Exhibitions/ Art Object

Tobatsu Bishamonten

Heian period (794–1185)
late 10th–early 11th century
Zelkova wood with traces of color
H. 49 1/4 in. (125.1 cm)
Credit Line:
Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015
Accession Number:
2015.300.253a, b
Not on view
Tobatsu Bishamonten is one of the manifestations of Bishamonten, the Guardian King of the North, who is usually included in a group of Four Guardian Kings (Shitennō), protectors of the four directions. However, in the manifestation of Tobatsu Bishamonten (as captured by this sculpture), the deity is always shown independently and typically stands on a mount supported by the female earth deity, Jiten, and two dwarf demons, Niranba and Biranba. Wearing an angry expression and dressed in the armor of a Chinese warrior, he holds in his left hand a miniature stupa, which symbolizes the Buddha’s teachings and relics; his right hand most likely held a weapon to subjugate evil and suppress the enemies of Buddhism.
Bishamonten (also known as Tamonten) is the Japanese equivalent of Vaishravana, Guardian King of the North. Characteristically, he is dressed in the armor of a military general and holds aloft a weapon and a miniature stupa. The Tobatsu Bishamonten is one of the god's several manifestations (see also cat. no. 23). Unlike Bishamonten, who is usually included in a group of the Shiten’nō (Skt: Lokapalas), the guardians of the four quarters of the universe, the Tobatsu Bish;monten is always shown as an independent deity, supported by the earth goddess Jiten (Skt: Prthivi).[1]
Jiten is usually, but not always, flanked by two squirming dwarf-demons— Niranba and Biranba—who are also the conventional vehicles supporting all Shiten’nō.

Although the origin of the name Tobatsu is unknown,[2] several Central Asian tales associated with Bishamonten help to identify the iconographic features by which he is distinguished. One legend, which can be traced back to the folklore of Khotan, is recorded in the celebrated travelogue by the monk Xuanzang, the Xiyouji (Buddhist Records of the Western World).[3] The story, which echoes the birth of the goddess Athena in Greek mythology, relates how in the desert of Khotan a king prayed to a statue of the protector Bishamonten that he might become the father of a child. Instantly, an infant boy sprang from the idol's forehead. To provide milk for the newborn, Bishamonten made the earth in front of him swell up in the form of a breast, and from the breast the child eagerly drew forth nourishment.

Another fantastic tale, which also suggests Bishamonten's association with Central Asia, is taken from one of the majorscriptural sources, the Bishamon giki (Rules for the Worship of Bishamonten). This story relates how Bishamonten appeared on the northern gate of Kutcha when the city was surrounded in 742 by enemy forces. At Bishamonten's command, golden mice suddenly emerged and chewed on the bowstrings of the enemy soldiers, destroying their weapons and incapacitating them.[4] This legend must have been familiar to the Japanese, since the oldest Tobatsu Bishamonten in Japan, a Chinese sculpture at Toji, Kyoto, dating to the early tenth century, is associated with an identical story, reported in the Toboki, a history of Toji by the monk Coho (1306–1362).[5] The statue of Tobatsu at Toji, according to this source, was originally the guardian deity of the capital city of Kyoto, and it stood at Rashomon, the most important gate at the city's southern border. Both Tobatsu and ordinary Bishamonten are guardians of the north, which in India and East Asia is traditionally considered the source of evil forces.

Another feature of Tobatsu that may reflect a foreign influence is their attire. Tobatsu Bishamonten from both China and Japan are often shown wearing tall, tubular crowns embellished with the design of a phoenix or some other bird. This attribute is mentioned in a twelfth-century collection of iconographic drawings, the Asaba shō, which traces its origin to Sassanian Persia.[6]

The Tobatsu Bishamonten at Toji is dressed in a Central Asian type of armor: a long, tightfitting coat of mail with narrow sleeves. In the past, this armor was regarded as the only attribute differentiating Tobatsu Bishamonten from other Bishamonten images. While this seems to hold true for early representations in China and Japan, later depictions are not necessarily restricted to this type of armor, and East Asian armors, sometimes with flowing sleeves, coexist with Central Asian types.[7] The East Asian costume is worn by many other guardian deities in Japan, and thus cannot be used as a criterion in distinguishing Tobatsu Bishamonten from other forms of Bishamonten or from other guardian kings. Tobatsu's only identifying element is the earth goddess Jiten, who supports the guardian god.

The Burke Tobatsu Bishamonten stands over a triad of Jiten and two earth demons. With knit brows, glowering eyes, and pursed lips, he looks downward with a threatening expression. The small, full torso with bulging midriff is tightly enclosed in Chinese armor, originally decorated with bold color patterns. With the exception of Tobatsu's arms, the figural group is carved, in the ichiboku technique, from a single block of wood. The raised right arm most likely held a weapon, probably a small vajra ( thunderbolt), with which to ward off evil forces. When the statue was published in 1963 and 1966, it had a modern right forearm, which has since been removed.[8] The left arm is a recent replacement. The tall crown bears faint traces of ink drawings, now badly worn but revealed by infrared photography (fig. 12): on the front, five seated Buddhas, a feature that is unique to this statue, and on the left the figure of a small child dressed in a courtly costume. Although rare in Japanese representations of the Tobatsu, Central Asian and Chinese examples often include the figure of a small child, a reference to the Khotanese birth myth.

The display of power and flamboyant movement typical of Bishamonten is suppressed here in favor of the evocation of quiet energy. The half-naked dwarf-demons, their arms crossed in obeisance, are carved in a direct, blunt manner, the chisel marks still visible on their backs and hair. And while the sophisticated taste of the court is reflected in the tightly formed body of the deity and in the childlike face of Jiten, the simple execution of the humorous earth demons suggests that the provenance of this work may be found outside the orbit of court workshops.

The statue is dated by Kurata Bunsaku to the tenth century, and by Ikawa Kazuko to the first half of the eleventh.[9]

[Miyeko Murase 2000, Bridge of Dreams]

[1] Because the presence of Jiten seems to be the only identifying element of images of this deity, he is also known as Bishamonten Supported by Jiten; see Tanaka Shigehisa 1966, pp. 92–110.
[2] For research on the origin of the name Tobatsu, see Minamoto Toyomune 1930, pp. 40–55; Daizōkyō zuzō 1932–34, vol. 9, p. 418; Matsumoto Eiichi 1937, pp. 417ff.; and Matsumoto Bunzaburo 1944, pp. 273ff. Matsuura Masaaki (1992, p. 55) interprets the armor as of the Western type.
[3] Daizōkyō 1914–32, vol. 51, no. 2087, p. 943; and Soper 1959, p. 240. For an English translation of the Xiyouji, see Xuanzang 1958.
[4] Daizōkyō 1914–32, vol. 21, no. 1249, p. 228.
[5] Gunsho ruiju, 1906-9, vol. 12, p. 21.
[6] Matsumoto Eiichi 1937, pp. 434-37.
[7] lkawa Kazuko 1963.
[8] Ibid., figs. 12–14; and Mayuyama Junkichi 1966, no. 18.
[9] Kurata Bunsaku 1980, no. p; and Ikawa Kazuko 1963, p. 62
Inscription: Box inscription by Ishida Mosaku, former Director of the Nara National Museum
Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation , New York (until 2015; donated to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Japanese Art: Selections from the Mary and Jackson Burke Collection," November 7, 1975–January 4, 1976.

Seattle Art Museum. "Japanese Art: Selections from the Mary and Jackson Burke Collection," March 10, 1977–May 1, 1977.

Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "Japanese Art: Selections from the Mary and Jackson Burke Collection," June 1, 1977–July 17, 1977.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Japanese Art from The Mary Griggs Burke Collection," March 30, 2000–June 25, 2000.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Japanese Mandalas: Emanations and Avatars," June 18, 2009–November 30, 2009.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Celebrating the Arts of Japan: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection," October 20, 2015–January 22, 2017.

Ikawa Kazuko. “Chiten ni sasaerareta Bishamonten chōzō: Tobatsu Bishamonten zō ni tsuite no ichi kōsatsu” (Statues of Bishamonten supported by Chiten: Research on the Tobatsu Bishamonten). Bijutsu kenkyū, no. 229 (July 1963): pp. 53–73, figs. 12–14.

Mayuyama Junkichi, ed. Ōbei shūzō Nihon bijutsu zuroku (Japanese art in the West). Tokyo: Mayuyama Ryūsendō, 1996, no. 18.

Rosenfield, John M. Japanese Arts of the Heian Period, 794–1185. Exh. cat. New York: Asia Society, 1967, no. 3.

Murase, Miyeko. Japanese Art: Selections from the Mary and Jackson Burke Collection. Exh. cat. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975, cat. no. 2.

Mayuyama Junkichi. Mayuyama, Seventy Years / Ryūsen shūhō, sōgyō shichijusshūnen kinen. 2 vols. Tokyo: Mayuyama Ryūsendō, 1976, no. 330.

Shimizu Zenzō. “Amerika ∙ Kanada ni aru Nihon chōkoku (2)” (Japanese sculptures in America and Canada, 2). Bukkyō geijutsu / Ars Buddhica, no. 127 (November 1979), p. 97, no. 117, fig. 119.

Kurata Bunsaku, ed.. Chōkoku (Sculpture). Zaigai Nihon no shihō (Japanese art: Selections from Western collections), 8. Tokyo: Mainichi Shinbunsha, 1980, no. 57.

Murase, Miyeko. Bridge of Dreams: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection of Japanese Art. Exh. cat. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, cat. no. 9.
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