Wednesday, October 5, 2011
From the department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Shinto and Buddhist Art
Shinto, which translates literally as the "Way of the Gods," is a religious system rooted in the Japanese culture's traditional sense of intimacy with nature and in its reverence for the divine ancestry of the land and its rulers. Shinto deities, called kami, are envisaged as spirits embodied by forms ranging from rocks, mountains, and waterfalls to mirrors, icons, and other objects. Certain mythical and historical figures were also regarded as kami and were represented as ancient court nobility.
Shinto emerged in response to Buddhism, which had been practiced in India for nearly one thousand years before it first came to Japan in the mid-sixth century. Buddhism is based on the teaching that life is sorrowful, because all beings are bound to an endless cycle of reincarnations. To attain release, earthly passions must be overcome through meditation and rigorous moral conduct. Buddhism spread throughout Asia in two major traditions; Theravada, stressing the achievement of spiritual enlightenment through meditation, took hold mainly in South and Southeast Asia, while a later tradition called Mahayana prevailed in Central and East Asia. Mahayana emphasized faith in Buddha and a reliance on the compassionate intercession of bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who postponed their own entrances into nirvana in order to help others achieve Buddhahood.
In 552 A.D. an envoy from Korea introduced to the Japanese court this "doctrine amongst all doctrines most excellent, but hard to explain and comprehend." Although initially opposed by the hereditary clans in charge of the shamanistic rituals of the state, Buddhism is said to have finally taken root in Japan through the efforts of Prince Shotoku (573-621).
In the ninth century, Kukai (774-835) introduced Chinese Esoteric Buddhism, with its systematic icons and elaborate doctrines centered on the Supreme Buddha Dainich (Sanskrit: Mahavairochana). During the Heian period (794-1185), Esoteric Buddhism obtained the strong patronage of both the imperial court and influential aristocrats. During the late Heian period, the doctrine of compassion accelerated the development of Pure Land Buddhism.
By the eleventh century, an assimilation of native and foreign religions had taken place, and Shinto gods were regarded as manifestations of Buddhist deities. This integration characterized Japan's later religious history and profoundly affected its art. It was not until the restoration of the imperial rule under Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) in the mid-nineteenth century that Shinto was formally separated from Buddhism.