Amamonzeki: Treasures of the Japanese Imperial Convents

"The Death of Buddha" (detail)

Skeptic that I am, when I heard there was an historical exhibition on the lives and art of Japan’s Buddhist nuns, I immediately adopted the working hypothesis that this would be a drab show of temple artifacts and feminine articles veneered in the dust of incense smoke. As the show is largely curated by Western female academics, I also assumed the whole thing would somehow be wrapped around one of those feminist agendas, designed to overcompensate for centuries of male domination by exaggerating any female achievement, no matter how slight.

But although I'm a skeptic, I'm a perverse one – eager to experience exhibitions that I am initially wary of. In the process, I occasionally discover unexpected gems. This was the case with Amamonzeki – A Hidden Heritage: Treasures of the Japanese Imperial Convents at Tokyo's University Art Museum. I found this the most aesthetically pleasing of all the exhibitions I have visited this year, and certainly the best researched.

Thanks to the participation of non-Japanese academics, like Patricia Fister of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, who kindly showed me around, the catalogue is also fully bilingual, casting an international light on an area little known in Japan, never mind the rest of the world.

Sho Kannon
The great surprise of the exhibition is its sheer beauty, both in the items selected and the design of the displays, which also include some reconstructions of rooms and altars. The objects, which include scroll and screen paintings, calligraphy, miniature Buddhist statues, dolls, games, and other knick-knacks, have been gathered from the thirteen surviving "imperial convents" – exclusively female Buddhist establishments that have long-standing ties with Japan’s royal family.

But, while each of the thirteen convents is well represented, the curators, who also include experts from the Tokyo University of the Arts, have managed to minimize any sense of repetition in the displays, giving the whole show a wonderfully varied feel, evoking but not exhausting aspects of the convents as they now are and once were.

The elegance and charm of many of the pieces is unexpected because Buddhism, as a belief system, is not supposed to be overly concerned with the attractions of this world. But, as the Buddhist scholar Hajime Nakamura pointed out in The Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples (1960), Japanese Buddhism has always been a lot less other-worldly than its Indian and Chinese antecedents.

Another important factor was that the imperial convents were repositories of the daughters of the good and the great, including among their inmates the surplus daughters of the Imperial family. This meant that they tended to echo the living standards and high cultural tastes of the court.

In addition to the gorgeous fabrics and furnishing on display, some of the other items – elaborately made dolls with their own furniture, incense-sniffing games, and a shell-matching game with scenes from The Tale of Genji – suggest that there was a certain amount of frivolity and hedonism among the cloistered inmates, indicative perhaps of a degree of immaturity only to be expected among young women deprived of the natural callings of motherhood and marriage. But there is much here to show that many of the nuns found a higher sense of fulfillment through religiously directed art and ascetic exercises.
Abbess Daitsu Bunchi 

One of the most astounding items is a small wooden plaque in a gilded case, on which the names of Buddhist deities have been skillfully and beautifully formed using fingernail parings. This was made in 1686 by the Zen Abbess Daitsu Bunchi, daughter of the Emperor Gomizuno-o, who used the fingernails of her dead father to commemorate him in this remarkable way.

Depicted in a large scroll painting painted one year after her death in 1697, the Abbess is one of several remarkable characters to emerge from the exhibition. A keen ascetic who reportedly cleared away thorn bushes by hand to found the convent of Enshohji, near Nara, the portrait presents a credible picture of a tough, uncompromising spiritual matriarch. Like any Zen master, in her hands she holds the hossu, the ceremonial fly whisk, which was a symbol of ridding oneself of the illusions of the material world.

The extreme spiritual asceticism of Abbess Bunchi, which also included cutting off pieces of her own skin to write sutras on, is rare. Instead, the true glory of the imperial convents is that they were able to unite spiritual and material beauty with that same unique Japanese sensibility that conceives the material universe to be populated by eight million gods.

Perhaps a key figure in this sense was the Abbess Tokugon Rihoh, the daughter of the Emperor Gosai and a niece of Abbess Bunchi. Entered into Hohkyohji Convent in Kyoto at the age of twelve, she later received artistic training from a professional artist, Kanoh Chikanobu of the renowned artistic dynasty.

While her large-scale calligraphy shows a surprisingly masculine energy, her paintings combine delicate artistic technique with a sense of serene devotion. Her Death of the Buddha (18th century), shows the expiring deity surrounded by dozens of disciples and animals. The attention to worldly detail suffused with spiritual love in this picture strongly reminds us that the spiritual and material don’t necessarily have to occupy different planes of reality.

5th June, 2006
The Japan Times

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