Buddha Statues & Japan – Jan. 2012

Welcome 2012 — Year of the Dragon

Befittingly for the Year of the Dragon, this issue begins with a tribute to the dragon in Japanese mythology and art, and provides handy links to the A-to-Z Photo Dictionary for those who want to explore dragon lore more deeply. It also features a book review (by me) that appeared in the January/February 2012 edition of Orientations, a highly respected magazine read by collectors, connoisseurs, art historians, and scholars of Asian art. Orientations’ first issue of 2012 traces the origins and evolution of the dragon motif in ceramics of China’s Yuan dynasty (mid-14th century).

INTRODUCTION. Dragon 龍 (Lóng = China, Ryū = Japan). In Asia, the dragon appeared in Chinese myth & artwork well before the introduction of Buddhism to China in the 1st & 2nd centuries CE. Japan’s dragon lore comes predominantly from China. Images of the creature are found throughout Asia, where it was adopted as a protector of Buddhism, a symbol of imperial power, the guardian of the east, the controller of rain and tempests, and a magical shape shifter able to assume human form and mate with people. In contrast to Europe’s malevolent dragon, the Asian dragon is considered benevolent, just, and the bringer of wealth. Learn more at the A-to-Z Photo Dictionary.

One of Four Celestial Emblems, each guarding a compass direction (dragon = east, red bird = south, tiger = west, tortoise = north). Each is linked to a season, color, element, &
other traits. Each corresponds to a star constellation with 7 stars (see 28 Lunar Mansions).

One of the 12 Zodiac Signs. Patron of those born in
1928, 1940, 1952, 1964,
1976, 1988, 2000, 2012.
The dragon is also one
of Eight Legions who guard Buddhism & its teachings.

Each of the 12 Zodiac creatures is also associated
with a Buddhist patron deity.
The dragon is paired with Fugen Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of Practice (Praxis).

Dragon images are commonly placed under the eaves of Japanese temples & shrines to ward off evil spirits, as are images of the shishi (lion) and baku (nightmare eater).

Dragons are often painted
on the ceiling of Zen assembly halls, and frequently adorn water purification fountains at temples
and shrines. Dragons are a
common motif in Japanese art.

From the medieval period
until the Meiji period, maps of Japan were drawn inside a dragon. This topic will be
featured this summer
at the A-to-Z Dictionary.

Dragons are the messengers and avatars of Benzaten, Japan’s goddess of water, art, music, & learning. This topic will be explored in-depth this Feb. at the A-to-Z Dictionary.

Dragons are also closely associated with Kannon (Goddess of Mercy), kami Shirayamahime, and other deities in the Buddhist & Shinto pantheons of Japan.

Carp transforming into dragon. Among countless dragon stories in China & Japan, one of the
most endearing is the Chinese legend of Koi-no-Takinobori
(see story below).

Chinese Legend of Carp Becoming a Dragon

A common artistic theme from old China, one based on a Chinese legend known as Koi-no-Takinobori in Japan, wherein carp swim, against all odds, up a waterfall known as the “Dragon Gate” at the headwaters of China’s Yellow River. The gods are very impressed by the feat, and reward the few successful carp by turning them into powerful dragons. The story symbolizes the virtues of courage, effort, and perseverance, which correspond to the nearly impossible struggle of humans to attain Buddhahood. In modern Japan, temples and shrines commonly stock their garden ponds with carp, which grow to enormous sizes in a variety of colors.

Book Recommendation, Book Review

Portraits of Chōgen: The Transformation of Buddhist Art in Early Medieval Japan, by John M. Rosenfield, 2011. This lavishly illustrated and meticulously researched work vividly describes the efforts of Japanese monk Shunjōbō Chōgen (1121–1206) and his efforts to restore the Great Buddha in Nara and other art lost in the brutal civil conflicts of the late 12th century. This book is also a sweeping survey of Kamakura-era Buddhist statuary, portraiture, architecture, and dedicatory rites. It is worthy of a prominent spot on the bookshelves of scholars and students of Japanese religious art, pre-modern history, and visual culture. 296 pages, 197 illustrations. Read Book Review by Mark Schumacher that first appeared in Orientations magazine (Vol. 43, #1, Jan/Feb 2012). To learn more about Orientations, see their web site.

To order the book online, see Brill Publications. To read the book review, click here.

Comments are closed.