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Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan

August 17, 2013–January 12, 2014

Inscribing Magic: Sacred Buddhist Texts

The Illustrated Sutra of Past and Present Karma

The Illustrated Sutra of Past and Present Karma (Kako genzai inga kyō emaki). Japanese, Kamakura period, late 13th century. Hanging scroll; ink and color on paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, several members of The Chairman's Council Gifts, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation and Mary and James G. Wallach Foundation Gifts, 2012 (2012.249)

"Anyone who keeps, reads, recites, and copies the Lotus Sutra should be considered to see Shakyamuni and hear this sutra from his mouth."

—"Encouragement of Universal-Sage Bodhisattva" chapter of the Lotus Sutra

Japan did not have its own writing system at the earliest stages of its history, but rather imported a fully developed one from China, along with Buddhist teachings, beginning in the sixth century. Even though the Japanese and Chinese languages have little in common, China was the dominant civilization in the area, and all official and religious texts were transcribed in Chinese. The importation of written script, along with Buddhist art and artists from continental Asia, had a transformative impact on Japan's approach to the expression of the sacred.

The opening section of the exhibition, integrated with the Arts of Japan Galleries' permanent installation of prehistoric and ancient religious art, introduces an array of religious narrative paintings and mandalas that juxtapose text and image in order to convey sacred messages. Buddhist scriptures—transcribed in glittering gold and silver pigments on indigo-dyed papers and featuring elaborate frontispieces—attest to the importance placed on the brush-written word. It was believed that copying sutras or having them copied would bestow religious merit, and therefore no expense was spared in creating editions of sutras. The magical efficacy ascribed to the transcription of Buddhist teachings in ancient Japan laid the foundation for the reverence of the written word throughout Japanese history. Buddhism also provided the inspiration for visualizations in both painting and sculpture of sacred sites and deities considered native to Japan.

This strong belief in the power of the written word was closely related to the idea that the pronunciation of sacred formulas (mantras) or the names of deities would result in good karma, or Buddhist salvation. Perhaps the most prominent manifestation of this belief is the practice of intoning the name of Amida Buddha to bring about rebirth in the Western Pure Land Paradise.