Gold on indigo–dyed paper; 11 3/4 x 339 3/4 in. (29.8 x 863 cm)
Seymour Fund, 1965 (65.216.1)
The Lotus Sutra, promulgated in India around the early part of the third century A.D., is believed to be the final teaching of Shakyamuni at Vulture Peak. It was part of Buddhist worship in Japan as early as the sixth century and became the most popular sutra. The Lotus Sutra emphasizes the ultimate Mahayana belief that Buddha's compassion is open to all, regardless of gender or station in life. In the late Heian period, lavishly produced copies of this text accounted for most of the thousands of such devotional offerings commissioned by the aristocracy to gain religious merit. Following Chinese precedent, they were often painted in gold and silver on paper or silk dyed deep indigo or purple.
This illustration is painted on the frontispiece that precedes the written scripture. It combines depictions of three episodes from chapters 12 to 15 of the Lotus Sutra. Its composition skillfully combines iconic images of the Buddha with narrative vignettes. Here, the daughter of the Dragon King of the Sea offers the radiant jewel to Buddha preaching on Vulture Peak (rendered in the shape of a bird's head). The episode contains the essence of the scripture: the girl's offering is accepted and she is immediately changed into a man, with many features of a bodhisattva, seated on a jeweled lotus. Thus, the compassion of the Buddha offered salvation to women, whose bodies were regarded as unclean and preclusive of attaining enlightenment. Balancing this scene is an illustration of an episode from the Buddha's former life: as a king, Buddha so desired true knowledge that he promised all his wealth and power and lifelong servitude to whoever could reveal it. Here, he is seen twice, once kneeling before the sage who taught him and again bearing firewood in fulfillment of his vow.