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Report for the talk “Word Embodied: Entangled Icons in Medieval Japanese Buddhist Art”

Dr. Halle O’Neal, Reader in Japanese Buddhist Art and Director of Research at Edinburgh College of Art, gave a fascinating talk entitled, “Word Embodied: Entangled Icons in Medieval Japanese Buddhist Art”, for the Institute’s February 2020 Third Thursday Lecture. The talk investigated the interplay between text, image, and the body of the Buddha by examining jeweled pagoda mandalas, a type of Buddhist painting that appeared in the twelfth century. Written and painted in gold on indigo paper, jeweled pagoda mandalas are entanglements of texts and images. They show a towering pagoda constructed by characters written and copied from Buddhist scriptures in the centre. Illustrations of scriptural stories enclose the pagoda from the surrounding areas.

O’Neal introduced three sets of the jeweled pagoda mandalas at Chūsonji, Ryūhonji, and the Tanzan Shrine and reconstructed the circumstances regarding their production. In addition, she discussed the prototypes of jeweled pagoda mandalas, examples of which were found in Dunhuang, China that existed as early as the tenth century. One may then wonder why jeweled pagoda mandalas suddenly gained currency in Japan in the twelfth century. O’Neal showed that this type of Buddhist image grew out of the culture of sutra copying at the time. As indicated by records in courtier diaries, transcription of scriptures for some aristocrats was a life-long project. They vowed to transcribe the entire cannon—thousands of scrolls—year after year by hand and, in some cases, written in their own blood. Records also indicate that people practiced genuflection along with transcription of scriptures, bowing three times whenever they finished copying three lines. Such devotion to scriptures was also testified by an array of scriptural art, which shows the intersections of texts and images in a variety of ways. An example of this is a handscroll of the Lotus Sutra in which each character is aligned with an image of a Buddha.

In other examples characters are placed within illustrated miniature pagodas or on the top of lotus pedestals. In this creative lineage of scriptural art, jeweled pagoda mandalas demonstrate a further intricate inter-relationship of text and image through showing pagodas composed of scriptural characters. The images of the pagodas pose a conundrum: how should viewers “read” or “view” them? O’Neal solved this question utilizing digital animation and demonstrated how scriptural texts were arranged to form a pagoda, and that they read from top to bottom and “moved” in a sinuous way. This animation disclosed the difficulty of reading texts for their content given their complex arrangement with small characters placed tightly against one another. It also revealed the exquisite craftmanship of building a pagoda painting like this. However, once people distanced themselves from the painting, its textualized surface immediately became obscure, and its architectural shape emerged. As such, the image required a dynamic performance of viewing, reading, or both, and resisted a single categorization as either text or an image.

This elusiveness should mean little to devotees as pagodas were icons that embodied and were a manifold existence of the sacred—scriptures, relics, reliquaries, and body of the Buddha. The pagodas are what O’Neal called “a salvific matrix of text and body,” rendering relics as words, words as relics—a visualized space of dharma ad nonduality. This matrix illuminates the potency of words and power of art to lead to manifestation of the divine and the realization of enlightenment.

Dr. Yen-Yi Chan
Robert & Lisa Sainsbury Fellow

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