Art/ Collection/ Art Object

愚極礼才書 「極重悪人無他方便・唯稱弥陀得生極楽」
Buddhist Maxim on the Saving Power of Amida

Gukyoku Reisai (Japanese, 1369–1452)
Nanbokuchō period (1336–92)
15th century
Pair of hanging scrolls; ink on paper
Image (each scroll): 36 3/4 x 8 3/4 in. (93.4 x 22.3 cm) Overall with mounting (a): 67 1/8 x 9 1/2 in. (170.5 x 24.1 cm) Overall with knobs (a): 67 1/8 x 11 1/4 in. (170.5 x 28.6 cm) Overall with mounting (b): 67 x 9 1/2 in. (170.2 x 24.1 cm) Overall with knobs (b): 67 x 11 3/16 in. (170.2 x 28.4 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Sylvan Barnet and William Burto, in memory of John M. Rosenfield, 2014
Accession Number:
Not on view
Like adherents of the more popular Pure Land sects, Gukyoku Reisai, a prominent Zen monk, believed in the saving power of the Buddha Amida (Sanskrit: Amitābha). This couplet, written in Chinese cursive script, reads, from right column to left:

For an utterly evil person,
there is no other expedient means.
Simply recite the name of [A]Mida
to achieve birth in Paradise.
—Trans. John T. Carpenter
These two scrolls present the fundamental doctrine of Pure Land Buddhism: by invoking the name of Amida, the believer will be forgiven every sin, no matter how severe, and will be reborn in the Western Pure Land. They read: "For those who commit the most evil deeds, there is no other way'' (left) and "Chant the name of Mida to gain birth in Paradise" (right).[1] Here "Mida" is an abbreviation for Amida Buddha, the Buddha of lmmeasurable Light, who presides over the Western Paradise, or Pure Land, where he preaches the dharma, or Buddhist law.

The seals indicate that the author of the calligraphy is Gukyoku Reisai, a renowned Zen priest of the Rinzai sect, who was also known as Master of the Wind and Moon (Fūgetsu shujin).[2] Reisai belonged to the dharma lineage of Enni Ben'en (1202–1280), the founder of Tōfukuji in Kyoto, and he served as the 149th abbot of that temple. He also served as the 145th abbot of Nanzenji, and died at the age of eighty-three.

It is said that examples of Reisai's calligraphy were much sought after in his own time, because it was believed that temples with name plaques or tablets (hengaku) inscribed by him were safe from fire. Although none of these plaques is extant, more than ten examples of his calligraphy in other genres are known. Works in the Eisei Bunko in Tokyo and Chōshōin collections at Nanzenji are considered to be his masterpieces.

The border of the paper on which the present scrolls are inscribed is decorated in a rubbed-wax technique known as rōsen. A desired design is carved in relief on a woodblock, and the paper is placed on top and vigorously rubbed with colored wax until a glossy pattern appears. Wax-rubbed paper from China was employed for calligraphy in Japan as early as the Heian period, when the paper's entire surface was decorated. From the Kamakura period onward, however, the decoration came to be limited to the edges of the paper, as in the present scrolls.

The border here employs the dragon motif, the decorative pattern on almost all the rosen paper imported from China. The paper itself dates to the Ming period, and its use demonstrates the Japanese admiration of Chinese Zen masters. In fact, most calligraphy by Muromachi-period Japanese Zen priests is based upon Chinese styles and techniques. Reisai's calligraphy, however, resembles instead the so-called Shōren'in style, an indigenous style developed by Prince Son'en (1298–1356) and practiced by courtiers, which became the basis for one of the standard schools of Japanese calligraphy. (See the appendix for a discussion of the mountings of these scrolls.)

In the earlier Kamakura period, Chinese styles were assiduously copied within Japanese Zen circles, but Zen calligraphy of the Muromachi period had to be from the hand of a famous priest to be of value. As long as the calligraphy demonstrated a practiced hand, it did not necessarily have to reflect a Chinese calligraphic style.

Seals (on both): Fūgetsu shujin; Gukyoku

Ex coll.: Nakamura Fujitarō, Tokyo

Literature: Tamaya 1965, pl. 243; Kyoto National Museum 1967, pl. 142; Shimizu and Rosenfield 1984–85, no. 48

Tadayuki Kasashima. In Miyeko Murase, The Written Image. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2002, cat. no. 42.

[1] Translated in Shimizu and Rosenfield 1984–85, p. 138.
[2] The position of the seals in this pair of scrolls is somewhat unnatural, problematizing the attribution of the scrolls to Reisai. It is possible that the works are from the hand of a different calligrapher, whose identity became confused with Reisai's in later periods. The style is similar, for instance, to that in Lin Hejing's Poem on Plum Flowers by the Zen priest Musō Soseki (1275–1351) in the Idemitsu Museum collection in Tokyo, a relationship that requires further study.
Sylvan Barnet and William Burto , Cambridge, MA (until 2014; donated to MMA).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Written Image: Japanese Calligraphy and Paintings from the Sylvan Barnet and William Burto Collection," October 1, 2002–March 2, 2003.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Arts of Japan," September 27, 2014–January 14, 2015.

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