In 2003, Yamamoto Tsutomu, curator of sculpture at the Tokyo National Museum, received photographs from a private collector of Buddhist art who had the good fortune to stumble upon a Buddhist statue in a countryside antique shop. Yamamoto immediately recognized the significance of the statue. Not only is this seated image of Dainichi Nyorai, the supreme Buddha of the esoteric pantheon, preserved in fine condition, it is also in the style of Unkei, one of the greatest sculptors of the early Kamakura period (1185-1333). And if that were not enough, x-rays reveal that three dedicatory objects have remained sealed inside the hollow torso of the wood figure for 800 years.
The three interior objects--all potent Buddhist symbols associated with memorials--are tied together with a bronze wire. They comprise a large wood placard with a finial in the shape of a five-element pagoda (or gorin-to, literally "five-wheel pagoda"), a small crystal gorin-to and a crystal gem shaped as a round ball emulating a lotus bud mounted on a bronze lotus pedestal. The gorin-to shape is unique to Japan and came into fashion in the late twelfth century as a grave marker; its five parts correspond to the five elements--earth, water, fire, wind and space. The wooden plaque is likely to be inscribed with the date of the dedication and the name of the temple or donor, as well as that of the sculptor. The x-ray shows that the plaque is suspended at the center of the interior of the sculpture from bronze wire stretched from either side of the interior chest cavity through a hole drilled in the plaque. The crystal ball (shingachirin), placed in the approximate position of the heart, represents the spirit of the sculpture.
Dainichi is classified as a Buddha, but is presented here as a Bodhisattva in princely regalia. He sits in lotus position, with hair piled in a high topknot and wearing the crown and jewelry of royalty. The crown, necklaces, armlets and bracelets are made of hammered metal. As Dainichi of the Womb World the deity forms a distinctive hand gesture, or mudra, called "knowledge fist": his left hand forms a fist with index finger pointing up and grasped by his right hand. The three dedicatory objects in the sculpture, though invisible to the worshipper, are positioned directly behind the crucial intersection of the two hands.
From the late eleventh century, sculptors in a workshop patronized by the aristocracy or court received honorific titles and achieved a level of recognition above that of civil servant. In fact, sculptures from this period are often signed inside, although the name is invisible until the sculpture is opened, as many have been. Unkei, who was rewarded the title of hoin, the highest rank an artist could achieve, is the likely sculptor of this Dainichi. He is the direct descendent of the Kei School of Buddhist sculpture and his work has been equated with the muscular, masculine style of Michelangelo. He produced his early work in Nara, center of traditional Buddhist sculpture, and around 1200 he moved his studio to Kyoto. It is known, however, that he traveled to the Kanto region throughout his lifetime to work on commissions for temples and high-ranking patrons of Buddhism, most notably for Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), founder of the Kamakura shogunate, and his relatives. In 1186, Unkei created a group of Buddhist statues for Ganjoju-in temple in Nirayama, Shizuoka Prefecture, commissioned by Hojo Tokimasa (1138-1215), father-in-law of Yoritomo. Three years later Unkei made a second group of Buddhist sculptures for Jorakuji temple in Kamakura, commissioned by Wada Yoshimori (1147-1213). Placards removed from the bodies of sculptures in these two groups confirm this.
Unkei is well known for the famous Dainichi at Enjoji in Nara that he made under the tutelage of his father, Kokei (act. 1152-97), in 1176, in the late Heian period. Unkei's best work dates from the last fifteen years of the twelfth century.
The Unkei sculpture that most closely resembles the Dainichi offered here, including the towering chignon, is the Kotokuji Dainichi (registered as Important Cultural Property) in Ashikaga City, Tochigi Prefecture. It has never been opened, but x-rays show that it contains similar dedicatory objects. The Kotokuji sculpture is featured on the cover of Yamamoto's Dainichi Nyorai zo in Nihon no Bijutsu (Arts of Japan) 374 (1997). It has always been assumed that the Kotokuji Dainichi was the one mentioned in a Muromachi-period document, the Bannaji Kabasaki engi, as having been commissioned by a local resident of Ashikaga named Ashikaga Yoshikane in 1193 as a memorial for his two dead daughters. The document describes the statue as a "three shaku," or three-"foot," high type of gilt-lacquer Dainichi. The Kotokuji statue, however, is quite small, measuring only 32 centimeters (12 inches). With the discovery of the 66-centimeter (26-inch) Dainichi shown here, a classic three-shaku height, Yamamoto concluded that the Muromachi document must point not to the Kotokuji statue but to this previously unknown masterwork.
Unkei worked in the joined-block-construction technique (yosegi zukuri): the head and torso are made by combining several units of the same wood of equal size; and the split-and-join technique (warihagi zukuri). Each block is prepared individually, hollowed out and then fitted together to form the sculpture. This technique, involving many small pieces of wood, is unique to Japan and had been perfected by the eleventh century. Legs and feet are made of two or three horizontal blocks joined in front of each other. As is evident from the x-rays, the assembled pieces of wood are held together with numerous iron staples and pins. The hollow joined blocks prevent cracking and make the sculpture light in weight. Unkei invented a raised bottom above the real bottom of the sculpture. This method of sealing off the base of the torso above the folded legs strengthens the thin walls of the hollow torso and creates a cavity, namely the empty torso, to enclose dedicatory objects.
Transparent, crystal eyes, the pupils painted in black, were introduced at the end of the twelfth century in keeping with a new search for realism. This, too, is a Japanese invention in the Buddhist canon. A bit of handmade white paper was placed behind the crystal and the crystal was then inserted inside the head.
Because its very physicality contradicts the Buddhist notion of emptiness and otherworldliness, the statue is seductive and provocative. It appeals to the senses.
Though the history of the statue is incomplete, the current owner believes it probably came from a Buddhist temple during the Meiji period (1868-1911), when the government officially adopted Shinto as the state religion. According to the owner, when the statue left its temple, it entered the collection of a prominent family in the northern part of the Kanto region. In recent times it passed into the hands of a Buddhist art dealer of the same region. Until then, few knew of the statue's existence. The dealer acquired the statue along with two additional Buddhist sculptures (a standing figure of Jizo, and a seated figure of Aizen Myoo). In 2000, he showed all three to the current owner, who was transfixed by the high quality and refinement of the Dainichi statue, so much so that he could not tear himself away and sat looking at the figure for almost an hour. He was told by the dealer that he could buy only one of the three statues, and he chose the Dainichi. Three years later, the new owner wrote a letter to Yamamoto Tsutomu at the Tokyo National Museum asking for an introduction to an institution that would be willing to x-ray the statue; he had the conviction that the statue was too light to be solid wood and suspected there might be something sealed in the body cavity. Yamamoto came to visit and was apparently astounded to discover a work from a period in the career of Unkei and his studio for which there are few known works. In 2004, the Tokyo National Museum exhibited the statue, and introduced it to media outlets such as the Asahi and Yomiuri newspapers and NHK Television news.