Who is depicted in this sculpture? What is he doing?
Buddhism is a religion based on the teachings of a historical figure known as the Buddha Shakyamuni, who lived about 2,500 years ago. In some schools of Buddhism the Buddha Shakyamuni is thought of as one buddha among many, each inhabiting a different era or part of the universe. This sculpture shows Amitabha, identified as the Buddha of the Western Paradise. Amitabha is shown seated in deep concentration with half-closed eyes and hands held together at the lap in the gesture of meditation. He wears a simple monk’s robe, draped over the shoulders, leaving the flesh of his chest and the lower part of one arm exposed. His hair arrangement, typical for Amitabha, is composed of hundreds of curls, and raised at the top in a cranial bulge that is one of the marks of the Buddha’s supernatural powers.
During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, images of Amitabha were created in large numbers as a result of the popularity of a Buddhist sect known as Pure Land. The teachings of this sect emphasized the horrors of Buddhist hells and celebrated the glories of Amitabha’s Western Paradise, also known as the Pure Land. Pure Land adherents believed that if they uttered Amitabha’s name sincerely, they would achieve salvation, and be escorted to his glorious paradise after death by a retinue of gods.
How was this object made?
The Amitabha is carved of wood and constructed using the “joined-wood” technique. In contrast to earlier wood sculpture carved from a single block, eleventh century sculptors developed this new technique to produce large, lightweight images. Artisans made images like this one by shaping and hollowing separate, smaller blocks of wood, then assembling the parts into one large sculpture.
There were several advantages to this technique: the finished sculpture was less likely to split because the wood core had been removed; the use of small pieces of wood required only a third of the wood needed for single-block construction; and the work could be divided into specialized steps each done by different groups of workers, a process somewhat akin to a factory assembly line. After completion, the figure was coated with lacquer and then gilded.
Why was this figure important to the samurai?
During the Kamakura period (1185–1333), proselytizing, mendicant monks spread the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism throughout Japan. Along with many commoners, warriors turned to faith in Amitabha as an expedient means of ensuring salvation. Although large-scale images like this one would not have been available on the battlefield, prayer strips inscribed with the name of Amitabha were distributed as portable reminders of his power, allaying the fears of many soldiers in combat. Pure Land monks are known to have attended warriors on the battlefield, encouraging prayer and witnessing the proper conduct of their death.