Behind the Sensationalism: Images of a Decaying Corpse in Japanese Buddhist Art

One of the most provocative images in Japanese art is the kusozu, a graphic depiction of a corpse in the process of decay and decomposition. The kusozu, “painting of the nine stages of a decaying corpse” (hereafter, painting of the nine stages), was executed in Japan from approximately the thirteenth through the nineteenth centuries in various formats, including handscrolls, hanging scrolls, and printed books. The subject itself is derived from a traditional Buddhist doctrine that urges contemplation on the nine stages of a decaying corpse (kusokan, hereafter, contemplation on the nine stages). The teaching dates to the early fifth century and promotes a systematic meditation on the impurity of a decaying corpse as an aid to ardent devotees who wish to liberate themselves from sensual desires and affections.1

This paper explores unrecognized features of the paintings of the nine stages as they appear through almost half a millennium of Japanese art. We will see that these narrative paintings functioned as distinct visual agents for audiences in different eras. The functionality of the image shifted from a meditative focus for pietistic catharsis, to a didactic incentive for the pursuit of paradise, to an intercessory offering for the dead at merit transferal rites, to a popularized platform for politically manipulated precepts on feminine morality. After giving the textual and theological background for the nine stages of a decaying corpse, I will examine four images of the nine stages from different centuries, which I term the Nakainura, Raigoji, Dainenbutsuji, and Akagi versions. Finally, some remarks are offered on the enduring vitality of this sensational subject.

Religious and Literary Background

A proper understanding of these images relies on a conversance with the doctrinal sources treating the decaying corpse as a subject for devotional practice. The contemplation on the nine stages, while found in many Buddhist sutras, first appeared in the Sutra on the Samadhi Contemplation of the Ocean like Buddha (Japanese: Kanbutsu zanmai kaikyo; Chinese: Guanfo sanmei hai jing, translated by Buddhabhadra [359-429], ca. 400) or the Discourse on the Greal Wisdom (Japanese: Dai chidoron; Sanskrit: Mahaprajnaparamitita- sastra, translated by Kumarajiva [344-413], 402-5).2 The practice is a type of contemplation on impurity (Japanese: fujokan) that allows devotees to overcome hindrances to enlightenment and to conquer carnal desires, especially the sexual appetite.! In the Discourse on the Great Wisdom and other texts, such as the Chapters on the True Meaning of Mahayana Teachings (Japanese: Daijo gisho, Chinese: Dacheng yizhang), by the Chinese monk Hui Yuan (523-592), the love for another’s body is subdivided into multiple types, and instruction is given as to which phase of the decaying process is effective as a focus of meditation for conquering each lust.4

The Discourse on the Great Wisdom is especially significant in that this text contributed to the development of the contemplation on the nine stages and its pictorialization in Japan. This text provided the canonical sequence of corporeal decay used in paintings of the genre (see App. 1): (1) distension (choso); (2) rupture (kaiso); (3) exudation of blood (ketsuzuso); (4) putrefaction (noranso); (5) discoloration and desiccation (seioso); (6) consumption by animals and birds (lanso); (7) dismemberment (sanso); (8) bones (kosso); and (9) parched to dust (shoso). The order stated in the Discourse on the Great Wisdom probably entered Japanese paintings of the subject by means of the Discourse on Mahayana Meditation and Contemplation (Japanese: Malta shikan, Chinese: Molie zhiguan), recorded and edited by a disciple of the Chinese Tiantai (Japanese: Tendai) master Zhiyi (538-597) based on his lecture in 594. The Discourse on Mahayana Meditation and Contemplation, which preserved the order of decay given in the Discourse on the Great Wisdom, had a substantial impact on Ptire Land Buddhist belief, including the content of the Essentials of Salvation (Japanese: Ojoyosku), a seminal work of Pure Land belief written by the Japanese monk Genshin (942-1017) of the Tendai school in 985.5 The description of the stages of a decaying corpse in the Essentials of Salvation includes direct quotations from the Discourse on Mahayana Meditation and Contemplation, although the order of the stages differs (see App. 1).

The nine stages of decay appear also in medieval literature, and a review of these passages can further illuminate the development of the subject. The theme is found in a verse form termed “poem of the contemplations on the nine stages of a decaying corpse” (Japanese: kusokanshi). Such poems have survived in China as well as in Japan,6 where two versions existed. The Japanese poems were written in Chinese characters and are attributed to the luminaries Kukai (774- 835) and Su Tongpo (1063-1101).7 The two poems (which can be termed the Kukai and Su Tongpo versions) derive their authority from the stature of their supposed authors: Kukai, the famed Japanese monk who brought esoteric Buddhism from China to Japan and founded the Shingon school, and Su Tongpo, who was a Northern Song scholar- bureaucrat as well as a renowned poet and calligrapher. Both poems detail the nine stages of a decaying corpse, but in different formats and orders, and with some variation in the designations assigned to each stage (see App. 1). The Kukai version has a short preface followed by twelve five-character verses for each stage, while the Su Tongpo version has a preface followed by eight seven- character verses for each stage. The Su Tongpo poem is included in woodblock-printed books dated between 1380 and 13849 and in depictions of the nine stages that were widely circulated during the Edo period (1603-1867), with examples found in printed books, hanging scrolls, and handscrolls. (Because of its importance to the depictions of the nine stages, the poem is translated in Appendix 2.) The oldest surviving illustrated handscroll inscribed with the Su Tongpo poem is dated to 1527 (at Dainenbutsuji in Osaka). As early as 1380, the poem began to be consistently accompanied by waka poetry, a verse form characterized by thirtyone syllables in five strophes. For each of the nine stages, the relevant verses of the Su Tongpo poem were followed by two waka, yielding a total of eighteen waka for the image. The author and date of these waka are unknown. The Kukai version, by contrast, never appeared in conjunction with the images of corporeal decay.

As it was frequently mentioned in Buddhist sutras, the practice of contemplating on a decaying corpse was adopted widely by monks regardless of their sectarian affiliations. Some medieval tales give accounts of contemplation on a decaying corpse and reveal how monks may have performed the practice with visual aids. For example, a tale in A Companion in Solitude (Kankyo no tomo, 1216), written by Keisen (d. 1296), describes an anonymous monk at Mount Hiei, headquarters of the Tendai school, who disappeared every night until morning.10 It was thought that he might be having relations with a woman, because he always looked sad on his return. One evening the monk was followed, and it was discovered that he was going down to Rendaino, a region renowned for its cemeteries, to meditate on a decomposing corpse.11 At this time, corpses were typically left exposed in cemeteries or in fields, since the practice of interment did not become widespread in Japan until after the fourteenth century.12 The medieval account provides anecdotal confirmation that Buddhist monks exercised the method of contemplation on the nine stages as taught in the Discourse on the Great Annotations of Abhidharma (Japanese: Abi daruma dai bibasharon, Sanskrit: Abhidharma-mahavibhasa-sastra, translated by Xuanzang, 656-59). The procedure is outlined in this sutra as follows:

Practitioner, first go to a mound to observe the stages of a decaying corpse, such as the stage of turning bluish black; for a deeper contemplation, step back and sit at a place and contemplate the image again. If the concentration is distracted and the image is unclear, and you wish to attain a better contemplation, again go to the mound to see it as before.13

Another literary example of a pious monk curbing his sensual desires through contemplation on an impure decaying body is found in A Collection of Religious Awakenings (Hosshinshu), written by Kamo no Chomei (d. 1216). It tells the story of the monk Genpin, who fell in love with the wife of a chief councillor at first sight and confessed this to the councillor. Since the chief councillor greatly respected Genpin, he arranged a rendezvous for the monk and his wife. Genpin appeared in formal clerical attire for their meeting. He never attempted to approach the woman but only gazed on her for about two hours and then left. The chief councillor’s reverence for Genpin deepened, seeing that the pious monk overcame his sensual desires by contemplating on the process of decay of the impure body of a beautiful woman. As a result of his contemplation, Genpin achieved an enlightenment in which he realized that people incapable of such self-control who indulge in transitory se\nsual desires lose their critical faculties, for attachment to the body is akin to relishing the droppings of maggots in a toilet.14 The narrative highlights how meditation on the decay of a corpse proved successful in eliminating a monk’s sensual desire for the female body through a realization of the transitory qualities of the human “shell.” The story also suggests that the trained monk had refined the skill of acquiring the mental image of a decaying corpse without the employment of a putrescent body. Accounts such as these show that contemplations on the corpse were a valued monastic practice in the pursuit of the pious life and that the decaying corpse served as a visual aid to the discipline, at least until the mental image of decay was attained and available for devotional practice.15 No Japanese medieval tales mention the use of pictorial images of the decaying corpse for meditation. Yet Chinese documents recount that such images accompanied the contemplation on the nine stages, and the practice likely was known among Japanese monks as well. For example, Zhiyi’s commentary on the Lotus Sutra, the Essential Meanings of the Lotus Sutra (Japanese: Myoho rengekyo gengi, Chinese: Miaofa lianhuajing xuanyi, 593), remarks that “[the high rank of] joyugi [Chinese: changyouxi] was given [after death] to those who have built a meditation hall for zen [meditation] practitioners and have painted the image of a corpse for contemplation.”16 Another example is that of the Chinese poet Baoji (active about Genso Tenpo [Chinese: Xuanzong Tianbao] 6 [747]) of the Tang dynasty (618-907), who composed a work entitled “Contemplation on the Mural of the Nine Stages of a Decaying Corpse.”17 The mural has not survived, but the title reveals that the practice of meditating on corporeal decay also existed in China. It is worth noting that Baoji composed a farewell poem for a Japanese envoy to Tang China, which means that the method of employing these paintings for devotional contemplation could have been transmitted to Japan along with the treasured poem.18

The Painting of the Nine Stages in the Nakamura Collection

I begin our examination of this genre and its remarkable transformation in Japanese culture with what I believe is the earliest type of the image. The handscroll of the nine stages in the Nakamura private collection, dated to the early fourteenth century (Fig. la-i, 12 5/8 by 195 1/8 inches, or 32 by 495.5 centimeters), is generally called the Kusoshi emaki (Illustrated Handscroll of the Poem of the Nine Stages of a Decaying Corpse; hereafter, the Nakamura version). The handscroll includes ten narrative illustrations, arranged from right to left. Before the depiction of the nine stages of decay, the sequence is prefaced by a portrait of a seated woman with long hair, in aristocratic attire, clearly a rendering of the painting’s subject before death (Fig. 2). Between her red lips, the white teeth covered by black pigment-a custom among aristocratic women-are visible.19 The predeath portrait suggests that the subject relished her beauty and wealth, a characterization expressed as well in the subsequent first stage of the newly deceased (Fig. 1a).20 In this stage, she lies with her head supported by a pillow on a raised tatami mat with ornamental trimmings. Her leaf-patterned undergarment covers most of her naked white body but leaves her right breast exposed, a distinctive feature of the Nakamura version.21 The first two illustrations seem to emphasize a sensual attractiveness springing from the woman’s voluptuous figure and noble background. In arousing an interest in the young beauty before delivering its lesson on taming desire, the image amplifies its cathartic value.

1 Illustrated Handscroll of the Poem of the Nine Stages of a Decaying Corpse, 14th century. Kanagawa, Nakamura Collection (photo: Tokyo National Museum). Stages one through nine, arranged right to left: (a) newly deceased; (b) distension; (c) rupture; (d) exudation of blood; (c) putrefaction; (f) discoloration and desiccation; (g) consumption by birds and animals; (h) skeleton; (i) disjointing.

In the third through tenth illustrations, a highly realistic process of decay unfolds in the scroll. The realism is cruelly accentuated in several ways. Each corpse looms large in its frame of 125/8 by 193/4 inches (32 by 50 centimeters), leaving little background, aggressively confronting the viewer with its image of corporeal decay. Given the scroll’s precise anatomical depictions, it has been suggested that this scroll follows the decomposition process of an actual, observed corpse.22 I agree with this view, and the illustrations in the sixth (Fig. 1f) and eighth stages (Fig. 1h) provide especially compelling visual evidence that there had been a model for these images. The painting of the sixth stage captures the network of sinews and muscles that appear under the parched skin. The complete skeleton in the eighth stage was drawn with a precise, confident brush. It is likely that the artist availed himself of the unburied corpses that were prevalent in Japan at this time.

The relation of the order of the nine stages in the Nakamura version to textual sources has been interpreted various-ly.23 The order of the stages of decay in the handscroll is as follows (see App. 1): (0) predeath portrait; (1) newly deceased; (2) distension; (3) rupture; (4) exudation of blood; (5) putrefaction; (6) discoloration and desiccation; (7) consumption by birds and animals; (8) skeleton; and (9) disjointing. The closest match of the order of decay in the Nakamura version is to the description of the Discourse on Mahayana Meditation and Contemplation, but with a few differences. An image of the newly deceased was inserted as the first stage of the Nakamura version, and to limit the total number to nine, the ninth stage of bones being parched to dust was omitted.24 Another, more significant, difference is found in the eighth stage. According to the text, in the stage of dismemberment, “the head and hands are located in different places, and five organs are detached from the body and shrunken.”25 The Nakamura version does not show the stage of dismemberment. Instead, it displays two different forms of bones in the eighth (Fig. 1h) and ninth stages (Fig. 1i): a whole skeleton and a disjointing of the bones. Thus, the key to interpreting the divergent order of decay in the Nakamura version lies in the reason for articulating two forms of the skeleton and omitting the stage of dismemberment.

As we have noted, descriptions of the nine stages of a decaying corpse are found in many Buddhist sources. The texts vary in their ordering and description of the decomposition process, but three share an identical sequence: the Discourse on Mahayana Meditation and Contemplation, the Discourse on the Great Wisdom, and the Explanations of the Doctrines on Meditation for Enlightenment (Japanese: Shakuzen haramitsu shidai homon, Chinese: Shichan bolomi cidi famen, by Zhiyi, 568-75). The lack of consistency among the surviving documents may indicate that the order itself was not critical. While the subtitles given to each of the nine stages vary among the sources, the designations share similar meanings for each of the relevant stages, with one obvious exception. Some sources specify one stage relating to bones, and others include two such stages: a whole skeleton and disjointed bones. For sources mentioning a single stage of bones, the texts refer to either a whole skeleton or disjointed bones. For sources that give contemplations on two stages of bones, the whole skeleton and the disjointed bones are designated as distinct objects for meditation in two sequential stages. In these sources, the stage of dismemberment is omitted to allow for the inclusion of two contemplations on different forms of bones. What could have motivated the distinct contemplations on a whole skeleton and the separated bones?

2 Predeath portrait of an aristocrat woman, from Illustrated Handscroll of the Poem of the Nine Stages of a Decaying Corpse, 14th century

Sequential contemplations on the whole skeleton and on the disjointed bones are found in six Buddhist textual sources: the Sutra of the Secrets for the Essential Way of Meditation (Japanese: Zenpiyohokyo, Chinese: Chan miyaofajing, translated by Kumarajiva, ca. 400), the Sutra of the Essentials of Meditation (Japanese: Zenyogyo, Chinese: Chanyaojing, translated before 220), the Chapters on the True. Meaning of Mahayana Teachings, the Su Tongpo and Kukai versions of the poems on a decaying corpse, and the Essentials of Salvation.26 None of these six texts includes a stage of dismemberment. Among them, the Sutra of the secrets for the Essential Wa-y of Meditation and the Sutra of the Essentials of Meditation are the oldest meditation manuals characterized by meticulous instructions in zen (Sanskrit: dhyana) practice.27 This zen meditation entails a specific sequence of concentrations on particular objects that help the practitioner to achieve a state of inner bliss. One of the methods for acquiring the transcendental state was contemplation on a decaying body.28

The Sutra of the secrets for the Essential Way of Meditation is one of the oldest texts for zen practice, and it no doubt influenced later meditative practices. In fact, the content of the sutra was incorporated into actual zen practices. Inside Caves 20 and 42 of the Toyuk Caves, Turfan, Xinjiang Province, China, mural paintings dated to between the mid-fifth and the seventh century29 show the substantial impact of the sutra.30 Both caves have extant images of monks contemplating on a decaying body and on a skeleton (Fig. 3).31 Thus, it is clear that from early times monks meditated on bones and (especially) on the whole skeleton as part of zen practice. The significance of the practice is reinforced by the emphasis given to the contemplation of the whole skeleton in o\ther meditation manuals.32

The two stages of skeletal bones also owe their provenance to the Discourse on Mahayana Meditation and Contemplation. The skeleton in the handscroll is depicted in pink, as if it had just lost its fleshy tissue. The pink hue (Fig. 1h) is clearly distinguished from the pure white color of the disjointed bones in the following stage (Fig. 1i). The distinction in color between the two stages closely resembles the description of the eighth stage found in the text: “Contemplate on the two kinds of bones: the one kind that is still covered by pus, and the other kind that is completely pure white. Or meditate on a set of bones, or their changing into disjointed fragments.”33

Further evidence that attests to the central role of the Discourse on Mahayana Meditation and Contemplation in the creation of the images in the Nakamura version is found in the zen practices as outlined in the text itself. Two different levels of contemplation on the nine stages are described. The lower level is contemplation on all stages up through the ninth, when the bones are parched to dust. The text notes,

3 A monk contemplating on a skeleton, Cave 42, Toyuk Caves, Turfan, ca. mid-5th-7th century (photo: courtesy of H. Sudo)

The practitioners who meditate in this way just seek to curtail their sufferings by trying to make the skeleton burn and disappear. They are in a rush to reach the fruit of arhatship [state of liberation], and are no longer enjoying the meditation on the phenomenal aspect of reality. Since they do not continue to contemplate the skeleton, they have no way to reach concentration, transcendental faculty, transformation, vows, wisdom, and the highest level of zen.34

The upper level of contemplation, by contrast, ends before the stage of bones parched to dust. The reason for this enigmatic truncation is now obvious, as contemplation on bones allows the practitioner to attain a transcendental level of meditation that brings the ultimate inner bliss. The Nakamura version follows the upper level of contemplation outlined in the discourse, as it ends with emphasis on the stage of the disjointed bones and does not depict the stage of bones parched to dust.35 Instead, a long blank space (13 inches, or 35 centimeters) is left at the end of the scroll after the last illustration, as if indicating that there is another stage in the text. Thus, we see that while the Nakamura version carefully follows the content of the Discourse on Mahayana Meditation and Contemplation, it was adjusted specifically to follow the upper level of contemplation for the utilitarian purpose of zen practice. No records have survived to verify the use of the Nakamura version itself, yet the scroll retains the pictorial elements of a prototype employed by monks in their ascetic meditative practices for overcoming sensual desires and, ultimately, for achieving a transcendental state. Let us consider the functions of the Nakamura version in detail.

The Nakamura version’s traditional title, Kusoshi emaki (Illustrated Handscroll of the Poem of the Nine Stages of a Decaying Corpse), is not original but was given to the work in 1977 based on scholarship that viewed the handscroll as an illustration of the Su Tongpo poem on the nine stages.36 Yet no texts of the poem are attached to the illustrations, and no companion handscroll containing the poem has survived, if it existed at all. I argue against this traditional view of the connection between the image and the poem because of the scroll’s transparent connection with the Discourse on Mahayana Meditation and Contemplation. In fact, on the lid of the wooden case for the Nakamura version, the inscription reads, “Kusozu (painting of the nine stages of a decaying corpse) painted by Tosa Mitsunobu [active ca. 1469-1523] at Saito [Western Pagoda], Jakkoin.” Jakkoin is a subsidiary temple of Enryakuji, the main temple of the Tendai school on Mount Hiei, in Shiga Prefecture,37 which early on placed an emphasis on the zen contemplative practice.

It is likely that the Tendai school’s early and deep association with zen meditation led to the creation of an image at Mount Hiei for ascetic practices that predated the fourteenth-century Nakamura version.38 This supposition is corroborated by an entry in the historical chronicle Mirror of the Eastern Court (Azuma kagami) for the eighth day of the eleventh month of 1212 (Kenryaku 2).39 The document recounts that a painting entitled the Flourish and Decay of the Life of Ono no Komachi (Ono no Komachi ichigo josui no koto) was shown at a picture competition held at the residence of the shogun Minamoto no Sanetomo, and it received the first-place prize. The painting of the ninth-century poet and legendary beauty is believed to have been an image of the nine stages of a decaying corpse. In fact, the Nakamura version was once identified as this work in a Tokyo National Museum exhibition catalog of 1974.40 A lack of strong evidence in support of the identification, however, resulted in the removal of this title for the painting. Nonetheless, the account suggests the existence of the earlier graphic depiction of the decaying corpse of a beauty, which could have been the model for the Nakamura version.

Later, the contemplation on the nine stages became associated with the Zen sect that focused on meditation practice. The biography of Muso Soseki (1275-1351), a prominent Zen monk, tells us that he used a painting of the nine stages at age fourteen in 1288.41 Thus, the image was known as a pictorial aid within the Zen monastic community. In addition, the two successive contemplations on the skeletal bones, an essential practice in the zen texts, are mentioned in the two apocryphal Kukai and Su Tongpo versions of the poems on the nine stages. Nakamura Hajime has suggested that the poems were composed by monks at the primary Zen temples in Kyoto called the Five Mountains.42 If true, the practice of two discrete contemplations on skeletal bones had been absorbed by the Zen monastic community. From its locus of origin in the Tendai school, the image of the nine stages began to spread beyond sectarian boundaries throughout medieval Japan.

After its involvement with Zen, the Tendai school at Mount Hiei went on to introduce Pure Land Buddhist belief to Japan. The first exponent of the new belief, which flourished from the late tenth century, was the Tendai monk Genshin, who wrote a seminal work on the Pure Land faith entitled the Essentials of Salvation. This treatise, which became the major work for the promulgation of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan, provided a new doctrinal and functional context for the image of the decaying corpse.

The Painting of the Nine Stages at Shoju Raigoji

Another early painting of the nine stages, dated to the late thirteenth century, is from a set of fifteen paintings entitled Six Realms of Reincarnation (Rokudoe) at Shoju Raigoji in Shiga Prefecture. Although this image is the earliest surviving work of the subject, I believe it represents an interpretation that postdates the type seen in the Nakamura version. A careful study of this work elucidates the entry of the theme into Pure Land Buddhist imagery and clarifies the functions of this example of the genre.

In order to understand the image, we need to take a brief plunge into Pure Land Buddhist cosmology. After death, living beings are thought to be reincarnated into one of six realms-hell, hungry ghosts, animals, titans, human beings, and divine beings-and they remain trapped in these realms if they fail to attain their rebirth in the Western Pure Land, the otherworldly place where the deceased reside with Amida Buddha. To give guidance to those who wish to be emancipated from the cycle of reincarnation, one chapter of Genshin’s Essentials of Salvation promotes a practice of contemplation on the horrifying aspects of the six realms. It is in the context of devotional contemplation on horror that our present image will find its locus of visual agency. The six realms of existence are treated in a set of paintings at the Shoju Raigoji, a Tendai Buddhist temple. The images complemented the agenda of the Essentials of Salvation, and in fact the scrolls have had a long association with the Pure Land Buddhist belief within the Tendai school. They have been housed in the Tendai temples at Reisan’in (from 1313 to 1538) and at Shoju Raigoji (from 1566 to the present).43 This version is found in a set of fifteen hanging scrolls with paintings that show selected scenes of pain, suffering, and torment from the six realms of reincarnation. Four of the fifteen scrolls treat the human realm and illustrate the aspects of existence: corporeal impurity, the suffering of birth and death, the suffering of war, and life’s transience. The scroll illustrating corporeal impurity is entitled Painting of the Impure Aspect of the Human Realm (jindo fujozu, Fig. 4, 611/4 by 25% inches, or 155.5 by 65 centimeters) and will be referenced hereafter as the Raigoji version.

It should be noted that the concept of the six realms of reincarnation was at first doctrinally independent from the contemplation on the nine stages. Nonetheless, the pictorialization of the stages of a decaying corpse was selected in the Raigqji version because it expressed the impurity of the human realm. The connection between the contemplation on the nine stages and the six realms of existence stems from the Essentials of Salvation,44 and while Genshin does not enumerate the nine stages themselves, the awful scenes of the six realms of existence in the Raigoji version refer to the content of this text. In fact, the inscriptions in the cartouches at the top of each scroll were taken from Genshin’s treatise.

In this image, which has suffered some fading over the last seven hundred years, the nine stages of a decaying female corpse are arranged in a zigzag fashion from the first illustration (newly deceased\, Fig. 5) at upper right to the ninth illustration (bones, Fig. 6) in the lower right corner, in the following order (see App. 1): (1) newly deceased; (2) distension; (3) rupture; (4) exudation of blood; (5) putrefaction; (6) discoloration and desiccation; (7) consumption by birds and animals; (8) dismemberment; and (9) bones. The order of decay after distension follows that of the Discourse on Mahayana Meditation and Contemplation, which influenced the Essentials of Salvation.45 The subject of the decaying corpse is itself lurid, and the images in this painting are rendered in a realistic and unabashed manner. Yet the pictorial details of the Raigoji painting fail to match either the natural process of human decomposition or the descriptions in the sutras. For example, it makes only a minimal visual distinction between the second stage of rupturing to the third of exuding blood, with a nearly identical body differentiated only by the casual application of red pigment in the third stage. The fifth stage of putrefaction (Fig. 7), according to the sutras, should depict the deformed corpse as if it were “wax melted by fire.”46 But in this image the corpse shows a desiccated state that is closer to the sixth stage (Fig. 8), when the color changes to bluish black through exposure to the wind and sun. In addition, the images of both the fourth and fifth stages, executed in sketchy brushstrokes, have a cartoonlike quality. The seventh stage, of consumption by birds and animals (Fig. 9), is marked by full, white flesh that mimics the illustration of the newly deceased, with no apparent recollection of the bluish black skin and desiccation of the previous stage.47 Thus, the Raigoji version captures the outline of the nine stages of a decaying female corpse and delivers a voyeuristic sensationalism derived from the pictorialization of the shocking motif, but it ignores textual and biological accuracy in the portrayal of the process of decay as described in doctrine, including the influential Discourse on Mahayana Meditation and Contemplation.

4 Painting of the Impure Aspect of the Human Realm, late 13th century. Shiga, Shoju Raigoji (photo: Nara National Museum)

5 Detail of Fig. 4: newly deceased

6 Detail of Fig. 4: bones

7 Detail of Fig. 4: putrefaction

8 Detail of Fig. 4: discoloration and desiccation

9 Detail of Fig. 4: consumption by birds and animals

The painting has a rectangular cartouche at the upper right corner with an inscription derived from Genshin’s Essentials of Salvation (Fig. 10):

The human realm has three aspects. One is the impure aspect. The body is largely filled with impurity. It is wrapped by seven layers of skin and nurtured by six tastes. But it is entirely odorous and defiled, and eventually putrefies from its attributes. If it is discarded between mounds, after one to seven days the body is swollen, the color is changed, and the skin is peeled. Before this aspect is seen, the attachment to affections is strong. But, if it is seen, all desires [for the body] cease.48

This inscription is not a verbatim quotation of the stages of a decaying corpse as they are described in the text; rather, it summarizes the entire section on the impure aspect of the human realm. The summary suggests that the painting was created not to focus on a step-by-step contemplation of the decomposition process but to convey the impurity of the human realm. A deeper knowledge of human defilement led to greater faith in Amida, as devotees sought escape from this world through rebirth in the Western Pure Land. Hence, the execution of the Raigoji version was in accord with the devotional purpose of the companion section of the Essentials of Salvation, and both works were created to inspire failli in Amida by describing the foulness of human existence.

The Raigoji version has a significant pictorial element-the landscape-that cannot be explained by religious texts. The hilly terrain in the Raigoji version is characterized by two noteworthy features. First, the soft contours of low hills are delineated with a minimum of textured strokes executed with a flat brush, the hallmarks of an archaic style of traditional Japanese painting called yamato-e, which attained its fullest development in the last quarter of the twelfth century. However, the attempt to create a sense of depth dates the painting to sometime about 1300. The landscape was colored mainly in dark ocher, with occasional areas in malachite green. Color tones between ocher and black (often with sparks of red), employed in a majority of the paintings of the six realms of transmigration, serve to convey the gloomy atmosphere of these defiled domains tainted by violence, illness, torture, misery, and a zoo of evils. The dark ocher in the Raigoji version provides a backdrop of barren, desolate ground on which the solitary corpse has been discarded, heightening the sense of man’s transitory existence. The second significant aspect of the landscape is the depiction of three trees, each a conventional emblem of its season, overhanging the corpse: cherry (spring), pine (summer), and maple (autumn). The cherry tree stands over the second stage of the distended corpse, the pine over the third of the ruptured corpse, and the maple over the fourth of the corpse exuding blood. The trees symbolize the passage of time and provide a metaphoric correspondence to the stages of the corpse’s decomposition.

10 Detail of Fig. 4: cartouche

11 Detail of Fig. 4: grave marker

The salient features of the landscape in the Raigoji version, desolation and seasonal trees, appear to be derived from Svi Tongpo’s poem of the contemplations on the nine stages of a decaying corpse (see App. 2).49 Although the poem was not written on the scroll, the painting seems to refer to its verses for the landscapes, probably because the Discourse on Mahayana Meditation and Contemplation gives no topographical descriptions.50 Consider, for example, the association between the seasonal trees and the Su Tongpo verses. The verse for the first stage eulogizes the complexion of the newly deceased:

Usual complexion paled during sickness. Fragrant body is as if sleeping. Beloved old friends still stay. The spirit has already departed. A beautiful face quickly fades as flowers in the third month. Life is brief like falling autumn leaves. No difference between youth and old age. No escape later or sooner, faster or slower.51

Here, the poem focuses on the appearance of the corpse, which hasjust started to discolor, likening it to “flowers in the third month [that is, early spring].” The painting itself shows cherry blossoms, the harbinger of spring, falling over the newly deceased body. No clear allusion to summer follows in the verses for the subsequent stages of decay, but the verses for the fifth and ninth stages contain terms related to autumn: shurin (long autumn rains) and akikaze (autumn wind). The painting shows the maple tree arranged directly over the fifth stage of the decaying corpse. The close correspondence evidences that the Raigoji painting was created by referring specifically to the Su Tongpo poem rather than the Kukai version, which includes no linear progression of seasonal changes during the process of decay.52

The other noteworthy feature of the landscape in the Raigoji painting, the desolate hills rendered mainly in ocher and some green, is also described in the Su Tongpo poem. For example, the verse for the second stage (distension) reads,

The distension of the newly deceased is hard to identify. After only seven days, mere vestiges of the [original] appearance remain. The rosy face has turned dark and lost its elegance. The raven hair, first withered, is now tangled with grass roots. Six organs are putrefied and the corpse pushes out beyond the coffin. The limbs have hardened and lie on the deserted field. The field is desolate, and no one is present. The spirit has gone to the other world in solitude.53

The motif of the desolate field or of green grasses beneath the corpse is repeated in every stanza of the poem, sometimes in the description of the accretion of tomb mounds.54 The Raigoji version follows the poem in its landscapes by placing each stage of the corpse’s decay in a barren, undulating field rendered in ocher with traces of green. At the fourth stage, the poem mentions the intermingling of old and new corpses beside the grave; indeed, the Raigoji version places the abandoned corpse beside the grave marker (Fig. 11) in the fourth image.

Thus, a correspondence emerges between the poetic descriptions of the Su Tongpo verses and the painted depictions of the Raigoji version. The correspondence is compelling in light of the fact that the companion Buddhist sutras offer no information about the landscape of this bleak scene. But the resonance of the poem in the painting goes beyond descriptive details. The Su Tongpo poem laments the transitory aspect (mujo) of this world and human life. The evocation of the changing seasons and the solitary corpse on the desolate field, integral elements of this theme, are employed in the painting as well. The notion of transience stems from Buddhism, but the sutras on the contemplation of the decaying corpse and human impurity make no explicit reference to the transitory nature of this world.55 Yet the concept of impermanence is suitable for a consideration of the cycle of life, death, and decay, and it infuses the exposition of the scenes in the Su Tongpo poem. In its landscape and portrayal of decay, the Raigoji version conveys the allusions in the Su Tongpo poem both to human impurity and to the impermanence of everything in the earthly realm.56 Thus, the Raigoji version may allow us to date the Su Tongpo poem to as early as 1300.

We now move to an exploration of the functions of this provocative image. The Raigoji version of the stages of a decaying corpse was one of a set of fifteen hanging scrolls whose content andinscriptions treat the six realms of reincarnation through reference to the Essentials of Salvation. Given this source, the significance of the image of the nine stages of a decaying corpse was substantially transformed by its treatment within the ambit of the six realms of existence. As we have noted, this text, authored by the Tendai monk Genshin, became the major work for the promulgation of Pure Land Buddhist belief. Genshin sought to inculcate Pure Land Buddhist belief by juxtaposing the blissful Western Pure Land with the pain and suffering of the six realms of existence, including the human realm and its characteristic impurity (represented by the nine stages of a decaying corpse). Furthermore, the Raigoji version encapsulated the descriptions of the Discourse on Mahayana Meditation and Contemplation, the framework of the Essentials of Salvation, and the pathos of the Su Tong poem. The devotional message was presented in a form suitable for public edification.

The inclusion of the nine stages of a decaying corpse in this visual juxtaposition seems to have begun about 1200. A medieval temple document, the New Essential Records of the Daigoji (Daigoji shinyoroku), records that the Enma Hall at Daigoji (Enma was the lord of the realm of the dead), commissioned by Senyomon’in (1181- 1252), the sixth daughter of Emperor Goshirakawa, and completed in the twelfth month of 1223 (Teio 2), displayed an image of the nine stages in its murals, which were lost when the building was destroyed in 1336.57 This textual record provides our earliest evidence for a depiction of the nine stages of a decaying corpse in the framework of the six realms of existence. Senyomon’in also commissioned an Amida Hall in the twelfth month of 1219 (Shokyu 1), and this structure was completed within the precincts of the same temple.58 Thus, Senyomon’in practiced her Pure Land Buddhist faith in the opposing (yet closely connected) spatial and spiritual domains of renunciation of the human realm in the Enma Hall and yearning for the paradise of the Western Pure Land in the Amida Hall, all in accord with the method employed by the Essentials of Salvation for deepening faith in the Buddha Amida.

The hanging scrolls portraying the six realms of reincarnation at Shoju Raigoji served as powerful visual agents for the exposition of Genshin’s doctrine. The practice of explaining religious beliefs through pictorial devices, called etoki (verbal explanation of pictures), began around the end of the twelfth century. While no documents have survived to verify that the set at Shoju Raigoji was employed in a didactic context, a record of the conservation dates of the paintings documents eight restorations between 1313 and 1683.59 The frequent restoration of the set may point to its use in public for etoki teaching. From the early twentieth century, the paintings have been displayed annually between the thirteenth and fifteenth days of the seventh lunar month as part of the annual ritual held to deliver ancestral spirits from the realms of suffering after death (umbon). In addition, the temple houses a script for etoki entitled the Abbreviated History of the Six Realms of Existence (Rokudoe soryaku engi) that explains the doctrines of the six realms with the use of paintings.60 The script was copied in 1897 at the request of a leading member of the temple, and while the date of the original is uncertain, it was likely transmitted at the temple for generations.

The earliest function of the image of the nine stages was for the pious contemplation on human impurity by Buddhist monks who wished to expunge the sensual desires that disturbed their lives of spiritual devotion. Therefore, the selection of a woman of exquisite beauty in the Nakamura version served to enhance the image’s original cathartic function of aiding male monks in their taming of sexual desire through viewing the stark opposition between comely beauty and repugnant decay. In fact, a major reference for early paintings of the nine stages of a decaying corpse, the Discourse on Mahayana Meditation and Contemplation, comments on the delusion caused by the beautiful appearance of an elegant woman and the effect of the contemplations on the nine stages for expelling sensual desires. The text admonishes,

Even a woman with graceful eyebrows, jadelike eyes, white teeth, and red lips is as if covered by a mixture of feces with fat powder, or as if a putrefied corpse were clothed with silk and twill. … a contemplation like this [on the impurity of a decaying corpse] is a golden remedy for sensual desire.61

Other earlier Buddhist sutras mention that the contemplation on a corpse is effective for curbing sensual desires, but they make no reference to the gender or appearance of the corpse.62

The selection of a beautiful, aristocratic woman was linked to the expression of transience in the Raigoji version. Such an association is supported by the aforementioned entry in the historical chronicle Mirror of the Eastern Court for the eighth day of the eleventh month of 1212 (Kenryaku 2).63 This document recounted that a painting entitled the Flourish and Decay of the Life of Ono no Komachi was shown at a picture competition held at the residence of the shogun Minamoto no Sanetomo.64 The title assigned to the painting of the nine stages of a decaying corpse, “the flourish and decay,” stems from a deep-seated medieval notion of transience, in particular as experienced in the lives and fortunes of women. The transient aspects of women’s lives form a theme in the medieval literary works of female authors (including the legendary Ono no Komachi), a theme fundamentally rooted in their tragic love affairs in the polygamous society.65 According to Buddhist doctrine, five obstacles to enlightenment and three kinds of required obedience (to parents, husband, and children, after the husband’s death) shaped the woman’s lamentable lot.66 The characterization of the decaying corpse as a beautiful, aristocratic female-an image that conveyed the epitome of human transience-was important to the new function of the nine stages in the Raigoji version. In the painting, the two Buddhist notions of human impurity and transience were subtly and overtly integrated for didactic impact in the exhortation of Pure Land Buddhist belief.

I should point out here that the reference in the Mirror of the Eastern Court to a painting of Ono no Komachi has led to frequent misidentifications of the female corpse in paintings of the nine stages, including the Raigoji version, as the ninthcentury figure herself. Ono no Komachi was celebrated for her poetic talent, her stunning beauty during her youth, her trifling with amorous men, and her suffering from decrepitude and destitution in old age. The earliest tale mythologizing the poet is found in the Flourish and Decay of the Life of Tamatsukuri no Komachi (Tamatsukun no Komachi sosuisho), dated perhaps about 1200. Later, the popularity of Ono no Komachi increased as she became the central subject of five Noh plays, among which Sotoba Komachi (written by Kan’ami [1333-1384] or Zeami [1363-1443]) captures her hardship in her old age.67 In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some paintings of the nine stages of a decaying corpse were given the title The Nine Stages of Ono no Komachi’s Decaying Corpse. After this identification of the female corpse as Ono no Komachi became established in the Edo period, the cadaver in antecedent versions of the painting of the nine stages, including the Raigoji version, has been incorrectly and anachronistically regarded by some as a biographical image of the ninth-century poet.68 Yet it is unlikely that a Buddhist devotional image would center on a specific poet and that the tragic, secular female figure Ono no Komachi could have been portrayed in a painting produced by a temple. It is more reasonable to posit that the corpse was an anonymous paragon of beauty and decay. The inaccurate appellation probably arose from a desire among general audiences to establish an identity for the woman in the startling image. Indeed, over the centuries, the beautiful aristocrat of the Raigoji version has also been connected with other legendary beauties. For example, some later paintings of the nine stages were thought to represent Empress Danrin (Emperor Saga’s wife, 786-850). The Abbreviated History of the Six Realms of Existence, dated to the nineteenth century, comments on the female corpse of the Raigoji version:

The woman in this [Raigoji] painting is either Empress Komyo or Empress Danrin. These two empresses were exceptionally beautiful during their lifetimes, and every man adored them at first sight. They stipulated in their wills that after the moment of death, their bodies should be discarded on the field of the Western Hill. Everybody, rich and poor, man and woman, crowded at the market in order to see their corpses. What they saw was the gradual process of the corpses’ decay to white bones. These two empresses exposed their corpses to the public with the hope that, since all will be equally impure after death, sentient beings in the Latter Days of the Buddhist Law should be awakened through exposure to the impure human condition.69

There is no historical evidence to substantiate this anecdote, but it seems to be another instance in which the identity of the female corpse was misrepresented in order to connect the image with a legendary beauty. Such attempts to associate the corpse with historical figures peaked in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They arose from a popular literary genre teaching the ideal way of female life that thrived between the mid-sixteenth and the late seventeenth centuries.70 (This issue will be examined presently.)

It may be observed that the portrayal of a woman in the Raigoji version had an ancillary benefit for the promulgation of Pure Land Buddhism. In traditional Buddhist teaching, \women were viewed as impure and inferior to men. Women rarely attained salvation, even with extreme devotion, unless they were transformed into men at the moment of death. But Pure Land Buddhist doctrine, remarkably, promises that women could gain salvation as women. While the doctrinal innovation is already evident in a significant Pure Land Buddhist text, the Larger Sutra (Japanese: Muryojukyo, Sanskrit: Sukhovati-vyuha, translated by Buddhabhadra and Baoyun [375P-449], 421), its full import had to await Honen’s (11331212) commentary on the sutra, dated 1190.71 Allowing the salvation of women made it possible for Pure Land Buddhism to attract devotees of both sexes. The Raigoji version, which was created just after the completion of Honen’s highly influential commentary, might also have inspired women to pursue rebirth in the Western Pure Land. Since this version of the nine stages was intended as an image for public instruction, its audience included both men and women. The doctrinal openness of the image to both genders signaled a marked shift from the exclusively male audience of Buddhist monks targeted by the earlier type of the Nakamura version.

At this juncture we can consider the way in which Pure Land Buddhism encouraged the spread of this provocative image of decay. Although the prototype of the Nakamura version probably existed earlier, there are no textual records mentioning images of the nine stages of a decaying corpse in Japan before about 1200. The dearth of references to the images indicates that the nine stages of a decaying corpse were not subject to popular use before the absorption of Pure Land Buddhism. What may have hindered broader interest in this theme? In medieval Japan, there were deep-seated beliefs about defilement from particular objects, incidents, and conditions. We know from medieval records and diaries that such threats to purity were carefully categorized and rules given for their expurgation. In these regulations, death and the dead body figured among the sources of defilement cited most frequently.72 Not only was the corpse seen as unclean, but the defilement was also considered contagious. It is unclear how a painting of a corpse would have been treated in light of these beliefs, but without an overriding religious motivation, such an image would not have been produced in Japan. Breaking the indigenous taboos and encouraging people to face a corpse for the sake of devotion required a new theological foundation. In this sense, Pure Land Buddhist belief provided the basis that made possible a focused contemplation on death and the corpse.’3 Unlike earlier schools of Buddhism that restricted a blissful afterlife to the few of the religious elite who succeeded in achieving liberation from vicious transmigratory cycles, Pure Land Buddhism presented a new manner of devotion to Buddha Amida that could be managed by even lay devotees, thus opening salvation to any who practiced simple nenbutsu (to think of the Buddha).74 In other words, devotees could now encounter death and corpses, previously untouchable, knowing that their proper devotion to Buddha Amida would assure them of rebirth in the Western Pure Land. Consequently, the image of the nine stages of a decaying corpse was created and circulated contemporaneously with the culmination of Pure Land Buddhism in medieval Japan.

12 Illustrated Handscroll of the Poem of the Nine Stages of a Derating Corpse, 1527. Osaka, Dainenbutsuji (photo: Osaka Museum of History). Stages one through nine, arranged right to left, with intervening poems excised: (a) newly deceased; (b) distension; (c) exudation of blood; (d) putrefaction; (e) discoloration and desiccation; (f) consumption by birds and animals; (g) whole skeleton; (h) disjointing; (i) parched to dust.

The Painting of the Nine Stages at Dainenbutsuji

Images of the nine stages of a decaying corpse were produced through the nineteenth century. While these retained the sensational subject, they had entirely different functions from those of the early paintings. The examination of two later works will elucidate the transformation of the image within distinct religious and cultural contexts. We turn first to the image of the nine stages at Dainenbutsuji, Osaka (Fig. 12a-i, 1214 by 1841/2 inches, or 30.8 by 468.6 centimeters; hereafter, the Dainenbutsuji version). The Dainenbutsuji is the head temple of the Yuzu (all-inclusive) Nenbutsu school, founded by the priest Ryonin (1072-1132). According to an inscription at the end of the handscroll, the Dainenbutsuji version was created in 1527 (Daiei 7).75 The scroll begins with a picture of the crescent moon and autumn grasses painted in silver and gold pigments.76 Next is inserted a section containing the wavy watermark decoration that often accompanies calligraphic verses, followed by the preface to the Su Tongpo poem (Fig. 13). Each stage of decay is then presented, with the relevant stanza of the poem, written in Chinese characters, and the usual two waka, inscribed in a mixture of Chinese characters and Japanese kana syllabary. The calligraphy of the preface and poems is executed with gilt decorations that include seasonal plants, landscape, and birds. The Dainenbutsuji version is the earliest surviving painting of the nine stages to be accompanied by both the Su Tongpo poem and the waka verses. Through a graphological analysis of the poems, the writer has been identified as a prominent aristocratic monk, Johoji Kojo (1453-1538), who was renowned for his skillful calligraphy.77 No records regarding the provenance of the handscroll have survived, but the painting is likely to have been located at Dainenbutsuji since the early sixteenth century. The calligraphier Johoji Kojo was once an abbot of the Kuramadera temple, which had a long association with the Dainenbutsuji’s founder, Ryonin, and it is likely that Johoji would have joined the project at the Dainenbutsuji. The painter is unknown, but the work is attributed to the studio of Kano Motonobu (1476-1558), the second-generation head of the famed Kano school of painters. As prominent artists were involved in the creation of the Dainenbutsuji version, we may assume that an affluent patron must have commissioned the work.

13 Initial scene and preface of the Su Tongpo poem, from Illustrated Handscroll of the Poem of the Nine Stages of a Decaying Corpse, 1527 (photo: Osaka Museum of History)

Each stage in this version is placed after the relevant subtitle from right to left (see App. 1): (1) newly deceased (shinshiso); (2) distension (hochoso); (3) exudation of blood (ketsuzuso); (4) putrefaction (horanso); (5) discoloration and desiccation (seioso); (6) consumption by birds and animals (shokutanso); (7) whole skeleton (hakkotsurenso); (8) disjointing (hakltotsusanso); (9) parched to dust (jokeso). One distinctive feature of the Dainenbutsuji version is its visual correspondence to the accompanying Su Tongpo poem. The nine images have landscapes delineating the graveyard where the dead body has been discarded, and some of the landscape motifs are derived from the poem. For example, in the first stage of the newly deceased (Fig. 12a), both the seasonal cherry and maple trees are painted near the corpse in an echo of the verse: “A beautiful face quickly fades as flowers in the third month. Life is brief like falling autumn leaves.” In the fifth stage (Fig. 12e), the painting follows the poem by showing the morning sun drying out the corpse. The weeds and the pine tree in the eighth (Fig. 12h) and ninth (Fig. 12i) stages echo the poem as well. Yet visual elements that impede the flow of the narration as well as the poem’s conveyance of seasonal change preclude a close coordination of the pictorial images and poetic motifs. The first stage, with cherry and maple, simultaneously connotes spring and fall. The autumnal scenes, in the second through fifth stages, and the wintry scenes, in the six through eighth stages, are concluded with summer scenery (denoted by the morning glories) in the last frame. In addition, the particular area of the graveyard rendered in the painting does not remain constant throughout the nine scenes, altered by the casual addition of motifs corresponding to the poem and by changes in major landmarks (such as mountains, trees, and rocks) that convey different locations. Because of the inconsistency of the landscapes throughout the sequence, the process of the corpse’s decay plays the primary narrative role. As we have noted, later renderings of the nine stages, including the Dainenbutsuji version, were often attended by both the Su Tongpo poem and the waka.78 The two waka written near each of the nine stages of the Dainenbutsuji version rarely pertain to the stage of the corpse that they accompany.79 The poems capture only the general atmosphere of the pathos of transience underlying the decay of the corpse. The authorship and date of the waka are uncertain, but we do know that the verses were circulated in the late fourteenth century.

The artistic style of this version warrants special attention. The depiction of the corpse lacks both anatomical precision and a meticulous observation of the process of decay. The eight corpses lying in changing settings look like dolls propped up to mark only the essential plot. The sensational subject is softened further by the yamato-e landscapes with the skillful use of hovering fog (suyari gasumi), a traditional pictorial device of this style that unifies the scenes of the sequence over the passage of time.80 The visual depiction of the Dainenbutsuji version concludes by showing a male aristocrat weeping in front of four stupas (sotoba, containers for relics or symbolic sacred objects)-an addition unique to this handscroll (Fig. 12i).81

14 Pious wife of a lower-ranked monk being returned from the realm of dead to this world, from Legends of the Yuzu Nenbutsu: Yuzu Nenbutsu Engi, handscroll, \ink, color, and gold on paper, 35 X 485 in. (89.7 X 1232.4 cm), 14th century. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund, John L. Severance Fund, Edward L. Whittemore Fund (photo: The Cleveland Museum of Art)

The early images of the nine stages of a decaying corpse are powerfully didactic in their graphic impact. Their visual effectiveness stems from their exposition of human impurity or their connection to the concept of the six realms of reincarnation. In the Dainenbutsuji version, in contrast, the shocking details are no longer articulated. The illustrations have been sanitized from the grotesque instructive descriptions of the decaying corpse in a preference for reflecting the atmosphere and selected elements of the accompanying poems. The simplified illustrations of the corpses in the Dainenbutsuji version even seem to laugh rather than howl in death, perhaps out of an intention to deliver the subject of the decaying corpse in a less hortative manner.

Let us now consider the substantial transformation of the image of the nine stages between about 1300 and 1527 from the standpoint of its functions and historical background. The function of the Dainenbutsuji version is illuminated by a genre of Buddhist narrative found at the same temple. As the seat of the Yuzu Nenbutsu school, the Dainenbutsuji temple emphasized the idea of yuzu, melding different substances together, their union bringing perfection through synergism. The coalescence of faith resulting from chanting nenbutsu with other devotees was thought to eventually bring the practitioners to rebirth in the Western Pure Land. It was said that the school’s founder, Ryonin, in order to amplify the synergistic effect encouraged all devotees to recite nenbutsu ten times every morning facing west as a mass thaumaturgie practice. The faith was popular among Buddhists regardless of sectarian affiliation, but it was not until 1661 that the yuzu nenbutsu belief became an official Buddhist school.82

Art historically, the school is best known for the Yuzu nenbutsu engi emaki (Illustrated Handscrolls of the Legends of Yuzu Nenbutsu; hereafter, the Yuzu emaki). Since the production of the first two volumes of the handscroll in 1314, the same format and subject have been painted repeatedly.83 In illustrations and calligraphic texts, the first volume narrates the life of Ryonin, while the second volume depicts the auspicious and miraculous events that befell the practitioners of yuzu nenbutsu (Fig. 14). Twenty-eight versions of the handscroll have survived, most of them dated between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, except for several nineteenthcentury copies of the earlier versions. The creation of so many versions of an illustrated handscroll having the same subject is exceptional in Japanese art history, and their extensive production reveals the distinct function of the handscrolls within yuzu nenbutsu belief.

The characteristic teaching of the school was that the spiritual practice of a single person results in merit for all, and therefore the devotional actions of a multitude increase the salvific benefit exponentially. The religious duties of yuzu nenbutsu included the offering of oblations to itinerant monks who preached the belief. Since yuzu nenbutsu practice was nonsectarian, the solicitation of offerings was not confined to monks of Ryonin’s lineage. However, the creation of the Yuzu emaki for the purposes of outreach and solicitation was undertaken largely by Ryonin’s successors. The illustrated handscrolls that explained the miraculous events of Ryonin’s life and of the yuzu nenbutsu practitioners served as a way of legitimizing the spiritual efficacy of the belief and attracting new devotees.84 The Yuzu emaki became visual aids for the aggressive exposition of the sect’s teachings to broad strata of society, from which it could collect contributions and donations. Such a missionary scheme was typically utilized for the illustrated handscrolls at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples that were widely produced from the thirteenth century on; indeed, the handscroll became a significant medium for garnering capital, particularly under the Ashikaga military government (1336-1571), when Buddhist temples, which had prospered under the estate system of landholding backed by the authority of the central government, could expect little financial support from the weakened court.

A representative preface of one Yuzu emaki reveals this aim:

The monks and laity, who heard about the miraculous power and the fortunate examples, wished for the same. If they make bonds [through yuzu nenbutsu teaching] by practicing nenbutsu and writing their names, they will be free from all misfortune during this life, and they will attain their desire for salvation in the next life. . . . The intention for painting the teaching of the yuzu nenbutsu is to foster belief among the male and female laity.85

We see here that the goal of the handscrolls, from the standpoint of the temple, was to create and strengthen ties between the temple and its financially supportive devotees. The content of the Yuzu emaki centered on two kinds of stories. One type recounts how the yuzu nenbutsu was expounded to many people, rich and poor, male and female, clergy and laity, all of whom attained salvation through nenbutsu practice. Stories of the other type tell how practitioners were protected by Buddhist deities, such as Amida and Bishamonten (Sanskrit: Vaisravana), and they relate the ways in which the power of yuzu nenbutsu wrought miracles, such as the revival of a monk’s wife from the realm of the dead (Fig. 14) and the recovery of a cowherd’s wife from a difficult delivery. It is worth noting that this latter type of story emphasized the miracles that befell female devotees, and such a predilection reflected the school’s desire to broadcast the new faith to all.

The compact format of the Yuzu emaki handscrolls was handy for the itinerant priests who urged people to perform meritorious acts, including making donations to temples.86 In their travels, these priests would preach the content of