Buddhist Art in Japan

I was fortunate enough to spend three weeks in Japan this summer through the Japan Society’s Educators’ Study Tour. It was an incredible experience: we explored Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Tokyo; we also had a three-day homestay in Obu City, which is in Aichi Prefecture. We also met with several hibakusha, Japanese survivors of the atomic bombs. These encounters were particularly humbling and moving.

It will take me some time to reflect fully on the trip and to translate my learning into lessons and posts. In the interim, however, I did want to share some pictures of Buddhas and bodhisattvas from the trip.


This Buddha is from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It was recovered not long after the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945.


This statue is known as Maria Kannon: Maria, in reference to the Virgin Mary, and Kannon, in reference to the bodhisattva of compassion. (Kannon is the Japanese name; this figure also goes by Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit and Guanyin in Chinese.) During the Tokugawa Era in Japan (17th-19th Centuries), Christianity was banned. However, some Christians still practiced in secret. To express their devotion to Mary, the created statues that resembled those used by Buddhists to worship Kannon. This statue is from Nagasaki, where Christianity was first brought to Japan by Portuguese Catholics in the mid-16th Century.

Engakuji Kannon

This Kannon statue is from Engaku-ji monastery in Kamakura. This monastery is an important Zen training center and has had an important place in Japanese Buddhism since its founding in the 13th Century.


The great Kamakura Daibutsu! This bronze statue of Amitabha Buddha is over 40 feet tall. Visitors can even go inside this Buddha statue.


This mossy bodhisattva resides in the Japanese garden of the Nezu museum in Tokyo. I have a particular fondness for this figure.

(Special thanks to JW, my guide to several of these sites around Tokyo.)



A Mahayana MLK


I’m a day late for a post on MLK Day, but I did want to put something up. Mostly I want to offer the reflection of Charles Johnson, the brilliant novelist and philosopher, about the a potential connection between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva — an individual intent on awakening for the benefit of all living beings.

Johnson writes:

“Martin Luther King, Jr. was, at bottom, a Baptist minister, yes, but one whose vision of the social gospel at its best complements the expansive, Mahayana bodhisattva ideal of laboring for the liberation of all sentient beings (‘Strangely enough,’ he said, ‘I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be’). His dream of the ‘beloved community’ is a sangha by another name, for King believed that, ‘It really boils down to this: that all of life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.'”

As Johnson notes, the bodhisattva is motivated by this vast aspiration to benefit all living brings (known in Sanskrit as bodhichitta). King would describe it as agape — the overflowing love of God in the hearts of women and men. We might also note that another main task of the bodhisattva is to teach the interdependent nature of reality (known in Sanskrit as shunyata or pratitya-samutpada). It’s hard to find a better expression of that sentiment than King’s two quotations above.