Sea of Buddha is presented here in a unique installation created by the artist for this exhibition and sale. The central lithograph is one of only two prints made from what was intended originally to be an edition of 5 and one AP: this one and another in the collection of the artist (see Hiroshi Sugimoto, Rekishi no rekishi [History of history], Tokyo, 2008, pl. 71).
In 1994, after seven years of lobbying for permission, the artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, who lives and works in New York and Tokyo, was allowed to photograph inside Kyoto's famous thirteenth-century Buddhist temple Sanjusangendo (Hall of Thirty-three Bays). Located opposite the Kyoto National Museum on the eastern edge of town, close to the Higashiyama (Eastern Hills), the temple, officially known as Rengeo-in, or Hall of the Lotus King, is part of the Myohoin, a Buddhist temple of the Tendai sect. Sanjusangendo is noted for its long main hall with thirty-three spaces (sanjusan gen) between columns. Originally built in the late Heian period, the temple complex burned to the ground in 1249 and the main hall alone was rebuilt in 1266. The main deity is a monumental seated Thousand-armed Kannon, a National Treasure carved by the sculptor Tankei. One thousand life-size standing cypress-wood figures of the Thousand-armed Kannon are placed in rows on risers to either side of the main image. Of these 124 are from the original temple, having survived the fire. In addition to the 1001 bodhisattvas, there are twenty-eight guardian deities.
Sugimoto decided to work at daybreak, a traditional time for meditation, capturing the dawn light illuminating the statues, as it would have in the Heian period. "In special preparation for the shoot," Sugimoto wrote in 2006,
I had all late-medieval and early modern embellishments removed, and the contemporary fluorescent lighting was turned off. Stripping the temple of these additions re-created the splendor of the thousand bodhisattvas glistening in the light of the sun rising over the Higashiyama Hills, perhaps as the Kyoto aristocrat of the Heian period might have seen them. Will today's conceptual art survive another eight hundred years?1
The resulting black and white photographs frame row upon row of slightly varied faces, shot from a high vantage point. The images immerse the viewer in what the artist has called a "sea of Buddha." The artist described his experience:
In this day and age when faith has largely gone by the wayside, how are we to view Buddhist statues? What can the experience mean to people today?
In 1994, I finally received permission to photograph the . . . Sanjusangendo (Hall of Thirty-three Bays) at Myohoin Temple in Kyoto. This was after seven years of negotiations and being twice refused. I had my reasons for persisting so doggedly: I just had to see the multitude of Thousand-Armed Kannon and Twenty-eight Guardian Deities in an ideal natural light in order to re-envision how they would have looked when first enshrined there centuries ago.
Originally commissioned in 1164 by the samurai warlord Taira no Kiyomori for the chapel of the Hojuji-dono Palace of Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa, the statues have been housed in the present worship hall since 1266, and have remained essentially untouched ever since.
The architecture of the Sanjusangendo embodies a prayer for rebirth in the Pure Land or Western Paradise of Amida Buddha, in keeping with then-current teachings that an apocalyptic mappo, or "End of the Buddha's Law," was at hand. The statues all face the morning sun as it dawns over the Higashiyama Hills to the east. The first brisk rays would angle just low enough under the deep eaves to permeate the recesses of the hall, causing the gold leaf on the thousand-and-one statues to shine for a brief instant in the dim interior, solemnly emulating the glory of the Western Paradise. This eventually led me to the hypothesis--or perhaps the delusion--that this arrangement was designed to let an equal thousand-and-one faithful pilgrims file into the musty hall and simultaneously experience a flash of religious ecstasy.
I had to go check out my theory. Standing outside the hall before opening time, I watched as the rising sun traced a near-horizontal beam through a latticed gap in the eastern gate onto the papered doors of the worship hall façade. My idle notion turned to conviction.
Seven years later, I was granted entry for three hours from half past five a.m. on ten consecutive summer mornings. What I saw, however, dashed my expectations; if anything, the beauty far exceeded my fondest imaginings. And surprisingly, the glorious Pure Land manifested without a single soul present, no priest lighting ceremonial flames or reciting sutras. I found myself all alone in the long, silent hall surrounded by a thousand-and-one gleaming bodhisattvas, as if a scroll painting of Amida's heavenly welcoming host had come to spirit me away to salvation in the Western Paradise. It was a premonition: this is how death would visit. Then, in the blink of an eye, the brilliant summer sun ascended, quickly rising above the eaves and plunging the shining statues into shadow. Soon, a monk shuffled in to switch on the fluorescent lights, ushering me back to the incomprehensible mappo of the present day.
I followed the example of the Nara-period Empress Koken, who commissioned offerings of a million small pagodas, each with a woodblock-printed dharani prayer inserted into its hollow interior. When I finished photographing my thousand standing Buddhist images, I printed an edition of a thousand copies--thus making a million Buddhist images.
The twelfth-century poet-priest Saigyo, upon visiting the priest Myoe at Kozanji Temple, northwest of Kyoto, professed in verse:
Would that each poem I recite sculpt a Buddha in thought,
Each phrase I bear in mind chant an esoteric mantra,
So by these poems of mine shall I attain the Dharma.
I, too, sculpt a Buddhist image in thought whenever I engage in my art, so that perhaps one day I may attain the Dharma, even as I envision myself mired deep in anachronism, dead and gone amidst today's loss of faith.2
1. Sugimoto, in Kerry Brougher and David Elliott, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Washington, DC, 2006, p. 163.
2. Leeum Samsung Museum, Hiroshi Sugimoto, exh. cat., Seoul, 2013, p. 66. The thousand copies the artist mentions are comprised of editions of 25.