Cultural Arts Review: Painting Remake of “Nissokan-Zu”

Posted on October 29, 2012 by


A famed, ancient Buddhist painting created in the Heian period has recently gone on display at the Byodoin Temple in Kyoto.  Along with the ancient painting, was a remake of the damaged piece of history to provide a better idea of what the painting previously depicted. By scientifically analyzing the original painting, infrared rays and photofluorography detected four waterfalls.  The painting is thought to have been that of Nunobiki Falls in Kobe because of the spatial relationship of the waterfalls, mountains, sea, islands, and setting sun.  Through the sunset, a portrayal of the Buddhist pure land is represented along the countryside. The replica shows a woman on a verdant mountain worshipping the sun as it sets into the ocean. The original painting was created on two wooden doors of the same size.  The replica was created on different material of the same size as the original.  The two creations are displayed beside the hall’s, principle image, Amitabha Tathagata (Amida Nyorai) seated statue.

“Nissokan” is a method of meditation in which an image of the setting sun is contemplated in one’s mind, and concentrated upon deeply. Meditation is a large part of what Buddhism is about.  In Zen Buddhism, a type of meditation is used in which a central object is focused upon in order to drive out any other invading thoughts.  If a thought arises, one must force their mind to drop it immediately.  Other forms of Buddhism also use meditation techniques in order to separate onself from the self and achieve a sense of emptiness that will get someone another step closer to enlightenment/nirvana. Meditation is included in this photo as a major part of what Buddhism is about.

The painting as a portrayal of the pure land is most likely placed near a statue of the Amitabha Buddha because this was the buddha/god of the pure land upon whose name could be recited in a ritualized way to achieve rebirth in this pure land.  The pure land relates well to a heaven of other Christian religions.  The peaceful, serene picture of waterfalls, a sunset, the sea, and mountains gives the woman meditating a calm place to meditate focus on achieving emptiness.

The ancient painting was not released to the public of Buddhists until the reproduction was created.  This could be due to the fact that Buddhists feel the need to preserve ancient teachings as they were originally established.  Buddhists sought out to record the first teachings of the Buddha exactly as the Buddha taught them, so as to not skew his words by human error.  It was detrimental to the religion if errors were made.  In this same way, the old painting is skewed, changed by age, and skewed by the human error of bad protection. Because of this, Buddhists felt the need to reproduce it, so that there was a better representation of what the artist originally set out to portray in the painting.

Because the path to become a Buddha is inherent within the Buddhist culture as the middle path, it is understood that by not relishing in the world’s luxuries, but at the same time not completely renouncing the world, one can achieve the enlightenment of the Buddha.  The path to reaching a pure land that is depicted in this painting is followed in the understanding that we, as humans, cannot achieve enlightenment on our own, but need the help of the recitation of Amitabha Buddha’s name to reach the pure land. Indeed, the picture in the painting looks like a luxurious and pleasurable place to reside to Buddhists. This painting could be a form of persuasion to follow a certain type of Buddhism in which reaching the pure land is the correct path.

-Jordan Noble


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Posted in: Buddhism