In the second half of the first millennium CE Japan experienced a florescence of artistic creativity associated with the development of Buddhism. Dr Chan gave us an immersive experience of this richness through examining the art associated with just one building, the Nan’endō, within the temple complex of Kōfukuji in the ancient capital of Nara. This octagonal structure, in translation Southern Round Hall, was first constructed in 813 as a memorial by leading members of the Northern Fujiwara clan, a branch of the socially and politically dominant family during the Heian period (CE 794-1185). The Fujiwara clan earlier founded Kōfukuji as the family temple in 710 and as a centre for the Hossō Buddhist sect. Dr Chan’s research has focused around two primary questions: first, in what ways did the visual programme of the Nan’endō engage with the commemorative practices of the clan? Second, how was memory of the dead conveyed through the material form of the building and its images? In exploring this she focused on the rich seam of information, both textual and visual, held within the temple’s archives.
At the centre of the Nan’endō, dominating the interior, is the multi-armed statue of the Fukūkenjaku Kannon, its name meaning, ‘Kannon whose rope is never empty’. This refers to the lasso used by this bodhisattva to save sentient beings. Flanking the Kannon are sculptures of the four Guardian Kings and behind those of six monks and eight paintings representing patriarchs from three Buddhist sects, Hossō, Shingon and Tensai. Both the Nan’endō and the bronze lantern dating from 816 lying outside of its entrance represent death and memorial. Dr Chan suggested that the form of the building emulates circular stupas in India constructed to store the ashes of the Buddha; a tradition predating the transformation in China of the form into pagodas, tower like structures built using Chinese timber-framing techniques. Both Endōs and pagodas share features such as an apex roof jewel that emphasise their memorial symbolism.
The historical sources are not straightforward on the reasons for the Nan’endō’s creation. Contradictory accounts tell first that Fujiwara no Fuyutsugu finished it in 813 to honour the vow that his father, Uchimaro (756-812), had made to build it, but who died a year before its completion. A different narrative states that the Nan’endō was constructed as a new venue for the Fukūkenjaku Kannon that had been housed in the Lecture Hall at Kōfukuji but remain mute as to why or when the Kannon was first made and then moved. Dr Chan resolved this apparent paradox venturing that the second explanation is more likely, as the Kannon statue was associated with the first two patriarchs of the Northern Fujiwara Clan. The Nan’endō was first planned and designed under the auspices of Uchimaro to commemorate his ancestors but, when he died, was dedicated specifically as a memorial to him by his sons. This interpretation is further strengthened by an inscription on the hexagonal lantern stating it was commissioned by Uchimaro’s second son, Fujiwara no Manatsu. The tone of the inscription indicates that the karmic merit generated through creation of the building and the lantern itself was to accrue to the Northern Fujiwara ancestors in general but also implies that it should be perhaps specifically accounted to Uchimaro, as it was his will that was being followed.
The memorial function of the Nan’endō is also pronounced in the nature of the religious activities that take place within it, known as tsuizen kuyō, a term which has a layered meaning encompassing memorial offerings by the living to accrue merit (inherent in the Buddhist concept of karma) for the salvation of the dead. This idea is visually manifested by the interior art within the Nan’endō. The six monk sculptures are continuously giving offerings and veneration, as seen in the two examples holding censors. Dr Chan coins the phrase ‘merit making machines’ to describe the purposeful nature of the art within the Nan’endō. A particular ritual, the Hokke-e, was initiated by Fuyutsugu in 817 to pray for Uchimaro’s salvation. It consists of a sequence of lectures from the Lotus Sutra as a performance of tsuizen kuyō lasting seven days incorporating lectures and debates.
Octogon’s were associated with the imperial rule, with several examples of tombs (kofun), shaped like this, dating from the late 7th and early 8th centuries in Kansai, constructed for Yamato rulers such as the Gobyōno Kofun in Kyoto, built for the Emperor Tenji. This symbolism is still in use today in the form of the takamikura, the elevated throne and pavilion used during the recent enthronement ceremony of the new emperor Reiwa.
Dr Chan gave us a fascinating and stimulating account of the origins of this famous and inspiring building. In this time of staying at home, her lecture transported us in space and time from our living rooms to Nara in early Heian Japan.
Research Fellow, Centre for Archaeology & Heritage, Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures
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