra of the Life of Buddha), Lalitavistara, Butsu-hongyo-jikkyo (Biographies of Buddha and his chief disciples) and other Buddhist scriptures. Along with jodo (attainment of Buddhahood) and nehan (attainment of nirvana or enlightenment), Sakamuni’s birth is included among the eight most significant events in the life of Buddha. Sakyamuni, the historical founder of Buddhism, was born in the foothills of the Himalayas, son of King Suddhodana, who was king of Kapilavatth in present-day southern Nepal. His surname was Gautama, and his given name was Siddhartha; he was also known as Sakyamuni, literally “the sage of the Sakya clan.” Although there are a number of theories as to the year of his birth, it is generally held to be either 566 or 463 B.C. There are also two theories as to his birthday, one being February 8 and the other April 8; in Japan the latter date is observed, as it occurs in most Chinese translations of Buddhist scriptures, but in either case the dates are legendary, having been postulated long after the event.
Kanbutsu-e, a ceremony held April 8 to commemorate the anniversary of Buddha’s birth in which worshippers pour water (or today, a kind-of sweet tea) over a small. Buddhist image, is one of the most familiar of all Buddhist rites, and it is observed at temples throughout Japan. The image around which the ceremony centers is the tanjobutsu (literally “Buddha at birth”), a statue of the infant Buddha with right hand raised high and left hand pointing to the earth in the stance he took, according to the sutras, when intoning his first words. This form, like that of other Buddhist sculpture, originated of course in India. No examples of ancient tanjobutsu survive as independent statues in India, however; the only surviving pictorial renditions there of Buddha’s legendary birth are relief carvings and paintings. These depict the infant Buddha in one of two scenes: (1) emerging with folded hands from under Maya’s right arm, or (2) with both hands lowered as the Dragon Kings pour down pure water on him from above. There are no scenes showing him with right arm raised in the act of speaking. Of these two, moreover, (1) is more common, and is generally representative in India of the Buddha’s birth. While the oldest Buddhist stupas such as Barhut and Saynchi have no nativity scenes, a number of works which date from the second or third century do have them, including the Gandhara relief carving at Loriyan-Tangai, the relief carving excavated at Amarati, and others. Such scenes were transported to the West and to China, where they appear in cave-temple murals and in relief carvings on back of the mandorlas of Buddhist statues. The back of the mandorla on a seated stone statue of Buddha dated 472 A.D. (Shirakawa collection, Tokyo) is divided into three sections: the uppermost shows Sakyamuni emerging from under Maya’s right arm, while the central section is divided into two parts; on the left he is shown speaking with hands raised to his shoulders, and on the right standing on a pedestal with both hands lowered as the Nine Dragons shower water down upon him. (The Kako-genzai-ingakyo records that it was the Two Dragon Kings, but the Lalitavistara says the Nine Dragons.) A standing stone statue of Buddha from the Eastern Wei Dynasty dated 559 (Philadelphia University collection) has a nativity scene engraved on its halo showing Sakyamuni emerging from his mother’s right sleeve as she stands surrounded by waiting-maids; next are seven lotus blossoms, indicating his seven steps, which lead down toward a figure of Sakyamuni intoning his first words, right arm raised. In center right he is shown receiving water from the Nine Dragons with both arms pointed down. Of a slightly later date (eighth century), a Tun Huang painting (British Museum, banner) shows the infant Buddha taking seven steps and intoning his first words, as well as emerging from the womb and being sprinkled with water; it is noteworthy that here the figure of Buddha speaking, not seen in India, is given equal treatment with the other scenes. Of particular interest among Chinese works is a carved tombstone dated 543, in Piyang Prefecture, Honan Province. The nativity scene etched on the back of the monument bears twelve Chinese characters in the center which read: “Maya gives birth to the Prince; the Nine Dragons spew water to wash him.” On the right Sakyamuni is shown being born from Maya’s right sleeve, and on the left he is shown walking with right arm upraised while the Nine Dragons, their heads together, shower him with pure water from on high. Here for the first time the scenes where infant Buddha speaks and where he is showered with water are combined into one, but this is an exception; an overwhelming majority of works portray the two scenes separately.
Very few statues of infant Buddha used in ceremonial water-sprinkling (kanbutsu) survive in China. One Tanjobutsu made of gold-plated cast bronze showing the infant Buddha naked, with high usnisa (a sacred fleshy bump on the top of the head; one of the distinguishing signs of a Buddha) and lines through his hair is famous as an ancient work of the Northern Wei Dynasty (sixth century). No ancient tanjobutsu with the right arm raised are known to survive in China, but the existence of ancient Japanese images that are very Chinese in style (such as the seventh-century image in the Shogenji) indicates that they must have been made there also.
In both the Korean Peninsula and Japan, tanjobutsu were made under Chinese influence; unlike India and China, however, Korea and Japan have almost no early works depicting the full birth legend. Individual statues of infant Sakyamuni with right arm upraised in the act of speaking are far more common, and were made in huge numbers from ancient times to thearly modern era. In Korea only one or two works are known to date from the Three Kingdoms period (313~660), although there are quite a few from the Unified Silla period (660~935) and the Koryo Dynasty (935~1392). In Japan, a few ancient works are thought to date from the Asuka period (538~670), but those from the Hakuho (670~710) and Tempyo (710~794) periods are far more common. As with other gilt bronze statues, very few survive from the Heian period (794~1185). However, from the Kamakura period (1185~1333) on, there are numerous works still in existence, and particularly so from the Edo period (1615~1867); Edo tanjobutsu can be found in nearly every temple throughout Japan.
Rites and ceremonies commemorating the Buddha's birthday (bussho-e) were held in India from earliest times. Kao-seng fa-hsien chuan, the travel records of Fa-hsien, who traveled in India from 399~410 A.D., mentions that in Pataliputra, a town in Mayadha, every April 8 a ceremony known as gyozo (“moving the image”) was held, in which a statue of Buddha would be placed in a carriage adorned with gold, silver and lapis lazuli, and even then wheeled around town. It also states that similar ceremonies were held in every part of the country, and describes one held in Kotan, Shin-kien Province, China. Other documents also record that gyozo were commonly held in China in the Northern and Southern Dynasties (c. 317~c. 589). The significance of kanbutsu and method of carrying it out, meanwhile, are discussed in Kansenbutsu-gyozokyo and Maha-sattva sutra (Great Being Sutra); this rite, too, has its beginnings in India. Facsimile four of Nan-hai chi-kuei nei-fa chuan (Bringing back the Inner Law from the Southern Seas), a four-facsimile travel record written in 691 by l-ching, contains a summary of the virtues of kanbutsu and various functions occurring at Indian temples. According to l-ching’s account, a silken canopy would be erected in the temple garden and bottles of incense laid out, with a gold, silver, bronze, or stone statue placed in the center of a shallow basin. Then singing girls would play music while incense was daubed on the statue and perfume poured over it. After it had been wiped dry with a white cloth, the statue would be placed inside the temple and surrounded with many kinds of flowers. Also in China, it is recorded that Shih Lo of the later Chao Dynasty (fourth century) performed kanbutsu, and there is further documentation that the ceremony was frequently observed in the Northern and Southern Dynasties as well.
Kanbutsu of course has its origins in the accounts given in the Kako-genzai-ingakyo and other sutras of the Dragon Kings sprinkling newborn Sakyamuni with water. Since India was a hot country, moreover, priests and laymen alike customarily cleansed their bodies through bathing, a service which they would also perform for Buddhist statues. There is no evidence, however, that the statues used for this ceremony in India were tanjobutsu. As stated before, there are no separate tanjobutsu in India today, and the Maha-sattva-sutra also states that observance of kanbutsu was not limited to the occasion of Buddha’s birthday. The same can be said of gyozo; it is thought that in India, ordinary nyoraizo (statues of the adult Buddha) were used as objects of worship in both ceremonies. Use of tanjobutsu for the celebration of Buddha’s birthday is thought to have begun in China, judging from surviving works, but as in India, ordinary nyoraizo were far more prevalent. The numbers of surviving tanjobutsu clearly indicate that as Buddhism moved eastward through the Korean Peninsula to Japan, Buddha’s birthday celebrations began to be associated more and more with the ceremony of water sprinkling.
Buddha’s birthday began to be observed in Japan during the Asuka period. According to the Gangoji-garan-engi-narabini-rukishizaicho, (History of the Gangoji Temple and Record of Temple Possessions), tanjobutsu and implements for kanbutsu were brought to Japan along with the spread of Buddhism. The entry for 606 in the Nihon-shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720) records that “From this year on, every temple prepared sai (uposadha; meals served in a Buddhist service) on the eighth day of the fourth month and the fifteenth day of the seventh month.” The eighth day of the fourth month corresponds to Buddha’s birthday, and the fifteenth day of the seventh month to urabon-e (the Bon festival). While neither source is absolutely reliable as history, existing samples of Asuka tanjobutsu strongly suggest that Buddha’s birthday was observed in this country from very early times. Also, the Horyuji-garan-engi-narabini-rukishizaicho(History of the Horyuji Temple and Record of Temple Possessions) written in 747, and the Daianji-garan-engi-narabini-rukishizaicho (History of the Daianji Temple and Record of Temple Possessions) both contain passages alluding to the existence of tanjobutsu used for kanbutsu. The Saidaiji-shizairukicho (Record of Possessions of Saidaiji Temple) of 780 contains more detailed descriptions of kanbutsu implements, revealing that the statue to be sprinkled with water would be placed in the middle, with a cluster of other statues behind it depicting the scene wherein the infant Buddha emerged from his mother’s right sleeve. The Horyuji treasure collection housed in the Tokyo National Museum includes statues of Maya and her servants which were probably among the statues mentioned in that text. Also the tanjobutsu at the Todaiji stands in its own bronze basin, clearly indicating that it was used in the kanbutsu ceremony. It was probably made for the dedication of the Todaiji Great Buddha on the eighth day of the fourth month, 752, or soon after; standing forty-seven centimeters high, with a base ninety centimeters in diameter, its proportions are generous, as befits the center of attraction for a ceremony in that vast temple. In addition, an entry in the Shosoin-monjo states that on the fourteenth day of the fourth month in 764, pottery and other apparatus used in kanbutsu-e were returned from the Kozen-Yakushiji Temple. These documents and works indicate that during the seventh and eighth centuries, kanbutsu ceremonies were held on a grand scale at all the major temples in Nara.
In the Heian period, kanbutsu-e increased further in popularity, becoming an annual event at Court. The Shoku-nihonkoki (Continued Chronicles of Japan, 833~850) records that on the eighth day of the fourth month in 840, the priest Shoan was invited to the Seiryo Palace and kanbutsu-e was observed for the first time at Court. Sandai jitsuroku (Continued Chronicles of Japan, 858~887) records under the heading for 859 that for the Court kanbutsu-e, the imperial prince and all nobles of the sixth court rank and above donated money, while the Engi shiki (Regulations of Engi) lists all the paraphernalia used in the kanbutsu-e at Court and mentions that musicians from the Gagakuryo (Music Bureau) participated in ceremonies at Toji and Saiji (Kyoto Prefecture). In addition, diaries of the Heian period such as the Shoyuki, Choyuki and Choshuki also contain detailed accounts of kanbutsu-e held on the eighth day of the fourth month, giving a glimpse of what a grand and festive occasion it must have been.
There are several dozens of works currently identified as ancient (from the Asuka through the Heian periods) tanjobutsu, spreading from Ibaraki Prefecture in the north as far south as Kumamoto Prefecture, although there are a number of areas in the Tohoku and Hokuriku districts where none have as yet been found. It is hoped that this display in the Asuka Historical Museum will stimulate the discovery of tanjobutsu in other areas.
Although a few of the images are carved from wood, most are made of bronze, which is better suited to the special ceremony of kanbutsu. Their height, apart from large ones such as that in the Todaiji, ranges between six and twenty centimeters. The majority are quite small, around ten centimeters high or less. Although tanjobutsu occupy a unique place among ancient gilt bronze images of Buddha, as mentioned already they are scattered widely across Japan and are small in size, besides which many were buried long in the ground or damaged in fire so that details have been destroyed; few can be dated with accuracy. As a result, few scholars have examined them in any depth, and they are in many ways a still-unexplored field in the history of Japanese sculpture.
Tanjobutsu are generally in the shape of a young child naked from the waist up, standing clothed in a skirt with the right arm raised and the left arm hanging down straight against the body. On top of the head is the usnisa or fleshy bump that is one of Buddha’s thirty-two distinguishing marks. There is considerable variation in detail, however, often depending on the statue’s size and age. The hair of large statues such as those at the Todaiji and Zensuiji (Shiga Prefecture) is cast in rahotsu style (another of Buddha’s thirty-two marks), wound in corkscrews, while that of images at Shogenji (Aichi Prefecture), Amidaji (Shiga Prefecture) and in the Hori Collection (Kanagawa Prefecture) is incised with a burin; almost all the rest, perhaps because of their small size, have unpatterned hair. None of the ancient images has hair cast in the spiral style of the Seiryoji image, which became common in works of the medieval period on. Several have tenons extending from the back of the head, to which mandorlas were once attached. Those with large tenons, including the Shogenji and Shofukuji (Fukuoka Prefecture) images, have short skirts, an indication of antiquity. Many of those with small tenons are also very old, dating back to the seventh or eighth century. The mandorlas all seem to have been for the back of the head only, rather than full-length, but all have been lost. One theory has it that tanjobutsu with mandorlas were not meant for use in the kanbutsu ceremony, but since many tanjobutsu appearing in Indian relief carvings of the ceremony do have them, it seems likelier that in early times sculptors were more faithful to the traditional iconography. Gradually, from the Hakuho period on, omission of the mandorla probably became more and more common as the kanbutsu ceremony rendered it unnecessary. Facial expressions range from the very innocent, childlike look of the Goshinji (Nara Prefecture) and Amidaji images, to the carefully rendered expression of the Shogenji image, with a trace of a smile about the lips. Such differences reflect in part a difference in age; since the statues are so small, however, facial features are often crudely executed with a simple twist of the burin. Nearly all the statue heads are relatively large in proportion to body size, partly because of the small scale, and also as an intentional rendering of infantile bodily proportions. The three rings around the neck, another sign of Buddha, are found on the two large statues at Todaiji and Zensuiji, and on the Late Heian statues at Sairinji (Kyoto Prefecture) and Yakushiji (Nara Prefecture);: the Amidaji statue also has similar markings. No other statues have this feature.
As a rule, tanjobutsu have the right arm raised, in accordance with the description in the sutras; exceptions are the Shitennoji image (excavated in Takatori, Nara Prefecture) and the Ibaraki Historical Museum image (excavated at a former temple site in Shimo Kimiyama), which have left arm raised. The image olen from the Horyuji in 1911 also had its left arm elevated. Seiroku Noma has reported that many tanjobutsu of pre-Yuan China and further south have the left arm raised, but his iconographical sources are not clear, and there could be no direct connection between those statues and the ones from ancient Japan. The way of raising the arm differs strikingly from statue to statue; each one is highly individualistic and rich in variation. (1) The first type is that in which the arm is bent in an arc, with scarcely any suggestion of an elbow; this type is common in seventh and eighth century works. Here again there is considerable variation, however, from statues such as that of Kasagidera(Kyoto Prefecture), where the fingers reach only to the right top of the head in a fairly shallow curve, to images in the Taman Collection (Osaka Prefecture) and Shofukuji, where they reach over the head all the way to the left side. (2) Next are statues similar to (1), except that the elbow protrudes slightly more; as with (1), the position of the wrist varies a great deal. Seventh-century works such as that in the Yakushiji (Nara Prefecture) and the Hori Collection are examples. (3) The upper arm is held out horizontally at a level slightly higher than the right shoulder, with elbow bent and forearm pointing straight up either perpendicularly or at a slightly wider angle, as in the Todaiji statue and the Heian period statue at Kenpoji (Aichi Prefecture). There are no early statues of this kind from the seventh or early eighth centuries; most, like the Daihoonji statue (Kyoto Prefecture) are from the medieval period or later. (4) The upper arm position is the same as in (3), but the fore- arm is bent deeply in toward the head, as in the Amidaji and Shitennoji figures, which are thought to date from the late eighth or early ninth century. (5) The arm is raised up almost perpendicularly; this category includes Hakuho works such as the Joyo City statue (excavated at the former site of Kuze Temple, Kyoto Prefecture), whose arm extends straight up and back at an oblique angle, and the Horyuji and Goshinji statues, where the elbow is slightly bent. Some works, such as the Daikoji (Shiga Prefecture) and Sairinji statues, were apparently bent further after casting to correct the shape, and two or three others also show traces of adjustment in the elbow position. Most statues have the left arm hanging straight down, but several have it bent outward at the elbow to match the right arm, or have the elbow drawn slightly back. The Goshinji and Horyuji statues, moreover, have bracelets. In general the third and fourth fingers of the right hand are elevated, but several, including the Todaiji figure, have all five fingers extended. The left hand either matches the finger position of the right hand or has all five fingers extended, regardless of the finger position of the right hand. Finger position in general has no connection with date of manufacture; in almost works of the medieval period and later, however, the forefinger alone is raised.
In larger statues such as the Todaiji and Zensuiji works, the chest, belly and arms are indented and chubby, made to look like the body of a little child; in the Goshinji, Taman Collection and other statues the body is curved, with soft-textured skin like that of a young boy. Most statues, however, are bluntly rendered (owing partly to size), with some totally lacking in modulation.
The skirts can be divided into the following three types: (1) short ones barely covering the knees; (2) longer ones covering most of the lower leg but leaving the ankles fully exposed, and (3) ones whose hem hangs down as far as the pedestal, leaving only the toes uncovered. (1) is more like a loincloth than a skirt. In India the statues were completely naked, and in China it became customary to add a small bit of cloth just big enough to cover the genitals. That scrap gradually increased in area, becoming a loincloth-skirt finally in Korea and Japan. Another theory suggests that a short skirt was added to accord with Southern climate and customs. Almost all works in style (1) date back to the seventh century. The purpose of styles (2) and (3), however, is not only to cover the lower half of the body, but to indicate that the infant Sakyamuni is a bodhisattva who will one day attain Buddhahood; longer skirts are in conformity with the iconography of other statues of bodhisattvas. The Kenpoji statue is the only one to have a chest sash, probably like the skirt a way of suggesting iconographically that the tanjobutsu represents a bodhisattva. Style (2) is common among small gilt bronze Buddhas of the seventh and eighth centuries, and tanjobutsu of this style probably also belong to that period. Style (3) is common to all statues of bodhisattvas, regardless of period.
Skirt folds may receive careful or rough portrayal, depending on the overall execution of the work. Apart from the rough simplicity of those incised artlessly in straight lines with a burin, the rendering of drapery folds is, along with the modeling of the body, an important clue in dating a statue. Those which have schematic, symmetrical pleats include many very old works. The Shogenji and other statues have much in common with the Tori style of small Asuka gilt bronze images; the statue in the Ishino Collection(Ehime Prefecture) while not fectly symmetrical, also resembles that style, as do most works with short skirts. In the Goshinji, Yakushiji, Hori Collection and other Hakuho period works, however, just as rendering of the body becomes more careful, so the drapery folds, while still more or less schematic, begin to show greater complexity and realism. In the Todaiji and Zensuiji figures all trace of schematicism is gone, and the rendering is much more natural. The resulting impression of being able to sense thigh and calf through the garments is a general characteristic of Tempyo sculpture. Furthermore, depiction of turned-back skirt folds as inverted triangles in the Sairinji and Ichikawa Municipal Museum (Chiba Prefecture) statues is a trait often seen in Late Heian wooden statues.
The only tanjobutsu with whole surviving pedestals are the Goshinji and Kofukugokokuzenji (Saga Prefecture) statues. The pedestal of the Goshinji statue is a three-tiered lotus blossom, but it has a unique design. There is a single layer of simple petals attached on four sides only, leaving gaps between which flower pistils are incised on the renniku (lotus center). The kaeribana (base of inverted lotus petals) has eight composite petals, beneath which is an octagonal, two-level frame base. On alternating sides of the section connecting the two levels, kozama (a pattern often used to embellish pedestals or architectural fittings) and inverted heart shapes have been cut out. The lotus blossom portion of the pedestal was cast in one piece with the body of the statue, while the lower portion was cast separately and joined on afterwards. The pedestal of the Kofukugokokuzenji statue consists of two tiers, a kaeribana and a square frame base, all cast in one piece. In almost all other works the renniku was cast with the main body, and the lower, separately-cast portions are now lost. The renniku is usually conical in shape, or sometimes hemispherical. Both types have a tenon attached underneath. The statue in the Kurata Collection (formerly in Ehime Prefecture) is a unique example having disc-shaped renniku with a long tenon beneath, which was probably inserted directly into the kaeribana. In Heian works the renniku generally does not have a tenon attached; instead it usually has a hole bored out for the tenon, which was carved on top of the lower portion of the pedestal (now lost) and inserted from below. The pedestals of the Todaiji and Zensuiji statues were not cast entirely together with the bodies; on each of the soles of the feet is a rectangular tenon which is inserted into the surface of the pedestal. This technique is common in gilt bronze statues of the Heian period, and was probably employed in these two because of their larger size.
Because of their miniature size, almost all of the statues were cast solidly in a wax mold. Two statues, the Todaiji and Kenpoji (tenth century) images, used the nakago method, in which an earthen core is inserted and later removed; others may have used the tsutsumi-nakago method, in which the earthen core is sealed inside and not removed even after completion. In the Shogenji, Goshinji and other statues the details of waist sash and skirt hem show careful use of the burin, but many others are executed very simply, cast in rough outline only with facial features and skirt folds carved nut later.
None of the tanjobutsu can be dated precisely from maker’s inscription or other documentation. Since most are ten centimeters or less in height, moreover, comparison with other, signed ancient statues is extremely difficult. Among the dozens of surviving tanjobutsu, however, a few are equals of some of the greatest masterpieces of ancient gilt bronze sculpture. The Shogenji statue, for example, has stylistically much in common with other Asuka works such as Tori-style small gilt bronze images and statues of Maya and her attendants. The childlike expression of the Goshinji statue, moreover, along with the rendering of its drapery folds, are classic examples of the Hakuho style. The Todaiji image is a valuable example of a small gilt bronze statue typifying the pinnacle of Tempyo sculpture, and the Zensuiji image is also closely derived from that style. As mentioned above, tanjobutsu are still an unexplored area in the history of sculpture, but as research centering on these outstanding works continues, it should become possible to shed light on the stylistic variations of other tanjobutsu as well.
(Original by Tanaka Yoshiyasu; translated by Juliet Carpenter.)
This text was compiled in association with the special exhibition “Ancient Statues of the Infant Buddha” held at the Asuka Historical Museum in 1978.
Circled numerals in the text refer to plate numbers.