Report on the talk “Transformation Act: Early Eighth-Century Relic Devotion and the Emerging “Prince Shōtoku Cult” at Hōryūji”

“Hōryūji – 法隆寺” by kanjiroushi is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Prince Umayado (574-622), also known as Toyotomimi, was the second son of the 31st Emperor Yomei, and is known by the posthumous title “Prince Shotoku”. As the regent to his aunt, the 33rd Empress Suiko, Prince Shotoku led the way in establishing the 12 court ranks and first constitution with 17 articles. Prince Shotoku was also active in the patronage and spread of Buddhism, which was officially introduced in the 6th century, and is famous as the founder of Hōryūji (original name was Ikaruga Temple) in Nara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 2021 is the 1400th anniversary of the passing away of the Prince Shotoku.

In Buddhism idolatry, relics known as “Shari” (the remains of Gautama Siddhartha or a substitute for it) and “Mani” (a jewel symbolising the spiritual power of the Buddha) both play an important role. Prof Walley pointed out that Buddhism rituals leading to the enshrinement of relics in East Asia re-enacted events from the death of the Buddha to the distribution of Shari, and even though the relics were stowed underneath or above the pagoda, away from the devotees’ sight, the reliquary still served its function as the receptacle for the relics and the numerous offerings made by Buddhists. In the case of the Hōryūji, Prince Shotoku himself has been an object of worship as Salvation Kannon, and for this, Shari and Mani had important implications. The nested format at the Hōryūji reliquary set asserted the relics’ legitimacy and salvific potency, and simultaneously embodied their movement as they broke free from their containers. The objects of offering in this context served as evidence of ancients’ veneration of the relics, as well as the enactment of the relics’ sympathetic response to the venerating people.

In the Hōryūji pagoda, the heart pillar, functioned as the axis mundi that connected Shari, inserted into its underground stone foundation, to Mani, or the transformed magical power of the relics at the top of the metal finial supported by the heart pillar. Due to the fire in 670, most of buildings including the pagoda were rebuilt. However, the timber used for the heart pillar was cut down before the recompletion of the original Ikaruga Temple in the early 7th century. In ancient religious architectures in Japan, the heart pillar was traditionally the symbol of the life force of the relics themselves, and it seems that the heart pillar at Horyu-ji Temple mediated the salvific power of the relics themselves. From these, no consensus has yet been reached as to why such old timber was used as the heart pillar for the pagoda, but the fact that the timber used for the heart pillar was cut down during the Prince Shotoku’s lifetime may become significant.

In fact, it was after the Hakuho period (673-686) that the Prince Shotoku Cult at Hōryūji flourished. It was only after the fire that the Yumedono, saturate place for the Prince Shotoku Cult, was built on the site of the Prince Shotoku’s palace within the precincts of Hōryūji. Also, it has been pointed out that the Buddhist ideologies expressed in the paintings at Tamamushi Shrine at Hōryūji seem to coincide with those recorded to have been expressed by the legendary Prince Shotoku. However, there is very little to securely tie the shrine to any single person. Today’s majority of the Prince Shotoku Cult was propagated by Buddhist monks of Jodoshinshu Sect after the middle ages. These mean that the Prince Shotoku Cult likely created a new vision of an ideal sovereign long after his death, who possessed and ruled by the wisdom of the Buddha.

“Shotoku Taishi and His Sons” is marked with CC0 1.0

The lecture was followed by a lively question and answer session. It made us remember the importance of the Prince Shotoku and Hōryūji in Japanese Buddhist art, religious history, and ancient kingship. It was also a significant opportunity as the project related to the special exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre, which has opened from 18th June.

Tsuji Hirohito
MA student in Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies

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