Xuanzang and the Silk Road Pt. 4

February 25, 2011

Back in June of 2010 I wrote about travelling to the Nara National Museum for an exhibition about China’s influence on Japan during the Tang Dynasty. see:  http://penn.museum/blog/museum/crating-and-packing/

During my trip I visited a temple called Yakushi-ji Temple.    Near the entrance there was one object that  caught my eye, a replica of the pedestal that holds a Medicine Buddha at the temple:

Replica of east side of pedestal of Yakushi Nyorai Statue

Here is a description of the piece from the publication I bought at the gift shop where the replica was on display:

“The engravings on the pedestal where Buddha is seated is a combination of various elements from Greece, Persia, India, and China. This shows evidence of Cultural Exchange from the West which came to Japan through the Silk Road around the 7th century.”

I snapped a photo in anticipation of the Silk Road exhibit coming to the museum. I appreciated that they had a replica of the side because in the actual temple it was hard to get a good look at the pedestal.  While most of our exhibit focuses on material from China it’s neat to see how Japan was also affected by the Silk Road.  With the Japanese sending envoys to China to learn more about their culture and art, it’s interesting to think that much of the art at the time probably had Indian influences that then traveled to Japan. I suppose the grape vines are what is being reference from Greece.  I’d be interested to learn more about the piece.

I continued into the temple in search of the statue that I had seen in the Nara National Museum only a couple days previous when it stood next to the Penn Museum’s piece. After some searching I finally found it!  The piece is a Sho-Kanzeon-Bosatsu. It was great to see it in the original context of the temple:

Sho-Kanzeon-Bosatsu at Yakushi-ji Temple.

There’s an interesting practice of creating museums near temples in Japan that starts to blur the area between secular and sacred space.  Many of the museums that house the treasures of the temples have donation boxes in front of them for practitioners and visitors to offer money to the images for protection and well being.

I continued on until I came across the “Genjo Sanzo Complex”.   I wandered inside and found out that, in fact, Genjo Sanzo is the Japanese name for Xuanzang!  Even more interesting was that a few pieces of his skull are actually enshrined in the complex.  There is also a sculpture inside depicting Xuanzang holding a Buddhist text and brush.

Nearby there was a  huge mural depicting various sites from the Silk Road that were inspired by Xuanzang’s journey. The artist, Ikuo Hirayama had been commissioned to paint the inside walls of the complex and did so in stunning fashion. (scroll to the bottom to see them)

Upon leaving I noticed a small shop outside of the temple complex.  I went to see what they were selling.  One of the souvenirs was a little mask replica of the Sho-Kanzeon-Bosatsu.  I’m not sure if  I wasn’t aware of it at the time or not because I didn’t buy one, but I did take a photo.  Many of the statues in the temples were actually available in shops in Nara ranging from around $30 up to $10,000 depending on size and intricacy.  I’ll have to go back and buy a few.  So if you’re ever in the Nara area be sure to stop by Yakushi-ji, not only is it a great example of Japanese architecture it is intimately linked to Xuanzang and contains statues that are a testament to the Silk Road and it’s influence on Asian art.

Souvenir of Sho-Kanzeon-Bosatsu at Yakushi-ji Temple.