Canonizing Kannon: The Ninth-Century Esoteric Buddhist Altar at Kanshinji

By Bogel, Cynthea J. | The Art Bulletin, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Canonizing Kannon: The Ninth-Century Esoteric Buddhist Altar at Kanshinji


Bogel, Cynthea J., The Art Bulletin


The honzon, or primary icon,' of the Japanese Buddhist temple Kanshinji is a statue of the bodhisattva Nyoirin Kannon (Figs. 1, 2, 5, 6, 12).2 The ninth-century figure takes central position on the altar of the temple's main hall (Kondo) and is the locus of daily rituals performed at the temple. It is, however, rarely seen. For all but two days a year, the threefoot-high statue is secreted behind the double doors of a lacquered zushi, or shrine (the Nyoirin Kannon is behind the curtained double doors at center, Fig. 3). Annually, on April 17 and 18,3 devotees flock by the hundreds to Kanshinji, located deep in the mountains south of Osaka (Fig. 4), to pray to the temporarily revealed secret image (Fig. 5). From a respectful distance they beseech the Nyoirin Kannon for blessings through the power of the "wish-granting gem" held in the innermost right hand of its six arms. Judging by the historical record and applying comparative stylistic analysis, art historians generally date the Nyoirin Kannon statue to about 840. It is thus the earliest surviving Japanese representation of this particular bodhisattva,4 one of many Esoteric forms5 of the Kannon (Sanskrit: Avalokitesvara).

The Kanshinji image is well known to scholars as well as devotees because of its age, excellent preservation, and modem status as an emblem of Esoteric expression. In 1897 and again in 1951 the Japanese government designated the Nyoirin Kannon as a Kokuho, or National Treasure, securing its status as part of the cultural patrimony and an important work within the canon of Japanese art history.6 Despite its early canonical status specific details about the construction and preservation of the statue were not known until 1955. In the cold December of that year, Kanshinji's beloved secret image was assaulted by a zealot, after which the temple allowed it to be examined. The criminal files of the Osaka Prefectural Police Office detail the incident:

A religious fanatic, mentally unstable, wandered about the country and stayed in various temples, studying books on religion and art. He became obsessed with the beautiful bodhisattva of Kanshinji temple. The man purportedly wished to obtain for himself the power of the Nyoirin Kannon, symbolized by the wish-granting jewel held in the icon's right hand, which he imagined to be contained within the physical body of the statue. One night he dreamed that a red, moonlike sphere flew out from within the statue. The sacred icon was thus rendered powerless, and the man determined to destroy the statue and the hall that housed it. He went to Kanshinji and hid inside the main hall until it had closed to the public. Alone, he located the Nyoirin Kannon within its secreting shrine and tried to carry the image away. Finding it too heavy, in frustration he broke off two of the statue's hands.7 The man then took the broken pieces outside and burned them ceremonially in rice fields near the temple. Days later, reading that the police were searching for the vandal, he turned himself in and confessed his crime.8

Following the incident, a team of art specialists was summoned to the temple to scrutinize and repair the damaged icon. The first definitive technical and material study of the secret statue was published one year later in 1956 by Nishikawa Shinji, a historian of sculptures who worked with the team.9 Twenty-two years later, in 1978, he published another article on all the extant statues of Kanshinji, highlighting the Nyoirin Kannon image and discussing a range of relevant historical documents with which he attempted to construct a chronology of the extant works. By this time other scholars had also investigated the statue.10 From a material viewpoint, limiting exposure over many centuries has superbly preserved the icon and its meticulous surface decoration (Figs. 6, 7). The artistic execution and overall preservation of the Kanshinji Nyoirin Kannon have earned it the praise of art historians, and it is frequently cited in the literature as a consummate example of period style and technique. …

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