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Buddhadharma : Summer 2009
Ifind that introducing this elegant Japanese painting to visitors to the Met- ropolitan Museum of Art is always interesting for me because it challenges our understanding of what Buddhist art is, and what it should look like. The painting shows a young man kneeling on a wonderful pink lotus. He wears the clothing of a high-ranking Japanese youth. His long skirt is a dark aqua; the shirt is painted olive green and decorated with plum blossoms; and a third green is used to show the sleeveless jacket that has a design of swal- lows and butterflies. The lotus, which is often used as a support for deities in Buddhist art, and the circle made of very thin pieces of cut gold leaf, which represents a halo, help convey that the young man is a spiritual being. The sword is the only other clue that helps identify the figure in the painting. This implement is often held by Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. Manjushri is also frequently shown in the visual arts as a young boy; and it is the combination of his youth, the sword, and the lotus that lead to the identification of the painting as a representation of this bodhisattva. This depiction of a Buddhist deity in secular Japanese clothing, however, needs explication. Here Manjushri is shown as the personification of a Japa- nese deity featured in one of the buildings of the famed Shinto Kasuga shrine in Nara, Japan. Known as the Wakamiya, or “young prince,” his youth, and that of Manjushri, were thought to promote the regenerative cycle of the natural world, which was important to the agrarian economy of medieval Japan. The parallel between this young Shinto prince and the bodhisattva of wisdom is typical of Japanese Buddhist thought. Such pairings became popular in the ninth century, when the native gods and the Buddhist deities were matched, and understood as manifestations of one another. There are different icons showing the bodhisattva Manjushri as the per- sonification of a Shinto god. The cherry blossoms on the shirt worn by the young aristocrat in this painting may allude to the monk Kyogen (1207–1235), who dreamed of the young Wakamiya standing among cherry blossoms in the Kasuga fields. Kyogen worked at the Buddhist Kofuku-ji Temple next to the Kasuga Shrine. The creation of a painting showing the Buddhist Manjushri—in the guise of a Shinto god, wearing clothing that reflects a dream —illustrates the extraordinary syncretism of religious practices that was found in Japan in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Inside Art Denise LeiDy is a curator of Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in new york and the author of The Art of Buddhism. Denise Leidy on BoDhisattva Manjushri as the personification of the Kasuga shrine proMiseDgiftoftheMaryanDjacKsonBurKefounDation,inc.,anDpurchase,LiLaachesonWaLLacegift,1997(1997.113)iMage©theMetropoLitanMuseuMofart buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 20 0 9 70