Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the sixth century AD and flourished under the patronage of the imperial prince Shōtoku (574–622) and the establishment of the great temples of Hōryū-ji near present-day Nara and Shitennō-ji in Osaka. Early forms of Buddhism that arrived from China and Korea were chiefly those of Mahayana or Esoteric Buddhist practices that emphasised a concept of universal salvation via elaborate ritual and the worshiping of a complex array of deities. Even though Mahayana Buddhism remains an element of Japanese religious life to this day, by the end of the tenth century it began to give way to the more accessible and popular practice of Pure Land Buddhism.
Pure Land worship centred on the Amida Buddha (Sanskrit: Sukhāvatī), also known as the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Buddha of Limitless Life. Amida presided over a heavenly paradise and promised salvation and rebirth in his paradise for all worshippers. Works of art were essential to the Pure Land doctrine and its next-world emphasis on rebirth and salvation. Meditation encouraged practitioners to visualise Amida in his heavenly paradise and accumulate religious merit through simple meditation and recitation of prayers or sutras.
Until the twelfth century Amida Buddha was usually represented seated on a lotus flower; however, during the Heian period (794–1185) and Kamakura period (1185–1333) the concept of raigō (welcoming descent) flourished and Amida Buddha was often represented in a standing pose descending from the heavens to fetch his devotees and personally transport them back to his blissful paradise. This concept was first introduced in the Ōjōyōshū of 985 (The Essentials of Pure Land Salvation), an immensely popular compendium written by the monk Genshin (942–1017), which prescribed a standing statue of about a metre in height to be erected for one’s last rights to ensure a smooth passage to the Pure Land.
This rare standing Amida Buddha, purchased in 2010, accurately fits the type described in the Ōjōyōshū. Literary records suggest this style of statue was first produced in the late twelfth century, and the NGV’s acquired work represents one of these rare extant examples. The serene and circular form of the face with gentle features of long arched eyebrows extending to the ridge of the thin nose, downcast eyes and small lips illustrate the strong influence of the Amida Buddha housed at the most celebrated Heian period (794–1185) temple of Byōdō-in carved by the renowned sculptor Jōchō (d. 1057). Its broad torso with wide, rounded shoulders partly covered with a thin, languidly falling garment also follow Jōchō’s established formula.
This Amida Buddha displays one of nine different mudra (hand gestures) which determine the nine possible paths for the dying to enter paradise. This gesture, jōbon geshō (bottom level of the first class), is one of the best-known gestures in Japanese Buddhist imagery. Other distinguishing features of the Amida Buddha are the extended lobe on top of his head to accommodate his advanced understanding of the truth, his large ears that allow him to hear all people in need, the rose-coloured crystal among his curly hair that emits rays of light displaying his supreme knowledge, a single white spiral of hair on his forehead indicated by a white crystal to show his love and affection for humanity, and the folds on his neck that indicate compassion for all people.
Wayne Crothers, Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2011).